Picking the best tight end among this year’s draft prospects is a lot like picking from the menu of super-low-calorie beers.
The word “best” is a relative term in both cases.
Arkansas’ Hunter Henry is the consensus best tight end. As a junior in 2015, Henry was a consensus first-team All-American and the winner of the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end.
“I think he’s probably the most complete tight end as far as ability to block and be a part of your passing game,” said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who serves as the executive director of the Senior Bowl and an analyst on Alabama’s radio broadcasts. “He’s a really solid pass-catcher, route-runner. Does enough as a blocker. Is he sudden? Is he quick enough? Can he separate from a legitimate man-to-man cover and be a difference-maker that would push him into the first round? I don’t think you could say that. I think he’s a really nice player. He’s the best of maybe the worst group that I can recall as far as an overall position group from top to bottom.”
Blame the demise of the tight end on the rise of the spread offense at the collegiate level.
“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Savage said. “There’s definitely been a shift away from the position in the college game if you look at the number of four-receiver sets. It’s interesting how the tight end is such a huge factor in the NFL but not so much in the college game now. Yeah, it’s because of the spread.”
After losing Jermichael Finley to a career-ending injury midway through the 2013 season, the Packers found out first-hand the quality of the tight ends being churned out by the spread-happy collegiate game. Desperate for a tight end, the Packers took Richard Rodgers with their third-round selection, even though he wasn’t asked to block as a spread-offense receiver at California and had obvious athletic limitations. Rodgers caught 58 passes last season, second-most by a tight end in franchise history. The Packers were so ecstatic that they signed veteran Jared Cook on Monday.
Is Rodgers a bust? Hardly. He’s played pretty much to his scouting report coming out of Cal. Rodgers, the sixth tight end off the board in 2014, leads the draft class in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Moreover, of the tight ends who entered the league from 2011 through 2014 — 49 were drafted and countless more entered as free agents — Rodgers ranks sixth with his two-year total of 78 receptions. Still, general manager Ted Thompson pointed out two things by signing Cook. One, Rodgers’ all-around production hasn’t been good enough. And, two, immediate help was not going to be coming from the college level, with its wide-open, four-receiver attacks.
Henry, South Carolina’s Jerell Adams, Stanford’s Austin Hooper and Ohio State’s Nick Vannett are the rarities in that they played as traditional tight ends. However, most teams don’t use a traditional tight end with regularity.
“Not only do you not see a lot of do-it-all but most tight ends in college are more detached from the formation (and are) run-and-catch tight ends,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said at the Scouting Combine. “We have to project them down to the line scrimmage and blocking a little bit. With college offenses, we’re not seeing as many dual tight ends. The one good thing about it is you see a lot of guys run and catch. They get to do that through high school, through college, probably more so than they did in prior years. But it is a position that is a little harder to find at the college level, no doubt.”
Not surprisingly, it takes some patient coaching to turn a pseudo tight end into an honest-to-goodness tight end. No wonder Thompson took the plunge on Cook, a flawed veteran, instead of gambling on his favorite pastime, the draft.
“It’s like O-linemen. You’ve got to factor in the development,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “It’s going to take them a little longer to develop, especially in the run game, because they’re not asked to do it as much. There’s some things you have to look at differently now than you had to 10 years ago, because the college game is quite a bit different than the game we play, especially at the line of scrimmage.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.