VIKINGS TIGHT ENDS – Jim Kleinsasser, Byron Chamberlain, Hunter Goodwin, Jeff Kostrewa, Brody Liddiard.
VIKINGS DRAFT EXPECTATIONS – All but Chamberlain and Kostrewa didn't have contracts at the end of the 2002 season, but the Vikings did what they needed to land them – slapping the franchise tag on Kleinsasser, re-signing Liddiard (also the team's long snapper) and going through a long negotiation with Goodwin to keep him from signing away with Oakland. Each player has a role with the Vikings, and barring a trade of Kleinsasser to another team – unlikely since it would probably result in the Vikings losing their franchise tag for the duration of his contract – tight end may be the one position that the Vikings have no interest in pursuing unless the team finds a different long snapper that could open up a roster spot.
THE CLASS OF '03 – Last year, the league went nuts on tight end. Three TEs went in the first round in 2002, matching a post-AFL/NFL merger record set in 1970. The discovery of Jeremy Shockey as an offensive force sent ripples much like the signing of Randy Moss did to the wide receiver position in subsequent years. While this year's crop doesn't have the depth of star power that general managers saw in last year's group, it has one – Jason Witten of Tennessee – that is drawing Shockeyesque comparisons heading into draft day.
Jason Witten, Tennessee, 6-6, 264 – Third-year junior who came to Tennessee as a defensive end…As a part-time player in 2001, he caught 28 passes for 293 yards and two TDs – numbers that improved to 34-452-5 last year…Finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end…Has long arms and is a serious offensive threat…Excellent size-speed combination…Is used as an offensive weapon but has excellent blocking skills…Can bench press 450 pounds…Hot and cold, making a great catch one play and dropping a pass right in the numbers the next. PROJECTION: Very little downside here and, with the league looking for the next Shockey, he could win by default and land as early as the middle of the first round to New Orleans.
Dallas Clark, Iowa, 6-4, 257 – Fifth-year walk-on junior who came to Iowa as a linebacker after playing LB and QB in high school…As a freshman, weighed just 200 pounds…Moved to tight end in 2001 and in two years caught 77 passes for 1,251 yards and eight TDs…Won the Mackey Award in 2002 to go with All-American and first-team All-Big 10 honors…A team leader who was loved by coaches and teammates…Very good quickness and excellent hands…Can stretch a defense down the middle like having a slot wide receiver…Has good upper body strength, but lower body strength is a question. PROJECTION: Another player getting the Shockey hype, he has a lot of excellent offensive traits. However, having added almost 60 pounds to his frame already there isn't much more room for growth. Should be the second TE off the board, probably in the early to middle stages of the second round.
Bennie Joppru, Michigan, 6-4, 272 – Fifth-year senior…Contributed all four years at Michigan, but wasn't a full-time starter until 2002…Made the most of his year in the sun by setting a Wolverines school record for receptions by a tight end in a season, catching 53 passes for 579 yards and five TDs…Had a monster workout at the Senior Bowl and the Combine…Hasn't missed time with injuries…Has good speed for his size…Can be used as a TE or H-back, but may be a little undersized for the H-back role in the NFL…Not a great blocker, just adequate. PROJECTION: No TE helped his stock more at the Senior Bowl and Combine than Joppru, who went from a late Day One selection into the second round.
Robert Johnson, Auburn, 6-6, 278 – Fourth-year junior…Has an injury history with wrist surgery in 2000 and a broken foot in 2001…Never a go-to TE, he played in a rotation system, catching 30 passes for 365 yards and four TDs…A mammoth receiver who excels going over the middle…Good combination of size and speed makes him hard to tackle…Long arms make him a decent blocker…Doesn't have the nastiness coaches like in blocking TEs…Drops too many passes. PROJECTION: Has all the size credentials NFL scouts look for, but was never the go-to guy. Has a great upside in the right system, but may not go as high on draft day as we have him ranked.
Aaron Walker, Florida, 6-6, 252 – Fifth-year senior…Chose football over baseball after being told he would be high MLB draft pick coming out of high school…Three-year starter who never missed a game…Best season was 2002, catching 25 passes for 365 yards and three TDs…Looked impressive at both the Senior Bowl and Combine…Good combination of size, hands and quickness…Excellent upper body strength…Has the speed to run deep up the middle…Doesn't have great leg strength, which hurts his in-line blocking. PROJECTION: Wasn't used as a power blocker by the Gators, but many scouts think he can learn that an be an effective pro. Was viewed as a second day pick until his strong showings at the Senior Bowl and Combine. Will likely slide into the third round, but is a guy that projects as a NFL starter in a year or two.
DAY TWO PROJECTIONS
L.J. Smith, Rutgers, 6-3, 258 – Fifth-year senior…Four-year starter who caught 96 passes for 1,050 yards and seven TDs in the last three years…Tough, playing through injuries all of the '02 season…Surprising north-south speed…Catches almost all passes thrown his way…Hard to tackle after the catch…37-1/2 inch vertical jump rare for player his size…Still seen as a bit undersized…Needs to improve blocking technique…Doesn't run great routes…Thanks to a solid effort at the Combine, he should be a push to go late in the third round or early in the fourth round. With his physique he looks like a football player and someone will jump on him early in Day Two, if not Day One.
Spencer Nead, BYU, 6-4, 259 – Graduated high school in 1995 and will be 25 when the season starts…Went on a religious mission before going to BYU…Split time with Raiders TE Doug Jolley in 2001…Became full-time starter last year, catching 40 passes for 449 yards and one TD…Has the dimensions to be an efficient blocking TE…A big target who can be an intregal secondary receiver in an NFL passing game…Catches most passes thrown his way…Had the worst Combine number for vertical jump (28-1/2 inches) and broad jump (8-1/2 feet) of the TEs that worked out…Has some of the intangibles scouts like, but lack of burst and age will drop him into the fourth or fifth round of the draft.
Mike Seidman, UCLA, 6-4, 271 – Fourth-year senior who didn't become a full-time starter until last year…In 2002, he caught 41 passes for 631 yards and five TDs…Had a solid week at the Senior Bowl…Never missed playing time with injuries…Solid blocker…Is more of a journeyman type and won't wow people with speed or athleticism…Had a big season as a senior to get notice, but missed the Combine with a hernia and that will likely drop him into the fifth or sixth round. Won't blow people away with skills, but does a blue-collar, lunch pail job.
Donald Lee, Mississippi State, 6-3, 249 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who had his best season in '02 – catching 22 passes for 161 yards and one TD…Never missed time with injuries…Excellent blocker…Good speed for a tight end…More accomplished receiver than most TEs…Size is his biggest downside and some scouts don't believe he can be a full-time TE in the NFL…Has been compared to the Saints Boo Williams…Because of his size limitations, will likely be a situational tight end and teams aren't climbing all over themselves for those. Should go in the sixth round to someone looking for more offense from its TE spot.
Mike Pinkard, Arizona State, 6-5, 263 – Fifth-year senior…Played behind Todd Heap until 2001…Became a full-time starter in '02 and responded with 30 catches for 503 yards and five TDs…Never has lived up to his vast athletic potential…Great combination of size and speed…Because he played behind Heap and ASU ran a lot of two-TE sets, never got the chance to be a go-to guy until his senior year…Doesn't play with a mean streak…A converted defensive end, if a team really likes what it sees, he could go much higher than this – perhaps as high as the fourth round. But, his seeming unwillingness to work hard to get better is a drawback that will turn some teams off.
George Wrighster, Oregon, 6-2, 254 – Fourth-year junior…One-year starter who posted good numbers (41-568-6)…Is a solid receiver and good blocker…Excellent hands both in short passing game and stretching the field…Good route runner…Has better ball adjustment skills than most TEs…Doesn't have a lot of leg strength, which will hurt him in blocking assignments in the NFL…The jury is still out on him, since he could develop into a Frank Wycheck type of receiver, but doesn't have the size credentials to be a consistent run blocking TE in the pros.