With more and more NCAA teams turning to the spread offense, developing NFL-ready tight ends have taken a back seat to generating more points on the board via the deep passing game rather than utilizing big receivers to move the chains in the short-to-intermediate areas. Most talent evaluators believe Stanford's Coby Fleener, a glorified receiver rather than a traditional tight end, will be the first player selected at this position.
Those hoping he will become the second coming of Rob Gronkowski might see a player who can line up wide and has the speed to stretch the field, but he is nowhere near the in-line blocker that the Patriots' All-Pro is rapidly becoming. Fleener is more of a motion-type blocker, but he has marginal skills when it comes to breaking down. On film, you can see that he will often be overextend, as he lacks the leg drive and strong lower-body frame to anchor.
However, as a pass catcher, Fleener can line up at the flanker, H-back and slot receiver spots, thanks to his impressive burst coming off the ball. He has quick, soft hands and good extension skills, presenting a nice target for his quarterback, as he works hard to secure the ball when working in a crowd. He has the upper-body flexibility to turn and come back for the ball in a hurry and times his leaps well to high-point the ball.
Clemson's Dwayne Allen is a better blocker than Fleener, as he shows more natural knee bend and quicker hand placement, but even at 255 pounds, he lacks the "sand in his pants" to prevent being walked back by more physical bull rushers, as he tends to get too upright when having to block in-line.
For a player who is supposed to be one of the better at tracking the ball in flight and stands 6-foot-3, two areas concern me: his inability to fight for the ball in a crowd (had 14 passes knocked out of his hands last year) and that he caught only 54.95 percent of the balls targeted to him in 2011.
Orson Charles of Georgia seems to be doing his best to see his draft stock drop at a rapid rate since declaring for the draft. Once thought to be the best tight end in this class, he skipped out on working for teams at the Scouting Combine. During pro day, his mediocre performance in speed drills failed to impress, along with his lackadaisical attitude throughout the event. Adding to his problems was his recent drunken driving arrest. On top of that, he really needs to get his head in the game. Last season, his nine foolish penalties cost the Bulldogs quite a bit.
Ladarius Green of Louisiana-Lafayette had shoulder issues early in the 2011 season before coming on strong the second half of the schedule. While he has impressive speed — much like Allen — you have to be concerned about a 6-foot-6 receiver with a 34 1/2-inch vertical jump having more than 17 percent of the passes targeted to him get knocked out of his hands by the opposition (14 pass deflections).
Missouri's Michael Egnew
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One of the better Cinderella stories in the draft could reside at the tight end position, if a small-college receiver can rapidly adjust to life as an NFL tight end. Beloit College's Derek Carrier, who played split end at the Division III school with an enrollment of less than 1,400 students, had back-to-back record-breaking performances as a pass catcher.
But with no all-star games vs. higher levels of competition and weighing 238 pounds, he's going to need patient coaching and extra hours in the weight room to mature physically and develop a tight end's mentality and game. Most scouts feel he has the skill-set to develop much like the Pats' Aaron Hernandez, and looking at NFL rosters, he could be a perfect fit for what ails the New York Giants at that injury-ravaged position.
Speaking of injuries, some of the better-known college tight ends are battling though some issues that will see their draft stock drop, if they don't get a clean bill of health soon. Kevin Koger of Michigan was a surprise Combine snub and further hurt his stock when he pulled up lame with a hamstring injury at the Wolverines' pro day. Florida State's Beau Reliford has been sidelined with hamstring woes and is dealing with a sports hernia.
Carrier is not the only small-college tight end earning draft consideration. North Dakota State's Matt Veldman is a 6-foot-6, 266-pounder who had only 49 receptions for his career, including 26 in 2011, but he produced 18 touchdown-resulting blocks last season to warrant late-round draft consideration.
Another punishing blocker who could earn an NFL roster spot on special teams play alone is Southern Cal's Rhett Ellison, whose ability as a gunner earned him first-team All-Pac Conference honors in 2011. He's one of the strongest tight ends in this class, earning USC Lifter of the Year honors. He's an NFL legacy, as his dad, Riki Gray-Ellison, was a linebacker for the 49ers and Raiders from 1983 through 1992.
The "star" of the Combine was Oklahoma's James Hanna, but he brings back that old scout's adage — looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane. He ran 4.43 at the Combine, pacing the tight end group in nearly every agility test, setting a position mark with his 40-yard time and impressing in the weight room. But, on the field, he's missed on more than half the passes targeted to him and his blocking skills are some of the weakest in this group.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, UCLA's Cory Harkey was all the rage as the position's best blocker, but he is woefully limited as a pass catcher. Teams might have been able to overlook his obvious lack of receiving ability, if not for his implosion at the Combine, where he performed the worst of all tight ends in attendance in the agility tests.
While his 5.14 40-yard time was alarming, a player considered more for his drive blocking ability sent up more than a few red flags with his horrible showing in the weight room, where his 13 reps at the 225-pound bench press was the worst in his group. A pro day clocking of 5.12 and a 26 1/2-inch vertical jump will see his draft stock drop further.
Some players on the rise at this obviously lacking position are Southern Methodist's Taylor Thompson, Cincinnati's Adrien Robinson, Louisiana State's DeAngelo Peterson, Miami's Chase Ford and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum.
Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.