You would have to look way back to April of 1999 to find the last time a tight end was missing from the first round of the draft. Over the past 11 years, a total of 16 players at the position have warranted a team's top selection. However, the 2011 class is poised to buck that trend. The only tight end with first-round talent available in this year's crop is Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph and a hamstring injury will likely push him into the second round, bringing an end to the streak.
Although several tight ends are competing to be the second of the group to be chosen, there's little consensus on the next best player at the position. Arkansas' D.J. Williams is a great receiver and earned the John Mackey Award in his final season, however a lack of size may relegate him to a role as an H-Back. On the flip side, Tennessee's Luke Stocker offers terrific size and is a solid blocker, but his receiving skills are fairly average. Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks is a bit of a mix between the previous two, as he displays dynamic receiving ability and great blocking skills in a slightly smaller package. No matter the order they are chosen, these three make up the second- to third-round group.
Every year the combine brings about a handful of "workout warriors" who force scouts to go back to the film room. This offseason, several of those prospects will hear their names called late in draft's second stanza or early on the final day. Florida Atlantic's Rob Housler "wowed" onlookers in Indianapolis with a blazing time of 4.55 in the 40-yard dash. However, he lacks the sheer bulk to be an every-down, "hand in the dirt" tight end. Nevada's Virgil Green also put on a show at the combine and has the tape to prove his talent. He's an explosive receiver who is no slouch when it comes to blocking.
Antonio Gates emerged as a star for the Chargers and opened the door for ex-basketball players with physical ability to make a transition to the gridiron. Southern California's Jordan Cameron and Portland State's Julius Thomas are both former standouts on the hardwood that impressed at the combine. While their athleticism is very intriguing, they're both very raw prospects with limited football experience.
In the late rounds, teams who employ multiple tight end sets may be in the market for blocking specialists. The cream of the crop is Virginia Tech's Andre Smith, an imposing physical blocker who is like having an extra lineman on your front wall. Though Smith makes his money in the trenches, he can surprise with his ability as a receiver. Marshall's Lee Smith and Michigan State's Charlie Gantt aren't the most dynamic of receivers, but they can snag a pass from time to time while earning their living primarily as blockers.
POSITION REPORT CARD: Although there are quite a few intriguing prospects available in this crop, it's lacking in your classic tight end. While the 2011 class should give way to some solid contributors, there are only a handful of players I feel have the talent to emerge as every-down starters. For that reason, I'm assigning this group a D+.
KYLE RUDOLPH, Notre Dame
Good News: Provides a huge target and makes himself even bigger due to his ability to extend overhead and catch the high passes…Natural receiver with soft, yet strong hands and can outmuscle defenders for the ball…Excellent red zone target that provides mismatches…Good route runner that can work the seam…Can line up with his hand down or stand up…Recognizes quickly when he is unaccounted for and makes sure the quarterback sees him to take advantage…Solid in-line blocker and can seal the edge.
Bad News: Considerable durability concerns – missed time in each of the past two seasons and is coming off a right hamstring injury…Good athlete for the position, but not elite…Gives effort to gain yards after the catch but isn't going to be a consistent threat in that aspect.
2010 Statistics: Caught 28 passes for 328 yards (11.71 ypc) and three touchdowns.
Prediction: Rudolph is practically a carbon copy of New England's Rob Gronkowski when it comes to measurables. However, I don't believe Rudolph is the same kind of athlete as Gronkowski, who was a threat to gain yards after the catch during his time at Arizona. Rudolph still displays receiver-like hands and solid blocking ability that has allowed Notre Dame to play him on the line as a traditional tight end or stand him up. He's a mismatch nightmare and has first-round talent, but ultimately injury issues will drop him into the second round.
D.J. WILLIAMS, Arkansas
Good News: Soft, natural hands and can extend outside his frame for the football…Good route runner that can gain separation – flashes a bit of suddenness and doesn't round cuts…Nice run-after-the-catch ability…Enough athleticism and speed to pick up yards and runs hard through contact with determination…High character guy with great intangibles.
Bad News: A ‘tweener for the position…More of an H-back type and lacks the size of a traditional tight end…Gives great effort as a blocker but likely lacks the size and strength to consistently play with his hand in the dirt…Could struggle to get off the line when pressed by NFL linebackers.
2010 Statistics: Winner of the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end, and the Disney Spirit Award, recognizing the most inspirational figure in college…Caught 54 passes for 627 yards (11.61 ypc) and four touchdowns.
Prediction: Williams lacks the size of a traditional in-line tight end, but he's a fantastic receiver and can make something happen with the ball in his hands. He could be a very productive player in an H-back role with a team that is already well-built and is looking to add a few dynamic weapons to the offense during rounds two or three.
LUKE STOCKER, Tennessee
Good News: Well-rounded prospect for the position…Big, inviting target for quarterbacks…Solid hands and flashes the ability to extend outside his frame for the football…Shows savvy as a route runner to settle into soft spots in the defense and isn't afraid to go over the middle…Good size and solid as a run blocker.
Bad News: Somewhat limited upside and isn't going to stretch the field…Skill-wise, isn't overly adept at creating separation as a route runner and can be a bit stiff…Doesn't offer a lot after the catch…Lacks explosiveness and isn't going to elude anyone in the open field.
2010 Statistics: Set a Tennessee record for most games played by a position player at 52…Caught 39 passes for 417 yards (10.69 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Prediction: Stocker is one of the more complete packages at tight end this year. He's solid at blocking and as a receiver. Still, I see him as a bit of a limited athlete without a ton of upside. He's a good all-around player, but isn't necessarily outstanding in any one attribute and won't be a guy that defenses must game-plan for like another former Volunteers tight end, Jason Witten. His well-rounded game should still warrant a second- or third-round selection.
LANCE KENDRICKS, Wisconsin
Good News: Great athlete for the position…Excellent combination of speed and quickness and has the talent to run a variety of routes…Good burst off the line to challenge vertically…Nice elusiveness after the catch for a tight end and can make plays with the ball in his hands…Natural receiver and can extend outside his frame for passes with ease…Very good blocker with much experience in a highly run-oriented ball control system.
Bad News: Lacks the size of a traditional tight end…Shows very good strength for his size as a blocker, but may have more trouble against NFL-caliber defensive linemen…Has had a few issues with drops in his career…Runs hard after the catch but lacks power and can be brought down.
2010 Statistics: AP, Walter Camp and AFCA All-American selection…Caught 43 passes for 663 yards (15.42 ypc) and five touchdowns.
Prediction: Kendricks reminds me of another former Badgers tight end in Travis Beckum. The former wide receiver is a dynamic receiver and possesses tremendous athletic ability to stretch the defense. However, the biggest difference with Kendicks is that he is also tough in the trenches and is one of the better blockers available. He could be selected in the third round, but shouldn't last past the fourth, where he offers tons of value.
ROB HOUSLER, Florida Atlantic
Good News: Long-strider with blazing speed for the position…Can stretch the middle of the field and work the seam…Adjusts well to the football and has solid hands…Good route runner who displays above average change-of-direction skills to gain separation against man coverage…Can find the soft spots in the zone and get open…Quick start off the snap…Creates obvious mismatch problems for linebackers due to speed and defensive backs due to size.
Bad News: Lacks the bulk of a classic tight end…Shows surprising upper-body strength, but isn't going to be a great in-line blocker…Has the speed to gain yards after the catch but isn't overly elusive…Played against lower-level competition.
2010 Statistics: All-Sun Belt Conference second-team selection…Caught 39 passes for 629 yards (16.13 ypc) and four touchdowns…Added 19 yards on one carry.
Prediction: Housler offers a rare combination of fantastic size and speed. He lacks the bulk to be an every-down in-line tight end, but his ability as a receiver makes him a hot commodity. He creates great mismatch problems for opposing defenses and if a team can find a way to take advantage of his skill set, he could be a nice pick in the third or fourth round.
VIRGIL GREEN, Nevada
Good News: Explosive off the line and has the speed to challenge vertically…Big, strong hands and is rarely seen allowing the ball into his body...Great body control and can adjust to the football…Flashes suddenness as a route runner and can gain separation…Has the physical talent to run a variety of routes…Very good run-after-the-catch ability and displays surprising elusiveness with balance in the open field…Great leaping ability and can high-point the football.
Bad News: Played primarily against WAC competition…Had some concentration lapses that resulted in drops earlier in his career…Can be a little inconsistent as a blocker, but is vastly underrated in this category…May be more of an H-Back type.
2010 Statistics: All-WAC first-team selection…Caught 35 passes for 515 yards (14.71 ypc) and five touchdowns…Added 19 yards on four carries.
Prediction: Green "wowed" everyone at the combine with impressive numbers. But unlike other "workout warriors," the Nevada tight end can back it up on tape. He's one of my favorite tight ends available in 2011 thanks to his rare receiving ability and underrated skills as a blocker. If a team can snag Green in the fourth, he could be one of the draft's steals.
JORDAN CAMERON, Southern California
Good News: Great upside due to rare athletic ability and physical talent…Very natural receiver…Can extend outside his frame and pluck the ball out of the air…Excellent speed and acceleration…Nice leaping ability to go up and get the football…Displays agility and balance from his days on the basketball court.
Bad News: Very limited production and never started a game in his USC career (played in just 23 over three seasons)…Inexperience is apparent in his route running, although he has the physical talent to develop into a much better route runner…Blocking is a concern and needs to add some bulk and strength to compete in the trenches.
2010 Statistics: Caught 16 passes for 126 yards (7.88 ypc) and one touchdown.
Prediction: Cameron has tremendous physical ability and really put on a show during the combine. The former BYU basketball player spent his first two seasons at USC as a reserve wide receiver before converting to tight end prior to his senior year. Cameron has a lot of developing to do and I'm not a big fan of "workout warriors," but his physical skill is undeniable and will probably entice a team in the fourth or fifth rounds.
ANDRE SMITH, Virginia Tech
Good News: Outstanding blocker…Very stout and consistently drives defenders back…Secures the edge on outside runs…Fantastic strength to open rushing lanes on the inside run…Gets to the second level quickly and effectively neutralizes defenders…Solid hands…Good concentration and leaping ability…Uses size to shield defenders from the ball and provided a nice red zone target.
Bad News: Lacks top-notch speed or quickness and may have trouble gaining separation, although he is quite smooth for his size…Not the most explosive player as a receiver…Bullish runner with the ball in his hands but isn't going to offer a lot in the run-after-catch department.
2010 Statistics: All-ACC honorable mention selection…Caught 20 passes for 195 yards (9.75 ypc) and five touchdowns.
Prediction: Smith rarely gets the attention he deserves and was one of the combine "snubs" in 2011. The big tight end is a fantastic blocker and is the kind of guy who will stick to a team's roster due to his ability to contribute in multiple tight end sets. He's not the flashiest of receivers, but is far from being little more than an extra offensive lineman. Smith's a big target who knows how to use his size to his advantage and provided the Hokies with a nice red zone option last season. He's a major sleeper and should come off the board in the fifth round.
JULIUS THOMAS, Portland State
Good News: Exceptional athletic talent with great upside…Possesses excellent speed and can work the seam...Good hands and can naturally extend outside his frame for passes…Decent run-after-the-catch ability and displays good open-field speed and quickness to gain yards with the ball in his hands…Flashes some explosive ability to be a much better route runner…Fairly fluid athlete, likely resulting from his days on the basketball court.
Bad News: Very raw prospect with limited experience – has played just 11 games on the gridiron against FCS competition after enjoying a standout college basketball career the previous four seasons…Needs more experience to develop route-running skills and has a tendency to round off routes…Liability as a run blocker - needs to develop more strength and show more tenacity, as well as better technique…Lacks bulk and upper-body strength…May struggle to get off a press by NFL linebackers.
2010 Statistics: All-Big Sky Conference first-team selection…Caught 29 passes for 453 yards (15.62 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Prediction: I said I'm not a fan of workout warriors just a prospect ago, but I guess I'll have to eat my words – I admit I'm a little intrigued by Thomas. He did have much better production in his only football season, although it came against lower-level competition. Like Cameron, Thomas began his career on the hardwood, as he starred on Portland State's basketball squad in his first four seasons before walking on with the football program this past year. He's a very raw prospect that is going to need some time to develop route-running skills and blocking ability. But if a team can put 10-15 pounds on his frame, he could be a diamond in the rough in the fifth or sixth round.
OTHERS TO WATCH:
MIKE McNEILL, Nebraska
Notes: Lacks size and isn't going to be an in-line tight end, but offers reliability as a receiver.
Projection: 5th-6th round.
Schuylar Oordt, Northern Iowa
Notes: Small-school stud with great height and speed, but lacks bulk and is a liability in the blocking department.
Projection: 6th round.
Weslye Saunders, South Carolina
Notes: Entered the season as one of the most highly regarded players at the position but didn't play in 2010 after being dismissed from the team and has become an afterthought due to off-field issues and injuries.
Projection: 6th-7th round.
LEE SMITH, Marshall
Notes: Great blocker with soft hands, but posted an alarmingly slow 40 time and doesn't have the speed to consistently gain separation.
Projection: 7th round.
CHARLIE GANTT, Michigan State
Notes: Physical blocker and does a great job of getting to the second level, but isn't going to be a consistent receiving threat.
Projection: 7th round.
A Look @ The Tight Ends
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