Other Positions: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End
The NFL is a copycat league, so the success of Jimmy Graham in New Orleans and the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez tandem in New England—not to mention Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley, the 49ers’ Vernon Davis, and so on and so on—has everyone looking for a pass-catching tight end of their own.
There are a couple problems, however. First, this isn’t a particularly deep draft class at the tight end position. One may sneak into the bottom of the first round, and it would be a minor upset if more than three are off the board through the first two days of the draft. That may be a blessing, however, considering how poorly first-round tight ends have fared in their rookie season: only once in the past decade has a first-round tight end topped four touchdowns or 535 yards in their initial campaign. But that won’t stop either NFL teams—or fantasy owners—for looking for help; here are some places they just might find it.
THE EARLY PICKS
Every team is looking for an athletic, pass-catching tight end to create mismatches and Coby Fleener may be the best of this year’s thin crop. He’s essentially an oversized receiver, so don’t expect a team to play him as an in-line tight end. Scouts disagree as to just how capable of a blocker he can become, but none question his effort in that phase of the game. But it’s his pass-catching skills that set him apart; he’s been compared to NFL slot tight ends such as Jermichael Finley and Greg Olsen, which gives you an indication of his potential. Fleener was Andrew Luck’s go-to receiver at Stanford, with an uncanny ability to find the hole in a zone defense and work himself open. He’s also an adept rout runner with enough speed to threat defenses vertically; after sitting out the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, Fleener blazed a 4.45 at his Pro Day to answer any questions about that aspect of his skill set. With the tight end’s role in NFL offenses increasing, if Fleener makes it out of the first round it won’t take long for his phone to ring on Day Two.
The fantasy success of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham this season has made tight end the trendy position, and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen is in the upper echelon of this year’s class. He’s more Gronk than Graham in that he’s not only a pass catcher but also a very good blocker, especially on the move; see this breakdown for a deeper analysis of that skill set. And while he’s not a true “blocking tight end”, Allen brings enough to the table in that area to be a factor in the regular offense, with plenty of speed and athleticism to be a productive pass-catcher. He has about 20 pounds on Georgia’s Orson Charles (who would be the Graham in this comparison) but will also run about a tenth of a second slower in the 40. Allen has drawn comparisons to Owen Daniels and might be more suited for an H-back role, but he has the versatility to be a valuable contributor in any system—like the Giants, for example, who are right in Allen’s wheelhouse at the end of the first round and with both Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum tearing ACLs in the Super Bowl have a need at the position. As an added benefit, Allen played in an NFL-style scheme at Clemson—matching or breaking 30-year-old school marks set by guys like John McMakin and Bennie Cunningham, who both went on to play for the Steelers—so the transition to Sundays shouldn’t be too bumpy.
Orson Charles is more of a supersized wide receiver than a typical in-line tight end—not quite the freakish athlete Jimmy Graham is, more of an Aaron Hernandez type. He has plenty of speed and could run in the 4.5s at the Combine, though that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t block; in fact, by most accounts he improved in that area during his junior season at Georgia. Charles is athletic, but he opted not to run the 40 at the Combine because he admitted to getting a late start on his training. Then he ran a pair of slower 40s at his Pro Day, but that wasn’t enough of a hit to his draft stock; later that week, he was picked up for a DUI. So there’s off-the-field concerns to address in addition to the refinement his game needs, as he’s still developing as a route-runner, blocker and pass-catcher and may take a season or two to adjust to the NFL. He’ll also need to land in the right situation, though a team isn’t going to waste the high draft pick necessary to secure Charles’ services and then hide his considerable talents as an extra tackle. And don’t be overly seduced by the Hernandez comparison, as Charles isn’t nearly as polished as Hernandez and will need to land in the right system to put up similar fantasy numbers.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Michael Egnew is essentially a slow wide receiver, but in today’s NFL there’s a place for guys with size and adequate speed who can create mismatches for the defense. He was a track guy and wide receiver coming into college but in Missouri’s spread offense was put into the same productive slot role that allowed Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman to put up big numbers. However, the distinct lack of pro success for those former Tigers will hang around Egnew’s neck on draft day. Don’t write him off completely, though, as Egnew has WR-like route-running skills and is tough after the catch as well. He won’t be asked to line up as an in-line tight end—at least not until he adds some weight and learns to play with his hand on the ground—but as a slot receiver a la Dallas Clark he could carve out a contributing role in an NFL offense.
Another tall pass-catcher tabbed as too slow to be an effective wide receiver, Ladarius Green parlayed his skill set and athleticism into a productive tenure as a tight end at Louisiana-Lafayette. He’s a natural receiver with little blocking acumen, so he’ll need to play a slot role in a passing offense to be successful in the NFL. He’s definitely raw, but quality showings against Nebraska, Georgia, and LSU should allay concerns about how he’ll fare when stepping up in competition. Green has excellent hands, outstanding body control, and the kind of athleticism you can’t coach so he’ll definitely get a chance to develop his skills in the pros. How quickly he makes an impact will depend on what kind of offense he lands in as well as his ability to continue adding weight without losing speed.
WHO NEEDS ONE?
As noted above, the trending two-tight end offense has most teams on the lookout for big, athletic targets who can crease mismatch issues with opposing defenses. However, this class lacks a true elite tight end so don’t expect any to go off the board until late in Round One at the earliest. The 49ers and Giants at the end of the first round are both candidates to add Fleener or potentially reach for Allen or Charles. More likely, two or all three of those players hear their names called on Day Two. The Colts are definitely in play early, looking to give Andrew Luck a friendly target, and if the Giants and Niners passed on TEs in the first round they’ll be shopping in this aisle as well. Other interested parties on Day Two include the Falcons (an eventual replacement for Tony Gonzalez), Raiders (where Kevin Boss is gone and the current depth chart has a combined 35 NFL catches), and Cowboys (who lost Martellus Bennett via free agency).