Friday, March 20, 2015

2015 NFL Draft: Tight Ends

The quarterbacks best friend. Supposedly.

Tight ends have garnered greater attention over the last decade or so and mostly due to a shift towards primarily pass catching tight ends. Players like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski have become highly valued because of their combination of size and speed. They're typically too big and too strong to be manhandled by a corner or safety at the line of scrimmage, and tower over most corners in the red zone (the shortest guy on this list is 6'2", which puts him just an inch below Richard Sherman). The only players with a realistic shot at matching a tight end for physicality off the line are linebackers, who in turn are very seldom fast enough to cover a top tier tight end in the open field. It's that match up nightmare that they cause that makes modern, elite tight ends such versatile and dangerous weapons. They also run block.

So what am I looking at with the tight ends? Primarily these four things;

1) Use of physical traits
2) Route running technique
3) Run Blocking
4) Hands

Number one is a bit nebulous so let me explain. The tight ends major advantage is his size, but some tight ends don't understand how to use their immense height and physical presence to block off defenders when competing for jump balls (often because they switched to the position late in college). Against a linebacker a tight ends greatest advantage is his speed, but some tight ends get stuck in the mentality of trying to muscle their way through everything and aren't alert to the natural advantages they have over slower players. So I like to see a tight end that understands how to use his physical gifts and adapt his play style depending on who he's matched up against.

The second point is the same as for the wide receivers. I'm looking for a tight end that understands the subtlety of running clever routes, using his brain as well as his brawn to set defenders up and then leave them in the dust with sharp cuts and crisp breaks. Or at least as sharp as a 6 foot plus, 240 pound plus physical freak of nature can. And like the wide receivers I'm also very interested in their run blocking, even though this is something that has fallen by the wayside as the pass has become the predominant method of moving the chains. It would be remiss of me to play down the talents of a great pass catching tight end just because he doesn't block well, but solid run blocking ability can be a great tie breaker and can give an edge to a tight end whose pass catching game isn't quite up to par. And of course hands should be self explanatory; the ability to consistently catch the ball.

So let's get started, and as always the list here is ordered the way it is because that's how the list that I'm working from is ordered. You have to read the specific piece on a player you're interested in to find out what I think about him. Starting with;

Maxx Williams, Minnesota
I'm not entirely sure how to put my thoughts on Williams into words. I just came away very underwhelmed by him. He's a reasonably effective run blocker, mostly asked to crack down on linebackers as opposed to going head to head with them. He doesn't truck people out of position, but he's big enough and strong enough to at least force a stalemate on most occasions. Had some decent speed to get away from linebackers, but never really looked like a major passing threat to me. Yes, he has made some very long plays, like the highlight reel grab and run against Missouri, but if you watch the play again he was actually chased down from behind by the linebacker who then pulled out from making a tackle in order to avoid hitting his team mate who I guess he thought was going to hit Williams.

I'm not saying he's a bad player, he's not. On some of his catches along the sideline and at the back of the end zone he shows exceptional body control and great concentration. I'm just not sure if I would want to draft him. He's predicted by many to go sometime in the first round and looks unlikely to slip any further than the middle of the second at this point. At that price I just feel like there are other, more impactful players to be had. Williams does have something to offer, I'm just not sure he's the next top tier tight end. I can't see him breaking open the down field passing game the way someone like Vernon Davis used to and he's not a dominant physical presence in short areas either. He tested pretty quick at the combine, but just looks and feels in pads like he shouldn't be too hard to cover. He never really used his strength effectively against cornerbacks and his pace wasn't so quick that it left linebackers in the dust. He was just kind of in the middle ground. Me personally, I'd pass on Williams. I'm just not that excited by him in the way I am by some other players that I've seen so far.

Clive Walford, Miami
Not a bad blocker. Gets engaged with the defender and provides a decent human brick wall. He's not an aggressive finisher who drives people out of the way and punishes them, but nine times out of ten he's effective enough to get the job done. Efficient is a good word to describe it I think. In the passing game though, things start to go a bit awry.

Here's the problem; sometimes it's good. Really good. And sometimes it's bad. Really bad. On some pass patterns he comes off the line and sells the linebacker that he's going up the seam, only to cut back inside and create space for himself underneath, catch the ball, fake out another defender, and then run for a first down and more. Then on some plays he'll come off the line, try (and fail) to push off the linebacker, cut to the inside and kind of jog along, allowing the linebacker to close the gap and make a play on the ball. On top of that he fumbles the ball a fair bit, gets penalised for silly things and generally seems to have as many low lights as he does highlights. For me, I just don't see it. I don't see why you would part with anything more than a low round pick because for all the good he can do for you, he'll also kill you with some of those negative plays. I just think there are better players who can do more to help a team in the long run. I'd pass.

Devin Funchess, Michigan
Has taken weight off in the last season and is pitching himself as a wide receiver. Looking at him I can't really see him in that role on every snap. As a tight end that on occasion flexes out wide but who mainly plies his trade up the middle? Yeah I can see that. Keep in mind that Funchess is 6'4" and 232 pounds, so he fits in a nice little gap in the passing game. He was a little slow at the combine but supposedly tested better on his pro day, so he has the speed to get away from linebackers. He showed some decent moves off the line and some good route technique to help him create space. When he moved outside he had the size advantage to man handle small corners and even though they kept with him step for step down the field, he was able to use his size and strength to maintain position on them and then go up and get the football. He's basically the prototype of what I was talking about at the beginning of this article.

There are some problems though. Firstly, in order to get a look at his blocking I had to go back to 2013. There you can see part of the reason why he became an out and out receiver, because his blocking is not great. It's one of the disadvantages of cutting weight off in that you lose some of that ability to anchor against tougher defenders. He can still get his body in position and with those long arms he has some value as a blocker, but it's definitely his weak spot. Anyone taking him as a tight end will need to figure out how to integrate him into their scheme and possibly single him out for some more intense coaching in that area. Secondly, against taller corners he loses a lot of his advantages. That's why I don't think he'll survive on the outside as a pure wide receiver. He needs that element of creativity in the scheme to get him the most advantageous match ups against linebackers, safeties and the shorter corners.

The last problem is his hands. This could be the big one and is the reason he will slide a little I think. He makes some brilliant catches under pressure, in some cases having to leap into the air and arch himself backwards to get into the right position. But he also has a lot of drops. Some people have described these as concentration drops, but I disagree. For clarity's sake, a concentration drop is normally classed as any drop where the receiver is more worried about getting hit and/or making the run after the catch and as such literally takes his eyes off the ball before he's caught it; a lack of concentration on the ball = a concentration drop.

But it struck me that Funchess's drops were not concentration related, they were technique related. On passes that come in over his shoulder he has a tendency to hold his hands too far apart and then tries to catch the ball with timing. Think about holding your own hands out in front of you, palms up, with about 6-8 inches of space between the tips of your little fingers. A football, travelling with the point down, will not naturally sit inside this space. It'll go right through. That means that in order to catch the ball you'll have to close your hands together with perfect timing to make it happen. Unsurprisingly this is incredibly difficult, even for top athletes. Then on some of the passes that he takes high and in front of him, say head height or higher, he'll do a very similar thing. He holds his hands apart and tries to snap them shut on the ball with perfect timing, which again is very difficult. This is compounded by the fact that instead of turning his palms outwards to face the ball, he often holds his hands up vertically presenting the edges of his hands to the ball, which again makes it more difficult to catch.

That's a problem that I believe can be fixed, but it needs somebody to identify the problem and take corrective action as opposed to chalking it up incorrectly to "concentration". If someone can do that then I think they get a great tight end. He's a guy that can kill linebackers and safeties up the middle, whether it's short possession style passes like hooks, or deep shots down the seam. He can also provide that physical mismatch against smaller, weaker corners which is highly valuable both in the end zone and on third downs. The problems should push him down to the bottom of the first round (Bill Belichick sure loves him a good tight end...) or even into the early part of the second, and from their downwards he represents great value in my estimation. Solid pick to be had and definitely one to keep and eye on in 2015 I think.

Rory Anderson, South Carolina
6'5", 244 pounds, and a tough athlete. Anderson can take on a bigger defensive end one on one and block the guy out of the play. Definitely an advantage in the run game. In the passing game he has the size and speed to be a mismatch problem for linebackers, along with some pretty good route technique. I'm not sure about safeties though. He certainly has the size to box them out, but his speed is not amazing by comparison and he still seems to be learning how to use his size to the best advantage.

On top of that Anderson has a bad history of injuries, in particular repeated tricep injuries. The main issue with that can be understood by looking at former Redskins pass rusher Brian Orakpo. He tore his pectoral muscle at the end of the 2011 season, came back the next year and tore it again in week 2 and missed the rest of the 2012 season, had a good year in 2013, then tore the same muscle again after 7 games in the 2014 season and missed the rest of the year (oddly enough he injured himself against the Titans, his new employers). That has to throw a big red flag over Anderson. A repeated injury problem is not a great way to make an impact on a roster.

To me that leaves Anderson kind of hanging in the air. I'd want a fairly hefty risk premium for that injury history, say third round or even lower. I'm not sure he'd actually last that long though. I think someone will bite before hand because he has the raw talent to be a classic, old school tight end that plays each down on the end of the line, blocks hard and runs routes mainly in intermediate patterns against linebackers. If he can stay healthy then Anderson has great promise. But that's a big "if", one I'm not sure I'd want to gamble on unless he fell down the order into my lap.

Nick O'Leary, Florida State
Not especially athletic. Poor route running. Frequently manhandled by defenders when blocking. Give me one good reason to use a pick on him. Just one. I'll wait.

Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State
Probably the luckiest guy in all of college football. If he bought a lottery ticket and won, it wouldn't surprise me one bit. He'd probably consider it normal running. I say that because he picked up a number of big gains and touchdowns purely because defenses essentially forgot to cover him. I counted at least six plays over two games where the defense just got mixed up and let him run free. Not because he was exceptionally gifted athletically or technically, but just blind luck. He does block well in open space and as such I think he can be a decent factor in the run game. It's just everything else that's a problem. The luck has to run out at some point. He's ok, just doesn't grab my attention really. I think I'd pass.

Tyler Kroft, Rutgers
Plagued by poor quarterback play, it's difficult to judge Kroft completely fairly because we don't know how much more he could have done with better passes coming his way. He showed some ok route running in confined spaces and even broke off a couple of deep ones. Blocking wise... meh. And unfortunately that was my broad feeling about Kroft. He seems like he could be a decent backup tight end or rotation guy who could carve a spot out for himself as another roster body, possibly play a bit of special teams. But he doesn't grab me as a guy that will stand out and really be a consistent difference maker. For me I think I'd put him on a list to look at after the draft, but not for a pick.

Ben Koyack, Notre Dame
Wasted as a tight end. He actually did a decent job in pass protection taking on a number of edge rushers. With a bit more bulk he'd make a serviceable offensive tackle. And that would be my angle on him. I wouldn't want to draft him, but if he was undrafted and available as a free agent I'd want to bring him in, pass him a plate stacked with bacon and a copy of the offensive line manual, and say "eat this and learn this".

MyCole Pruitt, Southern Illinois
Did very little of any value. Caught a few passes for a handful of yards. Waste of a pick by the looks of it.

Jesse James, Penn State
Remarkable how little use Penn State made of the fact that James is 6'7" and 261 pounds. You'd think he'd be a magnet for passes in the red zone, but I saw little of that. His route running is clearly very unrefined and he's not especially quick even by linebacker standards. There is potential there clearly for someone to take this tremendous frame and figure out a way to make it score touchdowns, most likely by shaving off some of the weight and going for more of a hybrid type approach. But I just don't think there's enough there as a base to work with. I'd pass.

Blake Bell, Oklahoma
Few things in football are more frustrating than watching a quarterback throwing the ball at the hip of a 6'6" receiver, allowing the chasing linebacker to close in and make a play. He's 6'6", just put the ball up high where only he has a realistic shot of catching it! That must be even more annoying when the tight end himself used to be a quarterback for several years, as Blake Bell did. 2014 is his first season as a tight end and it shows at times with a lack of polish all across his game. He misses blocks because he takes bad angles and hesitates sometimes when he should be piling into his defender. When running routes you can see the quarterback in him trying to deceive defenders and run good routes, but he just lacks that element of refinement at this stage.

Thus herein lies the dilemma with Bell and whether you want to draft him or not. He has a lot of raw potential that hasn't been fully tapped yet. He's tall, he's pretty quick, he understands the passing game from a quarterbacks perspective and he has fantastic hands. But his run blocking is insufficient right now and his route running needs a fair bit of work. Do you want to spend a pick on that? In the back end of the draft I think there is some value there. Certainly as an undrafted guy. By this point in the draft the pickings would be slim and Bell is a project with a significant potential upside. I'd be interested. If he can learn the subtle nuances of the position then the sky could be the limit for Bell.

A.J. Derby, Arkansas
I kind of like A.J. Derby. He's quick. He runs away from linebackers with relative ease, especially once he sets them up with his pretty good route technique. He's 6'4" and 255 pounds, elevates well to catch the ball and has decent hands. The only downsides are that he doesn't have the top end, elite level speed and his blocking needs a bit of work. At the minute when he goes head to head with a defender he often gets rocked back on his heels and then starts to panic a little. With a bit of proper coaching (he's another one year wonder at the position) I think that can be fixed. I'd be looking at the later rounds for this guy purely based on his inexperience but I think he has decent potential.

Gerald Christian, Louisville
I'm surprised at Christian's 40 time from the combine and his pro-day, clocking in at both in the 4.89 region. He looks a lot quicker on film, though not exactly blazing I'll grant you that. Technique wise Christian is very good. He makes quick cuts at the top of his routes and finds the open spaces in the defence. He's not a big play tight end I don't think, especially with that 40 time, but has a lot of use as a shorter ranged possession type tight end who can help you clock up first downs and keep the chains moving. 

Blocking wise Christian is a bit middle of the road. He makes some good blocks, especially when he playing off the line and taking an angle on the defender, but he's not someone I think you would trust to go one on one with a top outside defender. His build is a little slim for that and against the bigger defenders he has a tendency to get pushed around too easily. Overall though I think Christian is a handy little weapon. He might come onto a team as a back up at first but should be able to earn himself a future spot. Not sure where I'd position him on a draft board personally. The lack of the big play potential and the inability to handle the toughest blocking assignments demands a risk premium that moves him down into the later rounds, possibly even undrafted. 


And that, as they say, is that. At least as far as the tight ends are concerned. Next up we get into the offensive line and I've decided I'm going to do the tackles first, then the guards and centers as a separate post. Till then, thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoyed the post (you've come this far after all) and hopefully you'll share this blog with as many people as you can. It would be most helpful.

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