In the inexact science of examining an NFL draft prospect, and successfully predicting his upside three or four years down the road, history probably won't change: Quarterback remains arguably the most difficult, and the most fraught with potential peril, position to project.
But when general managers and personnel directors and draft decision-makers get around to assessing the tight ends in the 2012 draft, the crystal ball might get hazy every time they gaze into it. And the visibility probably didn't get a whole lot clearer during the NFL combine.
In fact, given that many of the top-rated tight ends didn't exactly distinguish themselves in Indianapolis -- or, in the case of Stanford's Coby Fleener, didn't work out -- the overall perspective may have gotten even murkier.
"We have to make sure we try to unearth all those guys ... even though you're not seeing them do the same things you're going to ask them to do (at the NFL level)," acknowledged Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert.
Because of the performances of players such as Rob Gronkowski of New England or New Orleans' Jimmy Graham in 2011 -- players who hardly fit the conventional model of league tight ends -- the mold is being recast.
While not yet the prototype, the job description is being rewritten because of such players, because of the increased presence of the tight end in the passing game, and as a result of the preponderance of "spread" offenses in the college game.
The in-line blocking tight end hasn't yet become extinct, but isn't exactly in vogue anymore in the league.
"You've still got to be able to block, and that's overlooked a bit by (the public), but you'd better be able to catch the ball," said Orson Charles of Georgia. "Everybody is looking for the tight end who can show up in the passing game, and it wasn't always that way, you know? You've got to have some hands."
And that's where the ability to project becomes a critical one.
Of the 14 tight end prospects in Indianapolis, only three ever caught more than 50 passes in a season during their college careers. Michael Egnew of Missouri was the lone candidate with more than 51 receptions in a season, snatching 90 balls during the 2010 season. Egnew led all the tight ends in Indianapolis with 147 receptions in college, but only two other prospects had more than 100. In fact, six of the 14 tight ends had fewer than 70 catches in their three- or four-year careers.
Five of the 10 tight ends who ran the 40 clocked under 4.7 -- as opposed to six of 14 a year ago -- but few stood out as receivers.
And that's where things get interesting.
"There's going to have to be some (projection) as far as catching the ball," allowed New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "You just aren't going to find many guys who caught the ball 50 times (in a season) in college."
Rolling the dice on a quarterback prospect, and having him bomb out, is, of course, disastrous.
The failed crapshoot at tight end isn't nearly as catastrophic, but it does hurt a team. And this might be a year when a franchise might be reluctant to roll the dice on a tight end candidate in the first round.
One NFC area scout conceded that the tight end pool in general is dubious and that "everybody has some sort of a wart." The player many felt was the top-rated prospect entering the combine, Clemson's Dwayne Allen, didn't appear very quick (4.89 in the 40). Charles was surprisingly good in the bench press, with 35 repetitions, but struggled in passing drills. And, as noted, an ankle injury precluded Fleener from working out. He's not regarded as a capable in-line blocker.
For 11 straight drafts, 2000-2010, there was at least one tight end selected in the first round. The streak ended last year and might be extended in two months.
The term employed by Colbert, "unearth," might be an apt one.
Said Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, who mined his top two tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, in the third and fourth round, respectively, in 2010: "Teams have done a good job identifying those guys in some later rounds. Look at the Patriots and their two guys."
Indeed, the Pats tabbed Gronkowski in the second round in 2010, and then Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round.
Of the 17 NFL tight ends who posted 50 or more receptions for the 2011 season, 10 entered the league after the first round. Four were chosen after the third round. Still, seven were first-rounders.
There are still two months of evaluation before the draft but, based at least on the combine, there doesn't yet appear to be a consensus first-round tight end in 2012. And so being able to divine the future becomes a must at the position.
"You're going to have a dig a little deeper on some of these guys," Colbert said.
Combine theme: Tight end class is weak
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