Positional analysis: Tight ends

While tight end has gained importance in the NFL in recent years, the 2014 class of prospects isn't very deep with top-end talent. Only two or three come without many questions or concerns. We examine the strengths and weaknesses, stats, agility and projections of the top 10 tight end prospects.

VIKINGS TIGHT ENDS – Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford, Allen Reisner.

TEAM NEED – The numbers speak for themselves. Two proven tight ends – Rudolph and Ellison – in a run-based offense simply is not enough, much less with the only legitimate offensive weapon of the group (Rudolph) missing much of the 2013 season due to injury. The Vikings released veteran John Carlson because his contract far outweighed his contribution to the offense. Keep in mind that, when the Vikings selected Rudolph in the second round of the 2011 draft, tight end wasn't an immediate position of need. The team had veterans Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe and didn't need a young talent in the short-term. The Vikings saw Rudolph's talent and jumped. Given Norv Turner's history of using tight ends is a critical piece of his downfield passing offense, anything after the first round is an open spot to draft a tight end. It will only be when value exceeds the pick that it will happen – whether in the second round, the fifth or the seventh.

POSITION OVERVIEW – The tight end Class of 2014 isn't outstanding, but it does have some gems in it – the most high-profile of those being Eric Ebron of North Carolina. He is drawing comparisons to Pro Bowler Vernon Davis, whose stock rose sharply in the weeks leading up to the 2006 draft, eventually landing at the No. 6 spot. Ebron hasn't reached that status, but he's closing in on it. While he will be the only tight end to come off the board early, there are a handful of tight ends that will be premium picks on Day 2 of the draft. There is a growing need for not only playmaking downfield tight ends, but blocking ones that can pick up blitzes and serve as road plows for the run game. While an average overall class, there will be players that will make an impact in the NFL beyond Ebron.

THE CREAM THE OF THE CROP

Eric Ebron, North Carolina, 6-4½, 250 –
Third-year junior…Two-year starter who caught 102 passes for 1,598 yards and seven touchdowns in that span…Missed the Independence Bowl as a freshman after being suspended for academic reasons…A high school defensive end, when injuries ravaged the UNC defense in 2012, Ebron played in the DE rotation against North Carolina State…An All-ACC pick in 2013, he set school records for receptions (62) and yards (973) for a tight end…Is like a big wide receiver in terms of downfield big-play ability and the ability to break tackles…Gets to top speed very quickly…Can create mismatches – too shifty for linebackers and too big for safeties to cover one-on-one…Has a natural athleticism that makes it look too easy – when he runs, he glides and is smooth in everything he does…Has already added 20 pounds to his frame and some wondering how much more bulk he can add to a naturally lean body without sacrificing his speed…Is a raw route runner and will need some refinement…Is extremely inconsistent as a blocker and that disparity will only be more pronounced at the next level…Gets redirected too easily…Ran a 4.60 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A physical specimen who appears to be the right guy at the right time for the NFL, Ebron will need some polishing to his game, but, once that happens, he could be a Pro Bowl staple and, if based purely on talent, would be a top-10 pick (and very well might be).

Jace Amaro, Texas Tech, 6-5½, 265 – Third-year junior…Exploded in 2013, setting an all-time NCAA record for receiving yards (1,352) while catching 106 passes and scoring seven touchdowns…Was ejected from the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl for throwing a punch at an opponent…Was linked to a credit card fraud case at a campus bar, but charges against him were later dropped…Suffered a lacerated spleen in 2012 and internal bleeding resulted in him being forced to take on 6½ units of blood, forcing him to miss six games as he recovered…Has prototypical size for an NFL tight end…Had amazing production in 2013 and can create mismatches lining up in the slot…Is fearless across the middle and is willing to take the big hit and get up for more…Is effortless in redirecting routes and doesn't lose much in the way of speed or momentum in and out of cuts…Has excellent burst, which makes him dangerous off the snap and after the catch…Is strong, but doesn't have ideal bulk strength for a tight end…Played in a system that was designed to get him the ball quickly – typically within five yards of the line of scrimmage…Needs to improve as a blocker, but has the tools…He doesn't consistently play to his size and will get re-directed too often and too easily…Ran a 4.74 40 at the Combine, with 28 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player who definitely looks the part, he has some refinement to make to dominate at the next level, but he has too high a ceiling to last much beyond the first round. With New England looming near the end, he looks like a glove fit for Tom Brady.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Troy Niklas, Notre Dame, 6-6½, 270 –
Third-year junior…Was recruited as a defensive tackle by the Irish, but played linebacker as a freshman before moving to tight end and backing up Cincinnati TE Tyler Eifert…In his only year as a starter, he caught 32 passes for 498 yards and five TDs…The NFL Advisory Committee, which typically is conservative with draft projections to prospects considering turning pro, told Niklas he is a second-round prospect…Has prototypical size to be a three-down NFL tight end, serving both as an edge-holding blocker and a receiver…Shows no fear and has excellent concentration over the middle with tight throwing windows…Has elite balance and agility to sell a blocking assignment and leak out for big-gaining plays when he's left open…Has a solid hand punch and appears to relish the chance to block defenders and drive them backward…Extremely raw – new to the position and running pass routes…Runs sloppy, rounded-off routes that will be interceptions in the NFL…Didn't run a legitimate route tree at Notre Dame, almost always being a matchup, quick-hit passing option…Doesn't have the speed to take the top off of a defense down the seam…Opted not to run at the Scouting Combine, but had 27 reps of 225 pounds with a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 long jump. PROJECTION: An extremely raw talent who comes from a solid recent tight end bloodline (Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert) at Notre Dame, but has the potential to be something special. However, questions about his speed were cemented when he opted not to run at the Combine, which should drop him well into the second round.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington, 6-5½, 262 – Third-year junior…Started 35 of 38 career games, finishing with 146 receptions for 1,840 yards and 21 TDs…Won the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end, following his sophomore season, when he caught 69 passes for 852 yards and seven touchdowns…Had surgery in February 2013 to stabilize a stress fracture in his left foot, a condition he has had for some time and got him medically forced not to participate in February's Combine…In March 2013 was charged with DWI after a one-car crash in his he broke the windshield of his car with his head and had a blood-alcohol count of 0.18 and was suspended for the 2013 season opener…Has an ideal combination of size, soft hands and body control…Is dangerous in one-on-one situations and high-points passes consistently against shorter defenders…Has very strong hands to break a press at the line of scrimmage and get into his route…Runs with a physical style that seeks out contact and he isn't brought down by arm tackles…Significant character questions that weren't resolved at the Combine during team interviews…Has an inconsistent motor and clearly looks to take plays off – or give a half-hearted effort on some plays…Needs to work of refining his in-line blocking technique…After not being medically cleared to run or jump at the Combine, all he was able to bench was 20 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: A player with upside but too many significant red flags to overcome unless need outweighs caution. He's a second-round talent who will likely be punished and remain on the board into the third round.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, 6-5½, 265 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who caught 75 passes for 732 yards and seven TDs in that span…Has an ideal measurable skill set for a blocking-first, catching-second NFL tight end…Has good hands and finds soft spots in zones consistently…A very physical blocker who can set the edge as well as run block…Has a big catch radius and will pull in the bad pass…Is not a big-play threat down the field and is too easily caught after he catches the ball…Has a bad penchant for holding the ball outside of his body and that is a recipe for short-term disaster in the NFL…Needs to work on keeping his pad level low because he loses leverage too often in blocking assignments…Doesn't have top-end off-the-snap burst or a second gear downfield…Ran a 4.76 40 at the Combine with 25 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: A brawling, physical tight end in the mold of Vikings longtime blocking machine Jim Kleinsasser, he has some upside as an offensive threat, but it is his blocking dominance that will get him off the board in the third round.

Marcel Jensen, Fresno State, 6-5¾, 259 – Third-year junior…Two-year starter who caught 46 passes for 692 yards and seven touchdowns…Has receiving ability, but is best known for being a strong in-line blocker…Has long arms and an ideal catching radius…Capable of making big plays, he averaged 15 yards per reception over the last two seasons…A standout special teamer who blocked four kicks in his college career…Very limited production (46 receptions in 23 starts)…Doesn't have a strong hand punch and has difficulty neutralizing rushers…Comes up too high off the snap and can get directed too easily…Gets knocked off his routes too easily in the first five yards…Ran a 4.85 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: A strong blocker with good pass instincts, he's a developmental project who can contribute early on special teams, which will likely keep him on the board until the third day of the draft.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State, 6-6, 260 –
Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who caught 111 passes for 1,308 yards and eight TDs…Came to Colorado State as a defensive lineman and converted to tight end his sophomore season…Brother of former Ram Austin Gillmore…Was a first-team All-Mountain West selection after catching 47 passes for 577 yards and two TDs…Has prototypical size with good height, long arms, big hands and a frame that can add more muscle and weight if needed…Adjusts well to poorly thrown passes and has a huge catch radius to give his QB a big target to throw to…A competitive blocker who showed a lot of improvement over the last year and a half…Slow into and out of his breaks and isn't a vertical threat…Could stand to hit the weight room more often…Doesn't have natural catching ability and will drop too many passes or double-catch them…Didn't lift with a medical exclusion for a left elbow injury, but ran a 4.89 40 with 33½-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A player with ideal size, his lack of speed likely will keep him on the board until well into the final day of the draft.

Arthur Lynch, Georgia, 6-5, 249 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who caught 54 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns…Was primarily used as a check-down receiver in the Bulldogs offense, but showed very good hands…Extremely productive when he gets his hands on the ball, he averaged more than 16 yards per reception – a huge number for college tight ends…Is a physical run blocker who can set the edge and dominate at the point of attack…Will be 24 by the time training camps open, which is a big red flag for some teams…Needs to refine his route running because he is very raw…Didn't run a complete route tree and will need time to adjust to the duties of NFL tight ends…Ran a 4.82 40 at the Combine with 28 reps of 225 pounds, a 29½-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: If he was 21 or 22, he would likely be viewed as a mid-Day 2 pick, but even with the clock ticking he won't last long on Day 3. He's the kind of guy the Patriots will draft.

Jake Murphy, Utah, 6-4, 249 – Fourth-year junior…Two-year starter who caught 58 passes for 766 yards and nine touchdowns…Married and has a daughter…The son of Major League Baseball star Dale Murphy…Missed four games in 2013 after breaking his wrist, an injury that required surgery…A good route runner who can get separation with double moves and fakes…Has an NFL-ready skill set in that he is experienced in both downfield play and in-line blocking…Has good top-end speed, but takes an extra couple steps to get there…Gets knocked off his route too easily and doesn't have good stop-start speed…More of a finesse player and doesn't play to his strengths consistently…Will turn 24 this fall…Ran a 4.78 40 at the Combine with 24 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Another over-aged player who will see his stock drop on draft day. Athletic lineage and upside will likely get him drafted late.

Jake Pedersen, Wisconsin, 6-3½, 238 – Fifth-year senior…Three-year starter who caught 96 passes for 1,262 yards and 15 touchdowns in that span…A team leader who leads by example, including being a standout special teams player…Has very good body control and can adjust to a poorly thrown pass and keep the ball away from his body…Has the type of body that can add 15-20 pounds in the NFL, which will be required…Undersized by NFL tight end standards and will get pushed around…Doesn't get much in the way of separation and isn't a threat to break one when he has defenders around him downfield…Injuries are a concern, as he had a chest injury that limited him in spring practice and a shoulder injury that bothered him much of 2013…Didn't lift at the Combine with a strained pectoral muscle (yet another injury) and ran a 4.89 40 with a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A limited athlete who has the ability to be an NFL player, but likely will be on the board until the middle of the final day and will have to fight every year to keep a roster spot.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Colt Lyerla, Oregon, 6-4, 242
Richard Rodgers, Cal, 6-4, 257
Xavier Grimble, USC, 6-4¼, 257
Joe Don Duncan, Dixie State, 6-2¾, 268
Jordan Najvar, Baylor, 6-6, 256
Rob Blanchflower, U-Mass, 6-4¼, 256
Michael Flacco, New Haven, 6-5, 245
Ted Bosler, Indiana, 6-6, 254


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