NFL Draft Preview: Tight Ends

Posted Apr 11, 2013

San Diego State's Gavin Escobar is expected to go in the first few rounds of this year's NFL Draft. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

It was only about a month ago that it seemed quite possible the Rams could find themselves in the market for one of the top tight ends in this year’s NFL Draft.

With Lance Kendricks solid in his position but some young and unproven players behind him and the continued ascension of multiple tight end packages in offenses around the league, the Rams grabbing a complement for Kendricks seemed to be a need if not a priority.

Names like Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert or San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar were being bandied about as potential future Rams and it seemed a possibility they could use some of their most prized draft resources to fortify the position.

Then, a series of possibly unforeseen events began to unfold in coach Jeff Fisher’s old stomping grounds in Tennessee. Uber-athletic tight end Jared Cook was scheduled for unrestricted free agency but it seemed a near certainty that the Titans would do whatever necessary to retain his services.

If not a pricey, long term contract, the franchise tag was a clear and obvious option to keep Cook in Nashville. For most of his time with the Titans, Cook had been a prime example of the new-age tight end; a player so athletic that he had the size of a tight end but was used almost exclusively as an oversized slot receiver.

Considering that Cook had spent the majority of his time in that role, he’d made it clear that if he was going to be tagged, it should be under the guise of a receiver, not a tight end.

Tennessee didn’t necessarily agree with that assessment and rather than opting to enter any type of disagreement on the matter, it allowed Cook to hit the open market.

Enter Fisher and the Rams, who found themselves thrilled that a player they didn’t believe would be available to them was now in their crosshairs.

The Rams moved quickly on Cook when free agency opened March 12 and within a few hours of the market beginning, Cook had agreed to terms on a lucrative five-year deal.

When the team announced Cook’s addition later in the week, it was clear they had found a player to not only complement Kendricks but fill the void left by the departure of slot receiver Danny Amendola.

Since, the Rams have continued to tweak the tight end position by parting ways with Matthew Mulligan. Beyond Kendricks and Cook, though, the team has high hopes for young tight ends such as Cory Harkey, a natural blocker who could fill some of the duties left by Mulligan, and Mike McNeill, a versatile type who can do a little bit of everything.

That’s not to say the Rams are completely set at the tight end position or even that they’re not going to use a draft pick on one but it does more than likely take them out of the running to use one in the first couple of days of the draft.

While anything is possible, it seems almost certain that players like Eifert, whom the Rams liked quite a bit, will be suiting up elsewhere in 2013 and beyond.

Eifert heads this year’s tight end class after a stellar career for the Fighting Irish. He’s a physical receiver who wins jump balls on a regular basis and a capable blocker on the line of scrimmage with some upside to get better.

In 2012, Eifert emerged as Notre Dame’s best offensive weapon, catching 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. His strong ball skills and willingness as a blocker could make him the first tight end to go in the first round since Jermaine Gresham went 21st to Cincinnati in 2010.

Beyond Eifert is an intriguing class of tight ends that though it may not be well-rounded does have plenty of players with a definable skill that will be valuable at the NFL level.

Escobar brings ball skills and big play ability in line with Eifert though he struggles as a blocker and has average top-end speed. He should still land somewhere in the second or third round.

Stanford’s Zach Ertz is the next in an apparently emerging tradition of talented tight ends from Palo Alto as he looks to follow Coby Fleener, who went with the second pick in the second round last year.

Ertz is also a primary pass catching type with work needed to help as a blocker. He, too, should find a home in the second round or so.

After that, players like Cincinnati’s Travis Kelce, who is a strong blocker, and Florida’s Jordan Reed, who boasts the most potential as an all around guy after Eifert.

Later round options could include Alabama’s Michael Williams, Michigan State’s Dion Sims and Colorado’s Nick Kasa, among others.

Top 5 Tight Ends

1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame – Big, strong and physical enough to win jump balls but also a good athlete and a capable though not finished product as an inline blocker.
2. Gavin Escobar, San Diego State – Also more of a pass catcher than a blocker though he’s willing and capable of doing a little bit of everything.
3. Zach Ertz, Stanford – Good athlete with excellent pass catching skills but needs a lot of work blocking to be able to do more than handle the move role.
4. Travis Kelce, Cincinnati – A dominant, physical blocker with surprising speed down the seam. Not as refined running routes or catching as others but blocking makes up for it.
5. Jordan Reed, Florida – Good speed and solid all around tight end who isn’t flashy but does a lot of dirty work. Could prove a steal depending on where he lands.

Sleeper: Levine Toilolo, Stanford – While Ertz did most of the damage catching passes; Toilolo handled most of the inline blocking. Big frame makes him an intriguing option for a team looking for a blocker with pass catching upside.