Before we get into the rankings and reams needing a tight end, I just want to say that the Tight End position is one of my favorites. I love the hybrid of receiver and lineman, and therefore my rankings are going to reflect an emphasis on the dual-ability of the tight end to function in both realms. That being said, with a lot of prospects, one excellent quality can be balanced by a deficiency in another, so if there is a tight end who is clearly the best receiver of the group, some lesser ability as a blocker will be tolerated.
I love the direction the tight end position is heading. I have always been a big believer in utilizing the tight end in the passing game, so watching guys like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Vernon Davis steal the show has truly warmed my heart. And as a result of the emphasis on passing, the value of a tight end has increased over the past few drafts. But this year, the tight end position seems special. Since 2000, at least one tight end has been taken in the first round in the draft, except for 2011 and 2012, and out of the 16 tight ends taken, 9 of them went to the pro bowl at least once, good for just over 56%. So taking that into consideration, the notion that if you take a tight end in the first round, you theoretically have just over 50% chance to pick a future pro bowler, you have to like those odds. Throw in the fact that there are probably two tight ends that will be picked in the first round, maybe three, and it would not be a bad decision to bet one of them will end up in the pro bowl.
The point of all of that is that drafting a tight end in the first round, historically at least, is a sound investment. Given the strength of the incoming tight end class, the emphasis on receiving tight ends, and the need to have a good return from first round picks, I believe that we will end up seeing three tight ends taken in the first round, something that has not happened since the 2002 Draft, when David Carr was drafted first overall, Julius Peppers was taken by the Carolina Panthers, and Ed Reed started his career with the Ravens. In other words, a long time. I am excited to see where this years tight ends land, and in most cases, I anticipate them being big contributors early on in their careers.
But enough history. Let’s get to it, with a few reminders and guidelines for any newcomers.
How it works-
I will start each of these posts by examining which teams need the players in question. By in large this is only going to be teams that are in need of a new starting player, not necessarily a backup.
For each player I will provide analysis, statistics from the 2013-2014 season, and a general idea of where I believe they will be taken in the draft.
Things to keep in mind-
The rankings that I post here are based on my observations of the player’s statistics, game tape, and any rumors that leak out to the general public. I make no claims to have insider knowledge into the draft process or any teams overall plan this is merely my own ranking system if I were evaluating these player for any given NFL team.
As with any ranking system, it is all relative. Scouting reports by professionals can differ greatly for the same individual for the same game. So my rankings by no means the definitive order.
I love football. I love the NFL, and college football, and I love sharing what I love with other people. And that is the ultimate point in creating these rankings: To share what I know about the players who will be a part of my favorite football event of the year, namely the draft. Whether you love the draft process as I do, just want to know a little bit more about some of the top college players outside of those at Wisconsin, or are simply interested in who your favorite team could be looking at in May, I want these rankings to be informative.
Now let’s get to it.
Teams looking to take a tight end in 2014:
Green Bay Packers: The Pack makes its first appearance in my rankings, and while I am not convinced they will take a tight end in the first round, if the best defensive players are off the board when they pick, it would not be unreasonable to see them draft one of the tight ends this year, since the top tight ends this year excel at receiving. For the record, I was never a big fan of Jermichael Finley as a player. I wish him the speediest of recoveries, and I hope that he is able to avoid any future complications, regardless of whether or not he plays football again. But the fact of the matter is that he was far to inconsistent to be a true threat in the Packers’ offense. In six years with Green Bay, Finley played just two full seasons, and in his career he has yet to surpass 3,000 yards. Ultimately, Finley has not capitalized on his talent, and now with the injury, it is hard for me to see the Packers bringing him back. A new tight end for Rodgers to work with would be a boon for the offense, and make the Packers that much scarier.
New England Patriots: At first glance this may seem shocking, but allow me to explain. Yes, the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski, and when he is healthy, he is probably the best tight end in the game, pure and simple. But he is not always healthy, and this past season just calls up more and more concerns about his overall health. In addition to all of the back surgeries, now Gronk is dealing with a torn ACL, and that is not an easy injury to overcome. I believe he can do it, but how good will Gronk be if this injury robs him of his speed an athleticism? Even without Gronk’s concerns, the Patriots would still probably draft a tight end. Brady is accustomed to working with Gronk and Aaron Hernandez, and last year, all he had was Gronk and Michael Hoomanawanui, who despite having one of the funniest and hardest to pronounce names in the NFL, is not a great tight end. When Gronk comes back, it will still be crucial for the Patriots to have a second tight end working the middle of the field, and until he does, someone better than Hoomanawanui needs to hold down the fort.
Seattle Seahawks: By and large this is the same reasoning as what I had for the Seahawks drafting a wide receiver. I truly believe that their pick at the end of the first round will be either on a receiver or a tight end, simply because Wilson needs more dynamic playmakers to throw to. I am actually a big fan of Seattle’s current tight end, Zach Miller, but he is not great in the passing game. This past season, Miller surpassed 50 yards receiving twice, and failed to meet 20 yards all of eight times. Despite this, Miller was targeted the third most on the team with 56, which tells me that Wilson wants to throw to his tight end, there simply is not enough receiving talent at the position. I will discuss him more later, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is a home town guy from Washington, would be an intriguing pickup for the Seahawks at the end of the round.
Baltimore Ravens: I really could have included the Ravens in the wide receiver needy teams as well, but ultimately I felt that the Ravens would be more likely to draft a tight end in the first round rather than a receiver. The reason being that by the time the Ravens pick at #17 overall, I expect the top three receivers at least to be off the board, and possibly the top offensive tackles as well. That leaves the best talent at the tight end position, and with Dallas Clark being old and washed up, along with both Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta being unrestricted free agents, I feel that the Ravens might be looking at a tight end. The Ravens will probably resign one of Pitta or Dickson, most likely Pitta, but he had injury concerns last year, so grabbing one of the athletic tight ends in the upcoming draft does not seem out of the realm of possibility.
Buffalo Bills: Scott Chandler did a fantastic job for the Bills last year, so if the Bills are able to resign Chandler, then please disregard this analysis. Come to that, I am not sold that Buffalo would take a tight end at #9 overall, but there is always a possibility of trading down. In any case, Chandler ended up at the top of the Bills roster in receiving yards, which tells me two things: 1. He is going to be expensive to resign. 2. The Bills have problems at receiver. And realistically I think the Bills would love to jump on any of Watkins, Lee, or Evans with their pick, but if they pass on those guys, it is probably to find a reliable tight end to pair with E.J. Manuel. Having a sound tight end that can catch passes for a young quarterback really is a wonderful thing for their confidence. Also, I thought the Bills reached a bit for Manuel in the first round of last year’s draft. It has worked out fine so far for them, barring the injuries Manuel has already sustained, but it speaks to a willingness by an organization to draft a player they are comfortable with, regardless of perceived place within a draft. So if Buffalo falls in love with a tight end at the combine, it is not impossible to see them drafting one at #9, even if others believe that better talent is available.
Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez will be sorely missed in Atlanta. Quite simply, it is hard to replace a future Hall of Famer and one who accounted for 859 yards and more touchdowns than Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas combined. The next man up would be Levine Toilolo, who has excellent height at 6’8, is probably not good enough to be a reliable target outside of the red zone. Bringing in a young, athletic tight end to fill the void left by Tony would be a great decision for the Falcons, and at some point in the draft, I expect them to do just that. Probably not in the first round when either an outstanding pass rusher or pass blocker is available, but with their second round pick or perhaps even trading back into the first to get the guy they want. Ultimately, the Falcons are going to draft a tight end this year, and I feel that I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that they would be interested in taking one within the first three rounds.
#1. Eric Ebron, University of North Carolina
Height: 6’4, Weight: 250 lbs.
2013 Stats: 62 Rec, 973 yards, 3 TDs
NFL Combine: 4.60 second 40-yard Dash
So from here on with the rankings, I can use combine numbers in addition to statistics and game tape in my analysis, and I am truly excited about that. Starting off as I always do with the numbers, I am initially concerned by the fact that he has only 3 TDs, and only 8 in his career at North Carolina. I do not have an answer to this, apart from quarterback play at North Carolina was inconsistent and involved a switch between quarterbacks during the year. So it is certainly possible that Ebron did not adjust to the new quarterback, or did not have the same trust, but ultimately, I think that if Ebron had been at a better program, his numbers would have been much more impressive. But nevertheless, two of his three TDs were in the red zone, and one of them was an incredible catch.
And that is really where Ebron shines: On tape. The stats are not mind blowing, but they show his talent given the pieces around him. But when I watch his tape, I see a ridiculously athletic talent at the tight end position, a great receiver and route runner. Some people might be concerned with his height, and the fact that he is not as large as guys like Gronkowski or Graham, but the ultimate take away is that Ebron catches the ball exceptionally well. He routinely makes impressive catches to bail out his quarterback, and he has great hands. He also lined up in a number of different spots, on the outside, in the slot, and in-line with the offensive linemen, and he does a great job in all of them, which puts him in a great position to succeed in the NFL and work within the current expectations for tight ends. I have one concern about his tape though. He is not a great blocker, either at the line or down field, and that is something he will have to work on if he wants to be one of the top tight ends in the NFL.
As for his combine, I loved his 40 time. Running a 4.60 puts him as the second fastest tight end this year, and tenth overall in the past 5 years. He is just 0.04 seconds slower than Jimmy Graham, and only 0.01 seconds slower than the Cleveland Browns’ Jordan Cameron, who exploded last year. I was disappointed though, because after the 40 Ebron was in sweats, and he did not showcase his catching ability at the combine, which would have been a treat for everyone involved. In the interview process, Ebron talked about his desire to play for whatever team and expressed his intention to work hard and get better to be one of the best in the game.
Bottom line, I am a big fan of Ebron. He has great athleticism, and is a fantastic receiver. He did a great job at North Carolina, even with the struggles that the team as a whole had. He still has work to do, and right now he seems to be relying on athleticism rather than being a perfect tight end, but he has already made leaps and bounds of progress in that are positive signs in my mind. I expect Ebron to be the first tight end taken in May, and I would say right now that if I were a team looking for a tight end, Ebron would easily be the top guy on my board.
Final Decision: Middle 1st Round
#2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Height: 6’5, Weight: 262 lbs.
2013 Stats: 36 Rec, 450 yards, 8 TDs
NFL Combine: Did not work out due to injury
First and foremost, Seferian-Jenkins does not have the same kind of stats as the next guy on my list, by a long shot. His receiving yards were almost slashed in half, going from 852 last year to 450 this year. I cannot speak to exactly why this may have been, but it was a concern for a lot of people as the season progressed. Be that as it may, ASJ did increase his TD numbers from last year to now, going from 7 to 8 despite the drastic decrease in yardage, which says that he was much more involved in the red zone. I will be the first to admit that the numbers are not the best. But he actually did lead the top three tight ends I have listed in TDs, and ultimately, having a big, physical receiving threat in the red zone is a wonderful thing.
Going over to the tape, this is where I can start to see justification in my rankings. ASJ looks like the most complete tight end in the draft class on tape. He lined up in a number of different places, in-line, in the slot, outside, and once or twice in the backfield. He runs some good routes, but he does look a little slow at times. His top speed is not astounding, and he can take awhile to get to his top speed. But he gets physical with the defenders, and can win the contested balls in the air. He shows strength as a run blocker, but he can be inconsistent. That being said, I think he is the best blocker of my top three guys. Ultimately, flashes of talent is mostly what you see on tape, you can see that ASJ could easily become one of the better tight ends in the NFL if he puts it all together. I have one concern though. There were a lot of times from his tape where he took plays off or did not finish the play. He gave up on plays and blocks once he felt his job was done, and that kind of mediocre commitment will be an issue if he brings that attitude into the NFL.
Unfortunately, ASJ did not do much at the combine, apart from interview with teams (Which we sadly do not have access to) and bench press, where he had 20 reps of a 225 pound bar. That bench number puts him on the lower end of tight ends, not something that he was looking for. It would have been great to see him run a 40, but he will have to wait at least until his Pro Day in April to showcase his speed.
Bottom line, I think based on talent, Seferian-Jenkins is probably the closest to being a complete tight end in this draft class. He has great size and versatility, and ultimately could do just about anything that was asked of him in the NFL. It really just comes down to where he gets drafted, he will need to be in the right place in order to fully maximize his talent. I love the idea of Seattle Seahawks drafting ASJ, he is a hometown Washington guy, and I think working with Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll would be quite beneficial for him. I am not really sure where exactly he is going to go, based on my rankings, anywhere from middle to late first round seems appropriate, but based if things do not go well on his pro day and in team interviews, it is not unrealistic to think he could fall into the second round.
Final Decision: Middle to Late 1st Round
#3. Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Height: 6’5, Weight: 265 lbs.
2013 Stats: 106 Rec, 1352 yards, 7 TDs
NFL Combine: 4.74 40-yard Dash, 28 Reps Bench Press
Wow. This is where the mind-boggling numbers come in. Obviously, Amaro had a fantastic year for the Red Raiders, anytime you end the season 11th in the NCAA for receiving yards and easily the top receiving tight end by almost 400 yards, you know you had a good year. Amaro was able to eclipse 100 receiving yards 6 six times during the year, however he only caught a touchdown pass in 4 games. I am intrigued by Amaro’s numbers, but at the same time, Texas Tech runs the Air Raid offense, and I think his stats may be a little inflated because of that. In addition, it should be noted that this was Amaro’s breakout year. Last year he had 25 receptions for just 409 yards. Maybe Amaro finally found his comfort zone, maybe the new quarterback helped, but in any case, seeing a little bit more consistency over his career would have been nice. Now here is what makes Amaro different from Ebron and ASJ. The other two guys do not have the same kind of stats that jump out at you, but their tape backs up their talent. With Amaro, it is the other way around.
On tape, Amaro really jumps out as an excellent receiver. It is not hard to see that he is the favored target in the Texas Tech offense, and there is a reason for that. He creates mismatches in the secondary, and does a good job fighting for the ball and running tough after the catch. He works mostly out of the slot, however, and only occasionally does he line up next to the O-Linemen. In addition, I really only saw him split out to the outside once, when he was supposed to block for a screen, so in that sense, I worry a bit about his versatility. He seemed to struggle a bit to get separation at the line of scrimmage, so while he did a great job finding the holes in a zone and creating mismatches against linebackers, I think some of the athletic safeties could create problems for him. In addition, there were a couple of times where he dropped the ball on what should have been an easy reception, so even his best trait is not without flaws. And finally, he really had issues blocking. Inconsistency plagued him as he attempted to block defenders, usually to no avail. Make no mistake, the tape shows an athletic receiver, but also speaks to the fact that Amaro still has a lot of work to do if he is going to be a force in the NFL.
At the combine, Amaro’s athleticism really was on display. Amaro was a top performer in the 40, bench press, vertical and broad jump, and 20 and 60 yard shuttle drills. In fact, the only drill he participated in and was not a top performer was the 3-cone drill. Teams are going to stand up and take notice of the show he put on in Indianapolis, but his workouts raise some questions. He ran a 4.74 40, and while that puts him in the top spots for this years tight ends, it is slower than expected, and in his interviews, Amaro will have to explain what exactly happened, maybe he was tired, but teams will go back to the tape and see if he is really running with 4.74 speed. And despite his display at the combine measurable drills, during the on-field drills, where he was asked to go and run routes and catch balls, the hands question came up again. He dropped some easy balls and did not do himself any favors there.
There are a wide variety of opinions on Amaro. Some say he’s better than Ebron, others have him down at 3 like I do. I have complete confidence that an NFL team will see his production and athleticism and fall in love with him, and I doubt he would fall outside of the first round. But at the end of the day, Amaro has great talent, but has a long way to go and a good couple of holes to fix in his game if he wants to be at the top tier or tight ends in the NFL like Vernon Davis or Jimmy Graham.
Final Decision: Middle to late 1st Round
#4. Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Height: 6’6, Weight: 270 lbs.
2013 Stats: 32 Rec, 498 yards, 5 TDs
NFL Combine: 27 reps Bench Press, 12.19 sec 60 yard Shuttle
A couple of little known facts about Niklas. First, he is the cousin of Jake Matthews, one of this years top tackles and he is the nephew to Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. Second, he is a former DE/OLB and has only played TE for two years now. Moving on, Niklas fits the traditional tight end mold much more easily than some of the other players I have covered so far. His numbers are relatively close to ASJ, but the difference is that Niklas has really never been heavily involved in the passing game. His best game this season receiving came against Michigan, where he had 6 receptions for 76 yards and one TD. All season highs. Strictly speaking, Niklas may have been better served by staying another year and working on his game and hopefully improving as a receiver. As it stands, on his career he has 37 receptions, 573 yards, and 6 TDs. Not terribly impressive, but as I said, he was never really utilized in the passing game, and certainly not last year when Tyler Eifert was still around.
On tape, I love Niklas’ ability to block. He is aggressive, and while he is still a bit raw, being so new to the position, I like what I am seeing based on limited time. It seems pretty clear to me that Niklas has the same blood as Bruce Matthews, because for playing tight end for only two years, his blocking is fairly good. Pass protecting and run blocking, it does not matter, Niklas did it, and usually did it well enough to help out the play. In terms of his receiving skills, he ran some routes, but not terribly often. This is probably where his lack of experience is most apparent. He has great size for the position, and based on that he can run through defenders after the catch, but his size also limits his speed. He mostly lined up with the O-Linemen, occasionally moving to the slot, but never to the outside, indicative of a limited athleticism and receiving skills. This is not to say that Niklas cannot make plays, he certainly can. Against Temple he had one catch for a 66 yard TD, breaking two tackles and getting enough speed to get away from the rest of the secondary.
At the combine, Niklas was dealing with a groin issue and did not participate in the 40 yard dash, but he did do some of the other drills, and he finished as a top performer in the bench press and 60 yard shuttle drill. I will need to see what he does at his Pro Day though, hopefully he will not be limited by an injury and we can see what he is truly capable of athletically. Just like most Notre Dame guys, I think that Niklas will do well during the interview process, and impress some teams with his character composition.
I like Niklas a lot, and I think he has a lot of potential. As it stands, he is a project player though. He does not have much experience and his technique needs tweaking, but it is all there. I doubt he starts right away in the NFL, but if he sits behind a veteran for a year or two while he learns to position a little better and the offense he needs to work within, I would bet that Niklas surprises a lot of people with his talent, and could end up providing great value for whatever team drafts him. Look for him sometime on Day 2, probably in the middle of round 2.
Final Decision: Round 2
#5. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
Height: 6’5, Weight: 265 lbs.
2013 Stats: 30 Rec, 299 yards, 6 TDs
NFL Combine: 4.76 40-yard Dash, 25 reps Bench Press
I have to say, there is not much to work with for analysis of Fiedorowicz’s numbers. The receptions and yards are nothing compared to Amaro and Ebron, but realistically, that just is not who Fierdorowicz is. I would probably say that Fierdorowicz is a poor man’s Troy Niklas. There is a similar skill set present, but he simply is not as good as Niklas, and that is why Niklas is higher in the rankings. Realistically, this is not a terribly deep draft class of tight ends. It is top heavy, as I think that Ebron, ASJ, and Amaro can all become NFL starters fairly quickly, but after that there are a bunch of question marks. The best thing I can say about Fierdorowicz’s numbers is that he is a red zone threat. A good one at that, but he is a short to intermediate receiver, and not much else. But more on that later.
Watching tape on Fierdorowicz is dominated by watching him block for the running game and occasionally do some pass protection. Granted, that is what Iowa does, they are not what one would define as “up-tempo”. Ground and pound is the Iowa identity, and Fierdorowicz fits that mold fairly well. He has great size and physicality as a blocker, but it should be noted that he checked into the combine 2 inches shorter than his listed height at Iowa. In any case, Fierdorowicz is a good blocker, he pushes defenders around with his size and can create some holes for the ball carrier. He occasionally worked out of the slot, but he mostly was in-line with the O-Linemen. He still needs to work on finishing his blocks, but apart from that, I like what I see from him as a blocker. As a receiver, it is not as good. He can run decent routes, and he can catch the ball in traffic, but his speed is decent at best once he works up to it, and beyond about 15 to 20 yards, his receiving skills get sloppy.
At the combine, Fierdorowicz was a top performer at the bench press, 20 yard and 60 yard shuttle drills. He was able to run a 4.76 40-yard Dash, just 0.02 seconds slower than Amaro, although admittedly that says a lot more about Amaro than it does Fierdorowicz. I suppose it is faster than I would expect from his tape, but ultimately from tape to 40 time, Amaro’s discrepancy is much larger. Bottom line Fierdorowicz has looked more athletic than I would have given him credit for at the combine, but I am still concerned by what I saw at the on-field drills. The same receiving issues I saw on tape were on display once again, after about 15 or so yards he really has problems tracking and running down balls. Short to intermediate passes will be Fierdorowicz’s bread and butter in the NFL, assuming he works in the passing game at all.
Bottom line, Fierdorowicz is not a special kind of talent. He is pretty much your standard blocking tight end. Sure, he might be able to start in the NFL, but he is going to have to work on finishing his blocks and his receiving skills if he wants to be one of the better tight ends in the league, and even then I am not convinced that being a top tight end is within his ceiling. He will get drafted, no doubts there, but I cannot see him getting drafted anywhere before Round 3, and maybe not until Round 4 or even 5. After the top 4 guys it mostly comes down to preference for a team, so Fierdorowicz has a wide range of possible landing spots. For now though, I would guess he goes Round 3 to a team looking to add a little physicality to the position.
Final Decision: Round 3
That does it for the top 5 tight ends, next week I will be covering the top 3 tackles, guards, and centers.
By Mike Veldhuis