(This is the third part of a 10-part series previewing each position up to the NFL Draft.)
The NFL Draft is a game of supply and demand. Teams can only add what the college product provides. And, year to year, the complete tight end becomes a relic of the past.
As spread offenses proliferate, tight ends who can both toast a defender downfield and provide a snarl in the ground game are going extinct.
The Buffalo Bills believe they already possess such a dying breed in Charles Clay — no they won't be reaching for a tight end early this spring.
But teams who do seek a do-it-all tight end will need to work overtime. This isn't an easy search. Enter, East Carolina's Bryce Williams. Golden locks hanging from his helmet, Williams is one of the best pass catchers in the draft. He routinely won jump balls, burnt linebackers and did damage after the catch in totaling 58 receptions for 588 yards and four touchdowns last season. A two-time walk-on — Williams beat the odds at both Marshall and ECU — he asserted himself as a match-up problem.
Now the question teams have is if Williams will hold his own as a blocker. Williams gets it. He wasn't asked to roll up his sleeves as much as a blocker.
"At ECU, we were a spread team so we didn’t run the ball a whole lot," he said. "But I was in a three-point stance several times in the game and in the backfield in the H-back position. Definitely I was split out the majority of the time for sure. The schemes that college teams run affect that for sure.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman prefers his tight ends move around. No doubt, a tight end with the quick twitch to beat a linebacker expands the playbook.
Once he proved he deserved a scholarship (twice), Williams did exactly this.
Take a fourth and 10 against Temple when, as Williams said, "the quarterback told me he threw it up and knew I was going to catch it." Suffocated by three white jerseys, he extended for a tough 21-yard catch. Such athleticism is rooted in Williams playing every sport possible growing up. Soccer. Baseball. Basketball. Even, track. Williams was a star in hurdles, which helped his flexibility on the football field.
At North Davidson (N.C.) High School, Williams advanced to states in the 110-meter hurdles and set a school record in the 300 hurdles.
The film reveals a quarterback confident in Williams. Covered closely, he still commands the ball.
“I don’t get too flustered by anything," he said. "I don’t tighten up or freak out. Of course every NFL game is big. … I can rise to the occasion for the most part.”
Can he line up inside and control a defensive end one on one? That remains to be seen. Coaches like Roman seek a complete tight end to keep defenses guessing schematically. Send a one-dimensional pass catcher on the field at tight end and you're telegraphing to everyone that a pass is coming.
At 6 foot 6, 257 pounds, Williams does have the necessary size.
“As a blocker, I can get the job done," Williams said. "It’s definitely not something I’m completely terrible at — some people think that. In my eyes, and you can see it on film, I can get the job done. For me, what I’d like to work on with it is more technical stuff, staying low, driving my feet, maintain good position. And then obviously being in the NFL, I’ll have that tight ends coach I’ll be with nonstop.
"You can see I’m a physical player and it takes multiple guys to bring me down. I’m a tough player who’s going to hit you as hard as I can. And when I don’t have the ball, I’m blocking for the run — or when one of my teammates catch the ball I’m looking to hit somebody the majority of the time.
Projecting as a mid-round pick, Williams has spoken to the Bills at the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine. He also had a private workout with the New England Patriots, a team that has revolutionized his position the last half-decade.
So the search continues. This year's draft is full of tight ends who were used predominantly as receivers. Teams will gamble that prospects like Williams develop as blockers because the athleticism, the ability to match up such talents against 5-foot-9 corners or molasses-slow linebackers is worth it.
Williams will win that match-up.
"Definitely opportunity is one thing," Williams said, "and then for the quarterback to trust you is definitely a big deal. If he doesn’t trust you, he’s not going to throw you the ball.”
Here are the best 10 tight ends in the draft...
1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas (6 foot 5, 250 pounds): The draft's most complete tight end ran a 4.66 at his pro day after catching 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns as an All-SEC pick last fall.
2. Austin Hooper, Stanford (6-4, 254): School has sent Zach Ertz, Levine Tiololo, Coby Fleener and Jim Dray at tight end to the pros and Hooper is most similar to Fleener as a TE that'll move throughout the offense.
3. Jerell Adams, South Carolina (6-5, 247): Possesses the size/speed combo to beat Cover 2 defenses and, per NFL.com, averaged 6.9 yards after the catch. Hands run hot and cold.
4. Bryce Williams, East Carolina (6-6, 257): He'll win the jump ball and is a load to tackle in the open field, but Williams will need improvement as an in-line blocker.
5. Nick Vannett, Ohio State (6-6, 257): Only 19 receptions in Urban Meyer's offense last season, but has the athleticism and length to be featured more often in the passing game as Senior Bowl Week attested.
6. Beau Sandland, Montana State (6-4, 253): Played sparingly at Miami (Fla.), transferring to Montana State where he had 37 catches for 632 yards and nine scores his lone season
7. Temarrick Hemingway, South Carolina State (6-5, 244): Lean, vertical threat had 38 receptions for 418 yards and one touchdown, but remains raw as a route runner and will need to add strength in run game.
8. Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky (6-6, 249): Former wideout is a fluid accelerator in the passing game, brings huge 10 1/4-inch hands and averaged 14.8 yards per catch.
9. David Morgan II, Texas-San Antonio (6-4, 262): May be the strongest TE of the bunch, bench-pressing 225 pounds 29 times, and has proven to be a sturdy, productive blocker.
10. Ben Braunecker, Harvard (6-3, 250): Tested well across the board at the Combine (4.73 in 40, 20 reps, 35.5-inch vertical) and has the physicality, demeanor to maul defensive ends.