Before delving into the tight end class of 2009, a word of caution: rookie first-round tight ends will break your heart. Sure, you may have a warm fuzzy feeling if you captured lightning in a bottle when Dustin Keller scored one of his three touchdowns while in your starting lineup. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Consider that the 13 tight ends selected in the first round this millennium have posted rookie-year averages of 321 yards and two touchdowns. Even if you take out Kellen Winslow’s abbreviated 2004 campaign you’re still looking at just 343 and 2.1 for the 12 tight ends deemed the elite in their respective classes and worthy of a first-round draft pick. And just to drive the point home, if you average the top five rookie performances in yardage and touchdowns the numbers still wouldn’t crack the top 12 tight ends in 2009.
So, you’ve been warned.
But that doesn’t mean a tight end won’t go in the first round, and it doesn’t mean one of a decent class of big fellas won’t be a fantasy helper—maybe not right out of the gate, but certainly at some point down the road.
Day One Candidates
How can a guy who didn’t catch a touchdown pass his entire senior season be considered a legitimate first-round candidate? Because scouts are looking past Brandon Pettigrew’s production (or lack thereof) and focusing on his many positive attributes: size (6-5, 257), athleticism, and NFL-ready blocking ability thanks to time spent plying that trade at Oklahoma State. Pettigrew was hobbled by an ankle injury during his senior season, so he didn’t have the chance to put up gaudy numbers. But pro teams have seen enough that Pettigrew is going off the board in the first round of most mocks. He’ll solidify that status with a solid showing at the combine—especially if he can explain his run-in with the law last February, when he was charged with assaulting a police officer.
If there’s another tight end in this class picked to take on the rookie TE jinx it will likely be the fast-rising Shawn Nelson. It’s not that Nelson’s body of work at Southern Mississippi wasn’t impressive; he was a four-time all conference performer and left the school second in career receptions and third in yardage. However, despite bowing out of the Senior Bowl with a hamstring tweak Nelson was sufficiently impressive during the practice sessions to see his stock skyrocket. Nelson is 6-5 but at 235 is not quite as bulky as Pettigrew; however, teams have not shied away from “smaller” tight ends who can catch, and Nelson has both the aggressiveness to give blocking a shot and the frame to add a few pounds as well.
Prior to the 2008 Draft, Missouri’s Chase Coffman was given a second-round grade. The son of former Packer tight end Paul Coffman opted to stay in school, where he produced 90 catches for 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final campaign. Foot injuries, including a broken toe that may keep him out of the Combine, have taken a toll on Coffman’s speed and may do the same to his draft stock. However, at 6-5 and 252 he’s big enough to be a more-than-serviceable blocker on the line of scrimmage, and his hands and awareness to make an impact even if he lacks the speed to be a deep threat.
A handful of tight ends are on the fringe of Day One and at minimum would be solid early-Day Two selections. Wisconsin’s Travis Beckum has been plagued by injuries, including shoulder surgery following an All-American effort as a junior and a broken leg that cost him half his senior season. At 6-3, 237 he’s a bit small for an NFL tight end, but the former linebacker doesn’t lack aggressiveness, and if he proves he’s recovered (and can stay injury-free) he could fill a Dallas Clark-like role at the pro level. The similarly athletic and like-sized James Casey played primarily wide receiver at Rice and at 25 is older than most rookies thanks to time spent in the White Sox minor league system. His experience at tight end is minimum, but the former quarterback has played multiple positions and should have the football acumen to adapt quickly. Jared Cook of South Carolina may be the best athlete of the bunch, with an alleged 4.37 40 to his credit despite 6-4, 240 size. Of this class he’s the most similar to Keller in that he has the speed to stretch the field, but his blocking may initially limit how he can be used at the NFL level.
Be Very Afraid
Cornelius Ingram of Florida would have been mentioned much earlier had he not torn his ACL in August; now the former Florida Gator is hoping for a chance to prove he’s recovered enough to be a productive slot tight end in the Clark/Keller mold. He’s not an in-line blocker, and there are some character concerns after he was evicted from his apartment and billed for damages in August of 2008. But if he’s ready for the Combine and can show his knee is healthy, there’s little question he’ll get a shot somewhere.
Take A Chance On…
The field-stretching tight ends have all been mentioned above, but there are a couple “classic” tight ends who may not run a sub-4.5 40 but are capable blockers who can also make the tough catch. Ryan Purvis saw his productivity dip without Matt Ryan at Boston College last season, but he’s still an excellent route-runner who can find the open spaces and move the chains. Bear Pascoe is an award-winning calf-roper in addition to being a special teams standout (six blocked kicks during his Fresno State career); like Purvis, he won’t run by anyone down the seam, but Pascoe will run over them in the open field and as a former quarterback knows how to get open.
Who Needs One?
Generally speaking, teams who take a tight end in the first round are pretty set at other positions because—as evidenced by only 13 first-rounders this millennium—it’s not a high priority position. That said, the Bills’ offense has a glaring need for a big receiver and their No. 11 selection has been associated with tight ends in one of the first two rounds. The Eagles won’t be bringing back L.J. Smith and have two opportunities (21 and 28) to snare a replacement in Round One—as well as an offense that features the position. And while the Mike Mullarkey offense hasn’t traditionally put the tight end to good use, Matt Ryan and the Falcons could stand to benefit from a better pass-catcher at the position.
Once the first round is history, all bets are off as tight ends are usually among the more versatile athletes in the draft and could be viewed for a variety of roles: H-back, slot receiver, additional blocker, special teams player. None of those scream “fantasy helper”, however. Teams who should be in the market for a more traditional tight end earlier rather than later include the Ravens (for those eight to 16 games when Todd Heap is hurt), Texans (if for some reason they let Owen Daniels leave via free agency), Titans (ditto Bo Scaife), Panthers (because Jeff King and Dante Rosario aren’t the solution), and Patriots (because Bill Belichick collects tight ends; see “athleticism” rationale above).