As we get closer and closer to the NFL Draft, a never-ending series of lists get posted by every football content provider under the sun ranking the top players at every position. Top 5 lists, mock drafts and big boards are all the rage this time of year. In this space, however, I want to look at these prospects a little differently.
So as April 30 approaches, let's take a look at these players from the mindset of how NFL franchises and scouting departments look at them and that's by figuring out how they fit on a football team, rather than just list the "Top 5 linebackers" or the "Top 10 wide receivers."
Think about the offensive line. You wouldn't just want to know about the top linemen in the draft. You'd want a list of the top tackles, the top guards and the top centers. All three positions typically have different measurables and responsibilities, so they should be categorized that way, right? And then the standards at each position change from team to team, as every franchise has certain needs and specifications for what they look for as they build their roster. Some teams prefer size and strength, others place value on athleticism and others just want tough guys at certain positions. So let's dig deeper, and look at some of the top players may fit once they find homes in the NFL ...
It's no secret that the tight end position is changing (or, has changed) in the NFL. Gone are the days where a Kyle Brady out of Penn State would get drafted in the top 10 almost solely because of his abilities as a blocker. Creating favorable matchups in space, especially in the pass game, is more valuable today, and that's reflected in how tight ends are drafted.
The ability to create mismatches against lesser athletes on the defensive side of the ball is all well and good. Everyone wants that from their tight end group. But there are only so many Jimmy Grahams in the world, a player who can play detached from the formation and is rarely asked to block on an every-down basis. Tight ends still need to be able to win at the point of attack as a blocker. Some teams utilize the tight end more in the passing game than others, but you still need to be able to contribute as a blocker if you're going to be an every-down tight end. If you can't, you can still be effective, but you become more of a situational player. So for the purpose of today's piece, we're going to break this class down into three different subgroups: complete tight ends, Y's, and F's.
Complete Tight Ends
So what does a prospect need to show at the collegiate level to be viewed as a "complete tight end"? Well, they need to be productive as a receiver. You want to see a reliable option in the passing game who is able to get off the line of scrimmage cleanly using a number of different releases, run good routes and display the ball skills to go up and win at the catch point. You also want a player to be able to hold up at the point of attack in the run game, taking on a linebacker or sometimes even a defensive end as both a front-side and a back-side blocker. Lastly, you want to see them in pass protection and how they hold up as an edge protector. It's important to note, as well, that a tight end rarely leaves the collegiate level as a fully polished blocker, whether it's technique or just sheer bulk and strength, there are areas they will need to improve on before playing in the NFL, but you want to see them be a willing participant as a blocker. If they're shying away from contact or showing very little urgency in that phase of the game, then questions can arise about whether that player can be an every-down player at the next level.
One of the youngest players in the entire draft class fits the description above in regard to what you look for in a complete tight end - Maxx Williams, who will only be 21 at the start of Training Camp this summer. At 6-4, 249 pounds, Williams was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and the B1G Tight End Of The Year in 2014. The Gophers deployed the redshirt sophomore all over the formation in multiple personnel groupings, and he showed the ability to beat linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks in space. He maximizes his catch radius, and routinely made incredible grabs away from his frame, displaying excellent body control on a weekly basis. The touchdown catch he had in the bowl game against Missouri was one of the top two or three individual efforts I saw all season long. Williams' abilities as a blocker are a bit undersold as well. Sure, he wasn't lined up every down along the line of scrimmage, but he played with a toughness and tenacity and constantly looked to put defenders on their backs in the run game. Williams' complete skill set makes him the consensus top tight end in the draft, and it's why he could go off the board as early as the first round.
Joining Williams at the top of the tight end group is Miami's Clive Walford. The former Hurricane is built similarly to Williams (6-4, 251 pounds), and tested pretty closely across the board at the Scouting Combine. Working in Walford's favor is the fact that he played at the Senior Bowl, and stood out at the week of practice.
Walford made linebackers and safeties look silly on multiple occasions that week. Here you can see the clean release to get upfield followed by the ability to separate at the top of the route and make a tough catch away from his body. Walford is a really "easy" catcher of the football, a consistent and competitive blocker and will be one of the first two or three tight ends selected in the upcoming draft.
The next player who belongs on this list is Tyler Kroft, a Downington, Pennsylvania native out of Rutgers. Taller and lankier than Williams and Walford at 6-6, 246 pounds, Kroft has a basketball frame similar to that of Zach Ertz coming out of Stanford in 2013. Like Ertz, Kroft was moved all around the formation, and displayed the speed and athleticism to get down the seam and make plays on the ball. Kroft improved as a blocker, and that's the area where can continue to get better, but his willingness to get his hands dirty in that phase paired with his athletic traits make him a potential every-down tight end in the NFL.
Built in the same mold as Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman (6-5, 254 pounds) only caught 52 passes during his four-year career with the Buckeyes, but started 36 games and proved to be a more than serviceable option at the position, as he was an integral part in the National Champion's rushing attack. Heuerman has the speed to get down the seam (a reported 4.65 40-yard dash) and the strength at the point of attack to be a starting tight end down the line.
Rounding out this list of potential complete tight ends is small-school prospect Nick Boyle out of Delaware. Relatively unknown before he accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, Boyle may be the best blocker of the class, as he displays rare technique and efficiency in that area for a college player. The question with Boyle had been his athleticism, and while he isn't going to win many foot races (his 5.04 40-yard dash at the Combine was worst among tight ends), his transition quickness (4.23 short-shuttle time was the best at his position) allows him to separate at the top of his route with relative ease and, like Walford, he shows the ability to get off the line clean.
Boyle abuses Oklahoma linebacker Geneo Grissom (who, ironically, gave up the catch to Walford in the previous clip) with his release, reels in the catch and hurdles a defender on his way to a first down. He isn't going to wow you with his long speed or with his press clippings, but Boyle has the makings of a starting NFL tight end.
Y Tight Ends
You'll sometimes hear tight ends referred to as a "Y" because of their traditional role grouped in with two-receiver (X and Z) sets. For the purpose of this piece, we'll treat Y tight ends as in-line players who can be counted on as intermediate receivers and are able to contribute as blockers, but may not have the true athletic upside to be considered as an effective NFL starter for most teams. That doesn't mean these players can't be effective NFL players or don't have value, they just may not be seen as potential Pro Bowl players down the line.
One of the biggest tight ends in this class, Penn State's Jesse James stands tall at 6-7, 261 pounds. James proved that he could be a vertical threat in 2013 under then-head coach Bill O'Brien, but in 2014 with the change in offensive system his yards-per-catch average dropped by about 3 yards. James knows how to go up and use his size in the passing game, and with his size he'll likely be viewed as a potential power player at the point of attack.
This tight end group isn't considered to be all that great, but one of the most intriguing options is Arkansas' A.J. Derby. A former quarterback for the Razorbacks and for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Derby switched to tight end last spring and hauled in 22 catches for three touchdowns despite missing two games due to injury. Despite the fact that he's a former signal caller, Derby has the athleticism (just check out this play against Alabama) and toughness (he was often asked to execute wham blocks on opposing defensive tackles in the Arkansas run game) to be an NFL tight end. Don't be surprised if, down the road, he turns out to be one of the better players in this tight end class.
Another former quarterback who opened some eyes this season is Oklahoma's Blake Bell. At 6-6, 252 pounds, Bell tested very well at the Combine and has the body type that profiles as a legitimate NFL prospect at the position.
As you can see in the shot above (courtesy of NFL.com), Bell has the hand-eye coordination to be a reliable receiver at the next level, and he was surprisingly successful as a blocker as well in just his first year at the position. If Bell can continue to develop, he could stick in the NFL (much like his father and uncle) for a good while.
It seems like every year, Notre Dame puts out a new tight end into the NFL Draft, and this spring is no different as Ben Koyack looks to uphold the tradition of Fighting Irish players hearing their names called on draft day. At 6-5, 255 pounds, Koyack has NFL size and was moved all around the formation in college. He's got a reliable pair of hands, can get off press coverage and can hold his own as a blocker, but many see him as a "jack of all trades, master of none"-type of player who profiles more as a backup at the next level.
USC's Randall Telfer is another big kid who has more than proven himself as a blocker at a high level of competition. He started 34 games for the Trojans and when you look at some of their biggest runs over the last three or four years, you could often see that number 82 jersey on top of a second-level defender. Telfer's impact on the passing game wasn't eye-popping, and his athleticism leaves a little bit to be desired, but he is another one who could stick in the league due to his abilities in the run game.
F Tight Ends
You may hear these players referred to as H-backs or any other assortment of names, but regardless of what they may be called, their role is pretty simple. They aren't going to be every-down players, but they can make an impact in the passing game because of their athleticism. Maybe they aren't big enough to hold up down after down as an in-line player, or they just aren't very interested in blocking, but at the end of the day their value comes in their ability to be used in a variety of ways to attack opposing defenses. Think of players like James Casey, or what Tim Wright was for the New England Patriots was this past season.
The first name that comes to mind as an F tight end in this class is Combine standout MyCole Pruitt from Southern Illinois. Pruitt's test scores ranked in the top five across the board in the tight end group, and he was by far the most productive tight end in this draft class. The former Saluki caught 211 passes for 25 touchdowns in his career, and his basketball background was apparent as he consistently was able to catch passes from a number of different release points throughout the formation. Pruitt went down to the East-West Shrine Game and, while he didn't make an impact in the game, showed throughout the week of practice that he can be used in a variety of ways. If Pruitt's athletic traits can translate to the NFL, you could see someone with a potential Charles Clay-type upside.
Pruitt may have been the most productive tight end in college football, but Florida State's Nick O'Leary was the go-to target for quarterback Jameis Winston throughout his time as a 40-game starter for the Seminoles. At 6-3, 252 pounds, O'Leary isn't the biggest, and with a 4.94 40-yard dash at the Combine he isn't the fastest, but he's got great hands and is a savvy route runner who found ways to get open against top competition. His toughness and grit was apparent both in the run game and as a ball carrier, as he was a bulldog after the catch.
A true throwback (you have to love the fact that he doesn't wear gloves), it may not always look pretty with O'Leary, but he looks like a safe bet to find a home in the NFL as a situational tight end.
Considered one of the "sleepers" at the position in media circles because of his inexperience, Massachusetts tight end Jean Sifrin has just one year's experience playing big-time college football. Sifrin, at 27 years old, took the road less travelled to where he stands now as an NFL prospect, but has intriguing size at 6-5, 245 pounds and a strong set of hands. He has a ways to go in terms of learning how to run routes and be an impact player as a blocker, but Sifrin's frame and ball skills make him a potential role player at the next level.
One intriguing pass catcher who could hear his name called late in the draft, this time from the SEC, is South Carolina's Rory Anderson. "Busta" played at 229 pounds as a junior with the Gamecocks, but beefed up to 244 pounds for the Combine (which still registered as the lightest at his position in Indy). A tight end who moves like a wide receiver, Anderson's athleticism is apparent as a route runner and with the ball in his hands. He will need to improve those hands, however, if he's to make the successful leap to the next level.
There are a lot of other tight ends who can be situational players in this draft. South Alabama's Wes Saxton enjoyed a strong week of practice at the Shrine Game and has some promising athletic upside. Louisville's Gerald Christian, who some project as a potential fullback at the next level, doesn't have outstanding size or athleticism, but can block and has strong hands. And Iowa State's E.J. Bibbs leveraged a productive career with the Cyclones into a Senior Bowl invite, and is a developmental F prospect thanks to his strong hands and ability to make plays after the catch.
Tight ends come in all shapes and sizes, and can all find specific roles in NFL offenses. If they're going to be every-down players, however, more often than not they will have to be active and effective participants as blockers. Keep that in mind as the NFL Draft progresses in a couple of weeks.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.