Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Tight Ends

So next up in the series is the tight ends.

This year everyone is using a new phrase "the queen of the chess board" to describe the tight end, in reference to their versatility to be moved around all across the field.

The tight end position has certainly moved on from the days when they were effectively a sixth offensive line who occasionally trundled down the middle to catch a few passes. Now tight ends are treated more like wide receivers and as such teams are looking for something a little different.

The likes of Vernon Davis in San Francisco, Antonio Gates in San Diego, Jimmy Graham in New Orelans and Rob Gronkowski in New England have set the new bar for what is expected, that being a tall target man who is almost as fast as a receiver and who can be flexed out away from the offensive line to play in space if needed.

So here we go, and as always remember that these players are listed in the order that they are because that's how the list I'm working from is ordered.

Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Do you ever get the feeling that someone is yanking your chain, pulling your leg, having you on? Because that's how I feel right now.

Eric Ebron is supposedly the top tight end prospect in this draft. Bullshit. Either that or this class of tight ends sucks worse than I can possibly imagine. He's 6'4", 250 pounds and ran a 4.60 sec 40-yard dash at the combine. Incidentally this was one of the fastest 40 time among tight ends and that seems to be the sole source of the hype.

Once again we're back to talking about "potential" and "high ceilings". Enough with the high ceilings already! Let's revert to the only thing that actually matters worth a damn and that's the game tape. On film what do we see? Do we see blazing speed down the middle? Do we see dominant pass route running? Do we see Ebron leaving the opposition looking silly?

Errr, no. No we don't. What we see is a distinctly average tight end.

Does he have some speed? Yeah. Does he sometimes run some good routes? Yeah. Does he sometimes make a tough catch or go up high and beat a defender? Yeah. Does he put in some decent run blocks occasionally? Yeah.

Does he have "elite" level speed? No. Does he run a full gamut of perfect routes? No, not at all. Does he catch everything (catchable) that is thrown his way? Christ no. Does he consistently block to the level you would expect from a first round tight end? Hahahahahaha.


He's not a bad tight end at all. But he's not the brilliant, wonder tight end that everyone seems to be touting him as either. He's just.... ok. Just good. Just middling. Run of the mill. Average. Competent.

Perhaps at best he's a fourth or fifth round pick. I'm fairly certain there are going to be better tight ends later on down this list (please God let there be) and I'm absolutely damn sure that there will be a lot of better players at various positions still available all the way to the end of the first round. And the end of the second. And probably the third. And even the fourth. He's just very one dimensional and there are a plethora of much better players available.

He does have that dreaded word "potential". He's got some speed and if you let him rip right up the seam of the defense in between the safeties then he can be a threat against zone coverage. But against man coverage, or anytime he's asked to to run a route that requires a significant change of direction, then he struggles to get separation.

He doesn't have the hands to be a first round pick either. He suffered from some dodgy quarterback play, but there are a number of passes where the ball hit him right square on the hands and he dropped it. His blocking is pretty average as well. He's not bad when down blocking, but then most people are because of the leverage advantage offered. Head to head he struggles.

In his bowl game against the mighty Cincinnati he was made to look sub par for most of the game. This is supposed to be the guy that describes as; "Highly athletic, highly productive "F" tight end dripping with upside and mismatch capability".

He's dripping with something alright, but it isn't "upside". At least they didn't say "potential" or "high ceiling".

Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Listed as 270lbs, there is no way in hell that he played at that weight. You can clearly see the difference in his physique between when he was playing and when he showed up at the combine. Someone clearly hit the weights hard after the season was done, which helps explain his performance in the bench press at the combine (a top performer among tight ends with 27 reps).

As for his on field performance, not bad.

He's not the quickest player in the world and this shows up especially in his blocking as he sometimes missed blocks because he was too slow off the snap. His route running and hands are slightly above average for a college tight end. In the NFL? A little underwhelming.

He did make some nice catches around the first down marker off of intermediate hooks and out patterns, using his size to block people out, but he doesn't really have the burst of speed needed to turn those catches into big gains. There's a lot of people bitching about him catching the ball against his body but that's really not a major concern. Some players just do that naturally and while it's not ideal, if it works then it's fine by me.

All in all not a prospect that really jumps out and catches your attention. He could probably develop into a serviceable tight end, but he's not really the "wow" player that a lot of teams are looking for at tight end. Come draft day there will be piles and piles of better players who have a greater chance of making an impact on their respective teams.

Graded by most as a second rounder, I don't see it. His value is quite limited, perhaps another fifth rounder. It's not that he's a bad player, he's not. It's just that there are so many better players in this draft who have so much more to offer, and I've only done the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers so far (I'm assuming that each of the remaining groups will have multiple good players in them).

C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
Athleticism is pretty poor, as in he's quite slow and he doesn't get very far after the catch.

Now normally if you started an analysis like that you'd expect it to be just the first of many negative blows against the player. But actually it's a sort of bizarre positive. Allow me to explain.

With a player that doesn't have that superb quickness so beloved of NFL scouts, and without which players are carelessly dumped on the draft trash heap, you'd think that Fiedorowicz (I totally wrote that without looking up at his name...) would find it difficult to get open on pass patterns.

And you'd be completely and utterly wrong.

Despite his lack of anything approaching decent speed for an NFL tight end he still manages to get away from defenders thanks to the fact that he is an almost flawless route runner. Now imagine taking ten pounds off his fat ass and making him run those same near perfect routes. That - my friends - is true potential.

He's also an excellent run blocker and catches pretty much any pass that hits his hands. Projected as a third to fourth rounder, I think that's exceptionally harsh. Even if he stayed at the same weight (and the same speed) his combination of route running, hands and blocking is worth a second round pick on its own.

Tight ends are known as the quarterbacks best friend for a reason. Fiedorowicz is the kind of player that can get himself free on almost every pass play and provide an outlet for the quarterback when deeper patterns are covered. He is also more than capable of finding the holes downfield in the seams of a defense, meaning that he has real versatility as a reliable safety blanket. With a bit more speed he could prove to be an exceptional handful for defenses.

I'm sold. Very good all round tight end.

Oh, and while we're at it, next year keep an eye out for his Iowa team mate Mark Weisman (running back/fullback). Will probably go undrafted in 2015, but looks like he could be a real handy little back with plentiful power and a nice burst through the hole.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Seriously, these tight ends and their difficult surnames?

Now, if you're looking for a tight end to blend into your passing game then Austin is your man. He's pretty quick, runs decent routes deep down the field, and has pretty decent hands. Blocking isn't great, but it's serviceable.

Honestly I would rather have this guy than Ebron if I was looking for a tight end that could be a deep threat. Austin ran a variety of routes and while his route technique isn't brilliant, it is pretty good. Probably not going to run away from many people with the ball in his hands, but at least he'll get to the spot in the first place and make the catch.

Projected as a second to third rounder that's about the right value for his skills. He has the raw makings of a Jimmy Graham type player, it was just unfortunate that he played for Washington who were so run heavy and whose quarterback play failed to get the most out of Seferian-Jenkins.

If you wanted to sit down and make the case for him as a first rounder on account of the fact that when Washington did use him in the passing game he was pretty good and that an NFL team would make more use of this aspect of his game, then I'd be prepared to listen. But of course now we're back into "potential" land again. A second rounder is probably a safer bet.

Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
If you're looking for a downfield type of tight end then at first glance Jace Amaro might just be your man.

Blocking is not exactly Amaro's strong point so he might struggle in the role of a conventional tight end, but he has a decent burst of speed as well as the size to be a primarily pass catching tight end.

Unfortunately that lack of blocking puts limits on his use. If he can't block then it's not much point putting him on the end of the line. You'd be better flexing him out away from the line. But if you're going to do that all the time then logically you might as well just get another wide receiver, someone who will be quicker and a better route runner.

There might be a team that can perhaps live with the poor blocking on account of not running the ball that much, hoping instead that defenses will keep a linebacker on the field to cover him and as such create mismatches, but personally it seems a little pointless to me.

If I'm placing him on my big board (presuming I had one) then he probably goes down near the bottom. Or not on it all. Again, it's not that he's a bad player. He's just not anything exceptional either and not really worth picking.

Colt Lyerla, Oregon
Now we're getting somewhere.

Played mostly as a traditional "Y" tight end on the end of the offensive line. Lyerla can block on the line of scrimmage (you'll often here this described as "in-line blocking") and has shown that he can take on and control a defensive end one on one. Oddly enough I've seen another analysis that said he couldn't do this, but a quick look at the tape clearly demonstrates that he can. And before anyone jumps in to talk about the strength of opponents, if you can do it against Stanford then the chances are good that you can do it in the NFL.

He's pretty quick, can run decent routes and catches most of the passes thrown his way. He had the chance to run both short, intermediate and deep patterns, demonstrating the ability to gain separation from linebackers.

And just for added kicks he even played some snaps as a running back, which he was surprisingly good at. This also gives us a further insight into his abilities after the catch. Because of his combination of size, speed and toughness, he's difficult to bring down. He uses the stiff arm technique well and protects the football.

With this combination of talents I think Lyerla makes a good candidate for a second round pick. He's pretty versatile and can fulfil all the main roles required of a tight end. He could use a bit of help with his initial moves off the line and some coaching to develop a more refined route technique, but he has all the basic skills and attributes required. I like him.

Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin

Blocking ok, but not great. Not that quick. Route running not great. Does catch most of the passes that come his way, though with Stave at quarterback that's a rare treat for the ball to be on target.

Just don't see a lot of point in using a pick on him. Pedersen is the fat, drunk girl that you meet at the kebab shop at 3am. Nobodies first choice, but if you're really desperate then you might have a go.

Marcel Jensen, Fresno State
Not exactly flush for opportunities in Fresno's system that was more of a 4 wide receiver deal. When he did make the field he did little to impress. Slow, dropped a number of passes, and generally did very little other than block on a few screens and catch a few short patterns. Yawn, complete waste of a pick.

Richard Rodgers, California
Awful blocking, though judging by what I saw that seems standard for the Cal Bears offensive line. Just going off on a tangent for a second, Bears running back Brendan Bigelow has entered the draft but wasn't on the list I was using so I didn't look at him initially. He should have been. If it wasn't for the Bears horrendous blocking he would have put up much bigger numbers. Keep an eye out for him this year as an undrafted free agent; he's quick, makes some great cuts, and can break arm tackles.

Anyway, yeah, Richard Rodgers. So when he wasn't being awful at blocking what was he doing? Well, he dropped a bunch of passes for a start. On occasion he did catch some balls and actually had a decent turn of speed with the ball in his hands. It's just the rest of his game that's the problem.

As a late round/undrafted flyer, with someone betting on his speed up the middle of the defense, then he might be able to squeeze a contract out of someone. He wouldn't get one from me.

Xavier Grimble, USC
Proof that not every USC player is cut out for the NFL. Oh right yeah, Mark Sanchez...

Grimble has his plus points. He's a big dude who's tough to bring down. Generally he'll catch anything that you can get near his hands. But he really lacks speed. Even in college he was struggling to get away from linebackers, so imagine what that's going to be like in the NFL when you eliminate a lot of the duds.

Perhaps someone will take an interest in the late rounds but for me there's just not enough raw talent there to work with to consider using a pick.

Blake Annen, Cincinnati
I've never met Annen so I can't say for certain, but I suspect he carries a lot of his weight in the lower body. I say this because he blocks better than a lot of offensive linemen on his team. As a run blocking tight end anchoring the end of the line Annen is pretty handy to have on the field, such as in a goal line offense.

In general though his route running is not great. He didn't seem to have to that much speed on the field, yet turned in a 4.41 sec 40-yard dash at the Cincinnati pro day. Potentially then he's cut weight to improve his measurables, which could in turn adversely affect the one thing he did really well in college which was his blocking. 

For that reason I think that for me Annen drops down to undrafted free agent status. He's the sort of player you pick up and take into training camp to see what he's got. And if it's not enough, you cut him. 

Arthur Lynch, Georgia
Not a bad blocking tight end, but nothing spectacular. Quite slow on the get off from the line and not even that quick once he gets up and running, but seems to have a knack of finding open space. It's not route technique, he just seems to have an instinct for finding the gaps in zone coverage. 

As an undrafted guy he has some value. Bring him in and see what he can do. But the lack of speed and general average technique makes him a bit too much of a ball ache to coach to be worth using a pick on.

And sadly that's about as good as the tight end crop gets this year. Not a huge amount of guys with real potential, not that I have film of anyway. Some of those guys have talent, but it's not really the year to find explosive play making tight ends like those already in the league. 

Next up for me, offensive tackles.

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