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2011 NFL Draft - Tight End Preview
John Tuvey
March 15, 2011
 

Other Positions:  Quarterbacks  |  Running Backs  |  Wide Receivers  |  Tight Ends  |  Offensive Linemen

There may not be a first-rounder in this year’s tight end class, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: since 2000, the 15 tight ends taken in Round One—among them Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, and Dallas Clark—have averaged a paltry 30-332-2 in their first pro season.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t productivity to be found. Look no further than last year, when both Rob Gronkowski (42-546-10) and Aaron Hernandez (45-563-6) cracked the top 10 fantasy scores at their position. Since this year’s crop of tight ends won’t have the advantage of playing for the Patriots, the trick will be identifying which members of this class can contribute even without Tom Brady at quarterback.

THE UPPER ECHELON

If there is a tight end who hears his name called in Round One this year, it will almost certainly be Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph. The Golden Domer was limited by a hamstring injury to just six games during his final season in South Bend, and his overall numbers—90 catches, 1,032 yards, eight touchdowns in three seasons with the Irish—aren’t exactly jaw-dropping. At 6-6 and 259 pounds he has the size to hold up as a blocker, and he’s demonstrated good hands and a solid work ethic; the key for Rudolph will be proving that after surgery to repair his hamstring he still has the speed to threaten defenses vertically. As it stands right now, Rudolph has drawn enough comparisons to Gronkowski—who also suffered through an injury-marred final collegiate season—to rank as the top tight end on most draft boards; a good 40 time on his Pro Day April 7 could be enough to bump him into the first round.

Hailing from the University of Tennessee, the easy comparison for Luke Stocker is fellow Volunteer Jason Witten. That may be a tad optimistic, but it’s not unreasonable. Stocker has good size (6-4, 258) and the frame to add bulk so as to stand up to the blocking requirements of a three-down tight end. He also has good hands and route-running ability, and while he doesn’t provide the vertical threat some tight ends do he’s a solid red-zone and middle-of-the-field target. There’s not a lot of “wow” appeal here, but that doesn’t mean Stocker can’t be a steady contributor and eventually develop into a tight end worthy of being mentioned alongside Witten.

Winner of the John Mackey Award as the top tight end in college football last season, Arkansas’ D.J. Williams may be asked to switch positions as a pro. While he has decent speed, soft hands, and is an excellent route runner at 6-2 and 245 pounds he may be too small to hold up as an in-line blocker. No worries; Williams could wind up as a fullback—imagine his skills in a West Coast offense—or H-back or could simply wind up playing out of the slot as a receiving tight end much like Dustin Keller, to whom he’s often compared. Williams is also a high-effort, high-character guy (winner of the Disney Spirit Award as the most inspirational player in college football) who could contribute on special teams until the offense figures out what to do with him. That alone should net him a Day Two selection and a shot at carving out an offensive niche for himself as well.

Also slightly undersized (a shade under 6-3, 243 pounds) for three-down work as a full-fledged tight end, Lance Kendricks may bring a little more to the table as a receiver. He demonstrated good hands and athletic ability at Wisconsin, producing 43-663-5 as a senior to cap a 78-1,160-8 career in which he received just 20 starts. A 4.75 40 at the Combine may have hurt him, but he bounced back with a 4.50 at his Pro Day which may be enough to position him as a pass-catching slot tight end at the next level.

You won’t be overwhelmed by the stat line Jordan Cameron posted at USC: one start, 23 games, 16-126-1 as a receiver—all during his senior season. What the stats don’t tell you is that the 6-5 Cameron began his college career at BYU as a basketball player before transferring to USC, where he also gave hoops a shot while serving as a reserve wide receiver. Eventually Cameron bulked up to 254 pounds and cracked the Trojans lineup as a tight end, and it’s that athleticism and speed (his 4.59 40 was third-fastest among tight ends at the Combine) that has him shooting up draft boards with hints of Jimmy Graham in his game. He’ll need to bulk up to be anything more than an oversized wideout, but the team that drafts him will be getting a raw, athletic talent who can create all kinds of matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Much like Cameron, Florida Atlantic’s Rob Housler is another speedy (4.55 40 at the Combine), athletic tight end who at 6-5 and 248 pounds isn’t likely to spend much time in the trenches. Housler put up good numbers as a senior (38-629-4), but his most telling stat is a better than 16 yards per catch average in both his junior and senior seasons that demonstrats his ability to get down the field. Plenty of NFL teams would love to add a seam-stretching tight end to their offensive arsenal and may be willing to develop Housler as a blocker—or overlook that facet completely.

BE VERY AFRAID

You see the size (6-5, 270) and soft hands Weslye Saunders possesses and you wonder why his stock is falling; after all, he put up 60-718-6 in three seasons—but only 13 starts—at South Carolina. But beginning with what would have been his senior campaign at South Carolina, where he was suspended for the entire season for improper dealins with an agent, the past few months have been a comedy of errors for Saunders. He declared for the draft, but missed the deadline and had to petition to get back on the draft board. Then he was unable to run at the Combine when doctors discovered a broken bone in his foot. While Saunders apparently interviewed well in Indianapolis, questions abound about both his game (he’s a soft 270, not a particularly overpowering blocker, and he’s not nearly as fast as most pro tight ends) and his attitude and work ethic. Injured and with questionable character; if the team won’t be able to work with him prior to the season thanks to the lockout, what team would want to throw a draft pick at a kid they can’t count on?

TAKE A CHANCE ON...

The Scouting Combine was an ideal showcase for the athleticism of Virgil Green, who put up test numbers that drew comparisons to Vernon Davis: a 4.54 40 (tops among tight ends), a 10-foot-10-inch broad jump, a 42.5-inch vertical. His productivity in college wasn’t bad, either, with 72-939-11 during his tenure at Nevada. At 6-3, 249 pounds he isn’t going to spend a lot of time in-line blocking, but his speed and hands make him a perfect fit for the slot tight end role so many teams are employing to stretch the field. In contrast with Green’s 52-game Wolfpack career, Julius Thomas saw only 11 games of action at Portland State—11 football games, that is. Yes, Thomas is the next Antonio Gates wanna-be, a 6-4, 246-pound former hoopster who played in a couple of NCAA tournaments at Portland State before earning first team all-conference honors in his first year on the gridiron. He’s raw, obviously, but so were Gates and Jimmy Graham before beginning  their respective NFL careers. Thomas had two catches in the East-West Shrine Game—one for a touchdown, the other for a two-point conversion. A sign of things to come?

WHO NEEDS ONE?

It’s unusual for teams to aggressively pursue tight ends with early picks—witness 15 first-round tight ends since 2000—but after watching New England pluck two with tremendous success last season maybe that perception will change. The Falcons are widely considered to be in the market for an heir to Tony Gonzalez, and with no other glaring holes to fill they could move first on the position at the end of the first round. The Dolphins also could be seeking a pass-catching tight end to complement and/or replace the underappreciated Anthony Fasano. In the same division but at the other end of the tight end spectrum, the Bills could use a big target to occupy defenses in the middle of the field. The Panthers and Broncos are in the process of retooling at the position and could stand to spend a Day Two pick on a tight end or two, while the Cardinals have never had much use for the position but could help the development of a young quarterback by giving him a big tight end as a safety valve. Finally, while the Seahawks have John Carlson on their roster they used him more as a blocker than a pass-catcher last year; maybe Carlson isn’t what Pete Carroll has in mind at the position and Seattle could go looking for more of a Dallas Clark or Dustin Keller type.


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