No position in the NFL has gone through more change in the past 20 years than the tight end. Before the spread offenses and 3 wide receiver sets became the norm, the tight end role was rather simple. They lined alongside your offensive tackle and either blocked or released on underneath routes, serving as a security blanket for the quarterback.
Now a days, the in vogue tight end is a versatile weapon capable of lining up across the field and challenging a defense vertically with a blend of size and speed.
Players like Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and Vernon Davis are envy of offensive coordinators around the league. But these unique athletes – big targets that have good hands and elite vertical speed—are extremely rare. In fact the majority of them are former basketball players with little football experience making finding this new breeds of tight ends challenging.
While colleges have caught on and begun developing these tight end/wide receiver hybrids there is often a shortage of these new age tight ends entering the draft.
This year’s draft class highlights this scarcity as only Eric Ebron has the potential to develop into a tight end/wide receiver hybrid. Instead, there are a bunch of bigger more physical and possession based prospects – soft hands, good route running dependable tight ends that lack elite speed– entering this year’s draft.
While that might leave NFL offensive coordinator to prowl former basketball players in order to find their stretch weapon, this year’s tight end class has some solid prospect that could become vital all around parts of an NFL team.
As the lone explosive tight end entering this year’s draft, Ebron has been a hot commodity in the combine and pre draft process. Ebron is a exceptional athlete that has speed to beat defenses vertically – he ran a 4.60 at the combine but plays faster—and has experience playing as a tight end/wide receiver hybrid.
Strengths: Good athlete with the speed to beat teams down the seam, can gain separation with speed, fluid athlete that releases off the line of scrimmage well and can adapt to errant throws, versatile having lined up all over for the Tar Heels and has enough size at 6’4 to give smaller defensive backs problems.
Weaknesses: Not the most physical tight end, struggles blocking bull rushers, wasn’t strong in his route running and allowed defenders to reroute him off the line of scrimmage, doesn’t attack the football with regularity and is a more of a finesse player currently.
Overall: A playmaker that can beat a defense down the seam, Ebron is perfect for today’s NFL. Ebron’s speed and general athleticism make him the ideal wide receiver/tight end hybrid – if you really want to nitpick his 6’4” frame isn’t ideal in a league where a lot of tight ends are 6’5 plus —and scouts have likened him to Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas. With those lofty comparisons and high ceiling Ebron will likely be selected in between picks 10 and 15.
While Jace Amaro was similar to Ebron in the fact that he was spilt out wide regularly, his game is completely different. Instead of running by defenders like Ebron, Amaro made his name at Texas Tech as the premier possession receiver in the Big 12. His soft hands, big frame and knack for getting open made Amaro an unanimous 1st team All American at tight end and should make him a 1st round pick.
Strengths: Big frame, fluid athlete that gets in and out of breaks very well for a big guy, great route runner that ran a full route tree at Texas Tech, understands where to sit down against zone defense and how to use his size against man coverage and was extremely productive in Lubbock.
Weaknesses: Lacks the elite athleticism that NFL covet at the tight end position, can’t stretch a defense, has some wide receiver diva in him and has a questionable motor especially when he was the second or third option.
Overall: A prolific receiver in Texas Tech’s wide open offense Amaro is a proven pass catcher. The problem is his skill set is more of a possession receiver than a vertical weapon as he has more quickness than speed. Still he is an effective pass catcher that understands how to utilize his big frame and some tight end needy team in the middle to late 1st round will be happy to end up with Amaro.
A high school standout at offensive line, defensive line and tight end, Niklas is a physical player that would make Mike Ditka proud. At 6’6 270 Niklas is a beast who’s game is built around raw power. A bit raw – he only became the first string tight end last season– Niklas is currently an excellent blocker with a ton of potential due to his athleticism, something NFL teams love.
Strengths: Huge frame with long arms and massive hands, powerful blocker that can seal the edge or loop out on outside rushes, dominates defensive backs as a blocker on bubble screens, absolute beast with the ball, runs over defenders and seems to enjoy contact.
Weaknesses: Lacks the ideal speed for a tight end in the NFL, can’t gain separation consistently on his routes due to lack of speed and agility, some speed rushers were able to get the edge on him, raw player with only one season of tape.
Overall: Despite his limited playing time in South Bend, Niklas’ combination of size, strength and athleticism scream potential. He currently has the ability to be a great blocking tight end but his real value will be as a receiver. With his size, hands and powerful style some scouts have made the Gronkowski comparison. But those are made purely on potential and Niklas has a lot of work to become a polished receiver like Gronk. That said, some team will fall in love with his upside and select him in the 2nd round.
A big time recruit out of the Northwest, Seferian-Jenkins didn’t need much time to burst onto the scene at the University of Washington. As a freshman he showed he played a significant role for the resurgent Huskies and scouts noticed his NFL ready body and soft hands. After an even more impressive sophomore campaign ASJ was on pace to be a sure fire 1st round pick. But he struggled last season in Washington’s more up tempo spread offense and has seen his draft stock drop accordingly.
Strengths: Ideal frame for a tight end at 6’5 and 262 pounds, too fast for most linebackers and too big for defensive backs, excels at getting open, understands where to sit down against zone defenses and how to use his size in man coverage.
Weaknesses: Average in terms of speed and quickness, finesse player that doesn’t utilize his big frame in the open field and is very inconsistent as a blocker.
Overall: ASJ is a well balanced tight end but not great at any one skill. He is good receiver that can win underneath but lacks the speed to win down the field or gain separation against man coverage and he has the raw tools to be a great blocker but hasn’t put all of the pieces together. Still ASJ is a promising all around tight end that should hear his name called during the second round.
After the top four prospects there is a significant drop off with players like C.J Fiedorowicz, Arthur Lynch and Xavier Grimble that project better as 2nd tight ends more than primary options.
As for the top prospects there is some true talent and variety – a vertical weapon in Ebron, possession receivers in Amaro and ASJ and a physical brute in Niklas—that NFL teams will covet. Yes there is seemingly only one of the new tight end/wide receiver hybrids in Ebron but overlooking the tried and true skills sets of Amaro, ASJ and Niklas would be a serious mistake.
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