POSITION OVERVIEW: Over the past decade, the role of the pass-catching tight ends has become an increasingly larger one in NFL offenses. From the tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in New England to a dozen or so premium picks over the last few years, it would appear that every team is now looking for a seam-stretching tight end to add another weapon to offenses. As a result, the draft stock of tight ends has gone up significantly in recent years. Fortunately for those still in the market, this is a good year for tight ends. There are likely to be two TEs taken in the first round – Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and either Stanford's Zach Ertz or San Diego State's Gavin Escobar – and the depth of talent is such that there will likely be two or three TEs coming off the board in each of the drafts first four rounds. You can't deny the role pass-catching tight ends have had in recent years and it would appear the Class of 2013 will only add to that talent pool.
VIKINGS TIGHT ENDS – Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Lamark Brown.
VIKINGS NEED – Had Carlson not restructured his contact, this could have been a much more pressing need, since most teams need at least two viable tight ends at all times. A year ago, the Vikings had many more questions after the retirement of Jim Kleinsasser and allowing Visanthe Shiancoe to leave via free agency. The Vikings love what Rudolph has done to date, are willing to give Carlson another shot and got some decent production out of Ellison. Barring a player falling to them that they don't expect, it would be hard to justify taking a tight end prior to Day 3 of the draft – if they take any at all.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, 6-5½, 250 – Fourth-year junior who was granted a medical hardship in 2009 after suffering a back injury…Started 34 of 38 career games, catching 140 passes for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns…Won the Mackey Award in 2012, given out annually to college football's top tight end…Versatile; as a junior, he often lined up as a wide receiver…Has the speed to stretch the center of the field and create mismatches with safeties…Has strong hands and can out-muscle defenders for the ball in traffic…A strong route runner…A student of the game…Has the upper body strength to beat a jam at the line…Has added weight (he came to Notre Dame as a 215-pound wide receiver) and can't add much more without sacrificing speed…Is naturally lean and can't be depended on as an every-down blocker, although his blocking did improve a lot in 2012…Slows down when he makes sharp cuts and doesn't separate far enough from defenders…Doesn't have the "new prototype" TE speed and gets open deep more by reading defenses than outrunning them…Doesn't have ideal anchor strength to block on running plays…Ran a 4.68 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: He has all the tools to be an impressive NFL tight end, following in the footsteps of the man he replaced – Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph. After a strong showing at the combine, he has come close to locking down his status as the first TE off the board, looking like a good fit with Chicago at No. 20.
Zach Ertz, Stanford, 6-5, 249 – Fourth-year junior…Was never a full-time starter given the formations the Cardinal run, starting just nine of 37 games…Finished his career with 112 receptions for 1,434 yards and 15 touchdowns, with most of his production coming in a big 2012 season (60-898-6)…A Mackey Award finalist in 2012…Played in a pro-style offense that translates well to the NFL…Very technically sound…Has added 30 pounds of muscle and bulk to his frame and has become an all-around talent…Has prototype size for the position…Has the speed to create mismatches, whether it's cutting hard to leave a linebacker behind him or pushing the deep seam with safeties…Wins most one-on-one battles…Is a willing blocker who wants to initiate contact…Is a little narrow, especially in his lower body, and has basically maxed out on how much bigger he can get…Struggles to sustain blocks when asked to hold them too long…Needs to redefine his route running because he will round off too many routes and allow defenders to jump them…Has a tendency to look upfield a split second before the ball arrives and will drop easy passes…Will get alligator arms at times over the middle and will duck and cover when he hears footsteps…Ran a 4.76 40 at the combine with 24 reps, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Viewed as a Jason Witten-type receiver, Ertz has the potential to be a big-time NFL player. Looks like a natural fit with Atlanta, where he could spend a year learning from Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez before taking over the spot in 2014.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Gavin Escobar, San Diego State, 6-6, 254 – Fourth-year junior…A three-year starter, although he technically started 12 of 13 games as a redshirt freshman and 12 of 26 games his final two seasons…Finished his career with 122 catches for 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns…A dependable, durable player who never missed a game in college…A huge target and the prototype of the new-look NFL tight end…Times his leaps well and keep his body under control when adjusting to a ball in the air…A potential red zone mismatch…Catches the ball over the middle and doesn't get alligator arms…Has the speed to get deep and lateral agility to make defenders miss…Needs to add about 10-15 pounds of bulk strength to reach his full potential…Didn't play in-line much and typically lined up in the slot…Needs time to get to full speed and slows down into and out of his cuts…Susceptible to a strong jam at the line, he often is stopped in his tracks and has to re-start his route…Is not a dominant run blocker and lets defenders get away from him…Didn't lift at the combine but ran a 4.84 40 with a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: A huge target with a lot of upside, he didn't consistently play against top competition. His learning curve will be longer than Eifert or Ertz, which should drop him into the second round before he gets picked.
Travis Kelce, Cincinnati, 6-5, 255 – Fifth-year senior…Only a one-year starter, when he caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns…His brother Jason plays center for the Philadelphia Eagles…Failed a drug test on the eve of the Sugar Bowl following the 2009 season and was forced to sit out the entire 2010 year…Had sports hernia surgery in January that forced him to sit out the combine…Has the size and speed to be dangerous deep down the middle of the field…Gets to top speed quickly…Catches the ball away from his body and plucks it with ease…A solid in-line blocker in the run game and a consistent finisher…Has short arms for his size and defenders get into his body too easily…Doesn't have a quick burst and slows up considerably when making cuts or running at an angle…Raw in terms of on-field play – only one year as a starter and 59 career receptions…Didn't work out at the Combine due to sports hernia surgery. PROJECTION: Having been suspended for an entire season, there are character red flags the will drop him into the middle of the draft, but he has a lot of upside and could be a solid project gamble on greatness if he keeps his head on straight.
Jordan Reed, Florida, 6-2½, 236 – Fourth-year junior…A two-year starter who caught 73 passes for 866 yards and five touchdowns in that span…Had a series of lower body injuries that caused him to miss time (knee, ankle, hamstring)…Has the skill set of a wide receiver more than a tight end…Has excellent balance and body control…Has a very good initial burst off the snap…Has the speed to threaten the deep seam…Naturally finds open spots in zones and settles in…Is smaller than the typical NFL tight end…Will have to add bulk and muscle to succeed at the next level…Is not a dominating blocker in the run game and picked up too many holding calls when he got beat…No previous special teams experience…Didn't jump at the combine, but ran a 4.72 40 with 16 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: An undersized H-back hybrid receiving tight end who has the potential to develop into a solid player, but his lack of blocking ability will probably drop him late into the second day of the draft and possibly into the third day.
Dion Sims, Michigan State, 6-5, 262 – Fourth-year junior…Redshirted in 2010 after being arrested for his role in a theft ring that stole laptop computers…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2012, when he caught 36 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns…Excellent size/speed combination…A dependable receiver who catches almost everything thrown his way…Is hard to bring down after the catch and gains a lot of yards after the catch…Improved his technique a lot last season…Needs a lot of work to improve his in-line blocking…Has suffered a series of injuries in college with some injury concerns about him long-term…Doesn't consistently finish off his blocks in the run game…Very limited experience and poor production – just 12 career starts and 59 career receptions…Ran a 4.75 40 at the combine with 22 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who might have been better served coming back to MSU for his senior season, he was a standout high school basketball player that has some of the same traits that made Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez NFL stars. But, he is far from a polished product and will likely remain undrafted until the final day of the draft.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Chris Gragg, Arkansas, 6-2¾, 244 – Fifth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt in 2009 with a dislocated ankle…Only a two-year starter, he missed seven games as a senior with a bone bruise in his left leg…A very fluid athlete who runs more like a wide receiver than a tight end…He has excellent natural pass-catching skills and makes nice adjustments to the ball…Can get quick separation when he gets a clean release from the line…Has good hands and keeps the ball away from his body…Gains good yardage after the catch...Lacks NFL-style lower body strength and can't do a lot to improve that…Injuries are a big concern…Not a polished route runner…Limited production – he caught just 72 passes in 43 games (20 starts)…Makes too many mental mistakes…Ran a 4.50 40 at the combine with 18 reps, a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-5 broad jump – both the best jump totals by any tight end who tested out in Indianapolis. PROJECTION: A classic project player, he has the attributes that a coaching staff can use to create mismatches on passing downs. But with his limited starting experience and penchant for nagging injuries, he's also a classic Day 3 project.
Levine Toilolo, Stanford, 6-8¼, 260 – Fourth-year junior…Two-year starter who caught 49 passes for 736 yards and 10 touchdowns in that span…Three of his uncles played in the NFL…Redshirted in 2009 while healing from a broken foot suffered while playing basketball and played just one game in 2010 before tearing his right ACL…Massive size and the potential to be a huge red zone target…Excellent hands and doesn't let passes get into his body…Has good upper and lower body strength and could develop into a dominant in-line blocker…Can beat press coverage consistently…Creates mismatches…Doesn't have good burst and takes too long to get to top speed…Needs to refine his blocking technique because he doesn't consistently finish and will get off balance…Doesn't have a lot of agility to make defenders miss when he catches the ball…Injury history that will cause concerns for some teams…Ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: There is no questioning he looks like a dominant NFL player, but his game needs a lot of refinement. In the right system, he could become a dominating blocking TE like Mark Bruener, but blocking tight ends aren't too hard to find, which should drop him to the fourth or fifth round of the draft.
Ryan Otten, San Jose State, 6-5¼, 230 – Fifth-year senior…A part-time starter his entire career, making starts in 25 of 43 career games…Became a force over the last two seasons, catching 99 passes for 1,481 yards and nine touchdowns…Suffered a staph infection at the Senior Bowl that got into his bloodstream and prevented him from working out at the combine…An excellent hands-catcher who plucks the ball with ease…Has great size and large arms to create a big target…Is fearless over the middle…A student of the game who knows how to read defenses and run precise routes…Is very thin by NFL standards and will likely have to add 10-15 pounds of muscle and bulk, but doesn't have the frame to do that without sacrificing speed…Is not a factor as an in-line blocker, which limits his usefulness to an offense…Doesn't have a good first step or initial burst…Struggled at the Senior Bowl against big defenders before he got sick…Didn't play against top competition. PROJECTION: A player who could have helped his draft stock at the Senior Bowl and the Combine, that chance got lost when he got sick. As a result, he will likely fall well into the third day of the draft.
Nick Kasa, Colorado, 6-6, 269 – Fourth-year senior…Spent his first two seasons at Colorado playing defense – defensive end as a true freshman and defensive tackle as a sophomore…A one-year starter who caught 25 passes for 391 yards and three TDs…Has prototype size and growth ability…Very physical and knows how to contain defenders because he was one himself…Has excellent burst and can scorch the seam when he gets a clean release off the line…Consistently gained yards after the catch…A strong run blocker who is willing to mix it up…Extremely raw and still learning the position…Does not have good receiver instincts and often has to double-catch a pass before he moves upfield…Isn't a precise route runner and lets defenders close the cushion when he is asked to make sharp cuts…Very limited tangible experience and sub-par receiving production…Always seemed to be dinged up and rarely at 100 percent…Ran a 4.71 40 at the combine with 22 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: A team is going to have to be intrigued by his intangibles for him to get drafted. Because of his size and speed, he will have a chance to make a team as a special teamer and develop into an offensive threat. But he will likely be a late-round selection with no guarantee of making a roster.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Joseph Fauria, UCLA, 6-7½, 259
Matt Furstenburg, Maryland, 6-3¾, 242
MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, 6-3¼, 240
Kyle Juszczyk, Harvard, 6-1½, 248
Vance McDonald, Rice, 6-4¼, 267
Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, 6-3½, 252
Michael Williams, Alabama, 6-5¾, 269
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Position Analysis: Tight ends
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