You would have to look way back to April 1999 to find the last time a tight end was missing from the first round of the draft. Over the past 11 years, 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 but 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 Scouting 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 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-plus.
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