Positional Analysis: Tight Ends

Despite more emphasis being given to what tight ends can produce offensively, the position might not see a first-round selection this year. A number of players are expected to go in the second to fourth rounds, and we review the strength, weaknesses and production of the top 10 options.



VIKINGS TIGHT ENDS – Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser, Jeff Dugan, Garrett Mills, Braden Jones.

POSITION ANALYSIS – Tight end has become a much more coveted draft position in recent years, with players like Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow and Vernon Davis routinely being taken in the first round. The position has developed considerably recently, converting from being primarily blockers to being offensive weapons. That being said, there may not be a tight end worthy of selection in the first round this year because there isn't a standout player with the "can't-miss" tag like Winslow or Davis. There are, however, several very good tight ends that will dot the landscape in the second and third rounds. As for the Vikings, Shiancoe didn't live up to the expectation of being a top-flight pass catcher after being one of the few free agents brought in by the Vikings in last year's round of free agency. However, it is unlikely that the Vikings would address this position in the first or maybe even second round. Beyond that, if a player they like remains on the board into the third round or beyond, it could get consideration for a pick.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Martellus Bennett, Texas A&M, 6-6¼, 258 –
Third-year junior … A basketball standout who considered entering the NBA draft out of high school, but after being told he wouldn't be a first-round pick, he enrolled to play football and basketball for the Aggies … He did double-duty with the football and basketball teams in his first two seasons, but quit basketball last spring to focus solely on football … A two-year starter who caught 87 passes for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns during that span … A huge target with long arms and natural pass-catching ability … Is a solid blocker who also lines up as a stand-up slot receiver … A good route runner who is adept at finding the soft spot in zone coverage … A good hands-catcher that typically doesn't allow passes to get into his body … Gets moving upfield quickly after making receptions to maximize the yardage gained … Has decent speed but is not explosive off the snap or releasing off blocks to get into the pattern … Still viewed as something of a raw prospect because he didn't commit himself full-time to football until last year and split his allegiances between football and basketball most of his playing career … Hasn't put in the time needed in the weight room (see below) and has been able to get by on natural ability more than a desire to improve … Is viewed by some scouts as being very full of himself and a player who will balk at authority … Ran a 4.68 40 at the Combine with 17 reps of 225 pounds (tied for the lowest total among TEs that lifted), with a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A rare combination of powerful blocker and natural pass catcher, he is viewed as a poor man's version of Antonio Gates, but doesn't have the speed, burst or agility that Gates brings to the table. His pure athleticism could make him the first tight end to come off the board, but some teams will be rubbed the wrong way by his attitude, which should allow him to remain on the board until late in the first round (Seattle being a possibility there) or into the second round.

Dustin Keller, Purdue, 6-2½, 238 – Fifth-year senior … A high school multi-sport star who set Indiana single-season state records for receptions (113), yards (1,804) and receiving touchdowns (22) as a senior, as well will winning the state high-jump championship on the track team … Converted from wide receiver to tight end after his redshirt season … A two-year starter who caught 124 passes for 1,651 yards and 11 touchdowns in that span … Played most of last year with a shoulder injury that required surgery after the end of the season … Has very good speed and quickness … Very quick off the snap and able to get into his routes quickly … A good route runner who can create mismatches with safeties thanks to his strength and leaping ability … Very hard worker who puts in a lot of time in the weight room and in film study … An on-field leader and a player the coaches love … Is undersized by NFL standards and likely won't be a strong in-line blocker … Doesn't have good blocking technique and can get directed by stronger, bigger defenders … Isn't a natural pass catcher and allows too many passes to get into his body … Improved his draft stock immensely at the Combine – his 26 reps were second-most among tight ends and he had the best numbers among tight ends that tested in the 40 (4.55 seconds), the vertical jump (41 inches) and the broad jump (10-11). PROJECTION: Keller is viewed by some as a one-trick pony among tight ends in that he is an excellent receiver with good speed and agility, but will be something of a liability in terms of blocking because of his lack of playing strength and size. In the right situation, Keller can be an outstanding contributor to an NFL offense, but his limitations are pronounced. He may never be an every-down tight end at the next level, but his athleticism and domination at the Combine turned heads and should have him coming off the board somewhere in the second or third round.

Fred Davis, USC, 6-3¼, 257 – Fourth-year senior … A two-year starter who caught 100 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns in that span … Had a breakout season as a senior with 62-881-8 numbers and won the John Mackey Award, given annually to college football's top tight end … Is a good hands receiver who consistently plucks the ball away from his body … Has decent size and long arms … Is a good route runner who gets to his spot quickly and is useful playing in the slot … Is aggressive after the catch and picks up as many yards as possible on most of his receptions … Willing to go across the middle and doesn't get rattled by a big hit … Is slow off the snap and is usually one of the last players moving when a play begins … Has the physical ability to be a very good in-line blocker but is extremely inconsistent – both in technique and effort … Not a natural strider who can glide deep and sell a double-move … A little slow in movement both initially and coming out of cuts … Will need work to improve and refine his mechanics … Ran a 4.75 40 at the Combine with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: Davis is a hard player to analyze because he has just about every physical gift a coach or G.M. could ask for in a tight end coming out of college, but it doesn't translate all the time on the field. He made great strides as a senior, but may take some time to develop. In the end, he could be the top TE of the Class of 2008 (and might be the first drafted), but he will have to show more dedication to the intricacies of the game if he is to be a long-term success.

THE NEXT LEVEL

John Carlson, Notre Dame, 6-5¼, 253 –
Fifth-year senior … A multi-sport athlete in high school in Minnesota, he was named to the McDonald's All-America preseason team as a senior … A two-year starter who spent his first two seasons backing up Cowboys TE and former second-round draft pick Anthony Fasano … In his two full seasons as a starter, he caught 87 passes for 1,006 yards and seven touchdowns … As a junior, he was a finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end … A team captain in 2007 … Forced to skip the Senior Bowl after contracting a virus that caused him to lose 17 pounds in eight days … A good route runner with soft hands … Gets a quick release in pass patterns off the snap … Rarely drops passes, even in heavy traffic … Gets upfield immediately after catching passes and gets the most out of just about every catch … A student of the game who works hard in practice and leads by example … Far from a dominant in-line blocker, he struggles to push defenders backward on running plays … Does not have great speed and doesn't threaten the deep seam … Does not have top-end upper- or lower-body strength … Was much better as a junior when he had Brady Quinn as his quarterback … Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: Scouts are all over the board on Carlson – some believing he is one of the better prospects at the position and others convinced his best days are behind him. He will have to be used more as a pass-catching TE than an every-down tight end that can hold and sustain blocking assignments. Once thought to be a potential late first-round prospect, he will be lucky to be off the board before the third round.

Craig Stevens, California, 6-3¾, 255 – Fifth-year senior and two-year full-time starter … In four years at Cal (50 games, 33 starts), he caught just 51 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns … A two-time team captain – Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is the only other Bears player to have that honor … Is very strong at neutralizing his man in run support … Works very hard at every aspect of his game and is dedicated at practice and in the weight room … Sinks his hips and doesn't give up ground in pass protection and on run plays in his direction … Although not used much, he is a very good route runner who finds ways to get open, especially against zone defenses … Is viewed as a marginal pass catcher by NFL standards who doesn't make big plays or get separation easily when running routes … Lets too many balls get into his body, which has resulted in a high percentage of dropped passes or missed passes … Doesn't get a lot of yards after the catch because he doesn't break a lot of tackles … Takes too much time to get to full speed … Ran a surprising 4.59 40 at the Combine (third-best among TEs), with 27 reps of 225 pounds (tops among TEs), a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: He made a lot of money at the East-West Shrine Game practices, showing he can be a classic blocking tight end in the mold of Visanthe Shiancoe from his Giants days. May never be much of an offensive threat, but effective blocking tight ends can have long careers in the NFL. He likely won't go until the middle rounds, but could be around the league for a decade if he hooks on with the right team.

Brad Cottam, Tennessee, 6-7½, 269 – Fifth-year senior … Has never been a full-time starter, catching just three passes in his first two years and finishing his career with just 21 catches for 341 yards and one TD … Missed nine games last year with a broken wrist … Has tremendous size and very long arms to create mismatches … Has the combination of power and bulk to develop into a dominant blocking TE … Has good upper-body strength (see below) and is hard to straighten up at the line off the snap on running plays … Has decent acceleration … A student of the game who works overtime with the coaches to improve his technique … Very inexperienced in comparison to most of the other top tight ends in this year's class … Durability is a question after missing significant time with wrist and hand injuries during his college career … Doesn't always maintain good leverage and will lunge in blocking assignments … Not a natural hands catcher … Doesn't get a great break off the snap on pass plays and tends to stand straight up before moving forward … Ran a 4.63 40 at the Combine with a 33½-inch vertical jump and 24 reps – which tied for third-best among tight ends. PROJECTION: Looked much better during Senior Bowl week than his numbers would indicate. He has ideal size and length and can get even bigger, but his inexperience will make him a project player that could potentially develop into a very good tight end. But that inexperience and his injury history could be severe red flags that drop him into the middle rounds.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Martin Rucker, Missouri, 6-4¾, 250 –
Fifth-year senior … His father is a representative in the Missouri State Legislature and his brother Mike was an All-American at Nebraska who played defensive end for the Carolina Panthers … Started all 50 games of his college career, finishing with 203 receptions for 2,175 yards and 18 touchdowns … Improved his numbers in each of his four seasons and blew up last year – catching 84 passes for 834 yards and eight touchdowns … His 84 catches last year were the most for any Division I tight end … A tall player with a big wingspan that can create mismatches with smaller linebackers and safeties … Has the speed to get past LBs in man coverage … Adjusts to poorly thrown passes extremely well … Extremely durable, he never missed a game in college due to injury, despite having surgery on a torn right labrum … Has shown steady improvement throughout his college career … A dangerous red zone target who rarely drops passes when his number gets called … Not a disciplined route runner … Was never asked to be a stout run blocker or pass protector and his learning curve will be steep in that regard … Rounds off too many of his routes and doesn't have a great burst at the snap … Drops too many passes because he doesn't use his hands to pluck the ball away from his body … Is not a big threat to gain a lot of yards after the catch … Didn't jump at the Combine, but ran a 4.78 40 and did 21 reps of 225 pounds. PROJECTION: Rucker has the chance to be a pass-catching tight end or an H-back in hybrid offenses, but will need to gain 15-20 pounds if he is ever going to become more than just a third-down slot-receiving TE. There is a place for him in the NFL, but he likely won't get taken until the third round or later. But because of his production, he could well go ahead of some of the players we have projected ahead of him.

Kellen Davis, Michigan State, 6-6¾, 256 – Fourth-year senior … Suspended midway through his junior season after being arrested for aggravated assault at an off-campus party and received 18 months probation … A full-time starter only as a senior, catching 32 passes for 513 yards and six touchdowns … Played defensive end as well and recorded two sacks last year … Has a sculpted body and very good upper- and lower-body strength … Spends a lot of time in the weight room to stay in top condition … Durability isn't a question … A solid in-line blocker … Doesn't waste time after making catches and drops his shoulders to gain extra yardage … Wins almost every jump ball in the secondary and is a dangerous red zone option … Has never produced on a consistent basis as his natural ability would have you believe … Gives inconsistent effort, especially if he isn't involved in the offense … Will take plays off and hurt his team … Drops too many easy passes … Doesn't outmuscle smaller defenders that you think he should control … Had a solid Combine performance, running a 4.60 40 with 22 reps, a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: A gamble on greatness pick, if you simply used the eyeball test, he would probably be the first TE off the board. His versatility is unquestioned – a lot of full-time defensive players don't record two sacks as a pass rusher in the Big Ten – but he has never fully lived up to his enormous potential. He could be a player that a team takes a chance on as early as the very end of the second round, but he should be a player that lasts well into the third round because of career underproduction.

Jermichael Finley, Texas, 6-4¾, 245 – Third-year sophomore … A full-time starter only in 2007, catching 45 passes for 575 yards and two touchdowns … Has two kids … Has good playing speed and is a playmaker over the middle … Averaged 12.5 yards per reception in his brief college career … A good route runner who catches almost everything thrown his way … Has very good hands … Took almost two-tenths of a second off his poor Combine time at his Pro Day, running the 40 in 4.66 seconds … On the skinny side and doesn't have the kind of upper- or lower-body strength most tight ends need in the NFL … Is not a player who likes spending too much time in the weight room trying to bulk up … Is viewed by many scouts as a one-trick pony who will only be of value as a receiver and won't contribute much, if anything, as a blocker early on … Had a poor Combine showing, running a 4.85 40 with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a position-worst 28-inch vertical jump and a 9-8 broad jump. PROJECTION: Has the physical tools to become an all-around tight end, but left school early to support his family – some would contend much too early. He is a boom-bust type of draft pick and, with so many other TEs with a more extensive track record than he has, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him fall into the fourth round or beyond.

Jacob Tamme, Kentucky, 6-3¾, 238 – Fifth-year senior … Came to the Wildcats as a wide receiver, but moved to tight end late in his redshirt-freshman season … A three-year starter who made starts in 32 of his final 37 college games … In that span, he caught 117 passes for 1,256 yards and nine touchdowns … Came on strong as a senior, catching 56 passes for 619 yards and six TDs … A very good student that has already graduated and is working on a master's degree in business administration … Had surgery on both shoulders following his sophomore season after tearing both labrums … A solid blocker who is good at attacking linebackers in the run game … A natural receiver with good hands … Has good body control to seal off defenders to make catches in traffic … Lined up in several different formations during his career and adapted to all of them … Brings the added bonus of being an experienced holder for field goals and extra points … Although durable in college, he is very thin and doesn't have great upper body strength (see below) … Is undersized to be a consistent in-line blocker and may have to be used strictly as a receiving TE or H-back … Doesn't have the type of body that can add 20 pounds to get up to NFL norms … Takes time to pick up speed and can be slow coming off the snap … Had a roller-coaster Combine performance – his 4.58 40 was second-best among TEs, but his 17 reps of 225 pounds was tied for the worst at his position, his vertical jump (30 inches) was third-worst and his broad jump (9-2) was second-worst. PROJECTION: Tamme has been compared to current Vikings TE Garrett Mills as an undersized TE that has a chance to find a niche with a team as a part-time, pass-catching TE and special teams player. He is probably one of the smartest players in the draft and his understanding of the game and his role will be critical to get teams interested. His work ethic should help him, but his physical limitations should still have him on the board well into the fourth-round range if not further.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Gary Barnidge, Louisville, 6-5¾, 242
Adam Bishop, Nevada, 6-4¾, 246
Joe Jon Finley, Oklahoma, 6-6½, 251
Joseph Haynos, Maryland, 6-7½, 258
Tom Santi, Virginia, 6-3½, 252



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