Tight End Competition Just Beginning

Posted Jun 1, 2012

Undrafted rookie DeAngelo Peterson is an intriguing prospect who will compete for a roster spot at tight end.

No position on the Rams practice field more closely resembles a Baskin-Robbins than tight end.

Pick a flavor and you’re likely to find it in the group going through Organized Team Activities under the guidance of experienced position coach Rob Boras.

That’s because, to fit the philosophy of head coach Jeff Fisher, having a multitude of versatile options at the tight end position is not only preferred but a necessity.

“We’ve got them all shapes and sizes and Coach (Boras) is doing a great job with them,” Fisher said. “It’s a very important position in our offense. You need flexibility and they need to be able to be interchanged, sometimes at the fullback position, sometimes you spread them open. It’s an important position, like I said, so we’re pleased so far.”

That’s because the Rams roster as its currently constituted has a little something for everyone. Need an athletic ‘move’ tight end that can flex into the backfield or split out wide with equal aplomb? No problem. How about an inline blocker that can serve as a de facto offensive lineman? Check. What about a guy who can block out in space or serve as a lead blocking fullback? Got those too.

It’s no coincidence that the Rams are currently carrying nine tight ends on the roster after claiming Brody Eldridge on waivers from Indianapolis last week. Ultimately, there figures to be about four tight ends on the final 53-man roster though with Fisher’s affinity for the position and the way they are used in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, there could be more.

With the exception of former second-round pick Lance Kendricks, the competition for spots at tight end figures to be one of this summer’s most heated training camp battles.

For his part, Kendricks figures to slide in as a starter in more of the ‘move’ position where he can be a strong blocker out in space and in the run game but also serve as a dynamic receiving weapon when split out wide.

What happens for the other spots is anyone’s guess and will come down to a tight competition amongst a group of players with varying skills in different roles.

At first blush, it doesn’t appear that there is a fully developed all around tight end capable of handling anything that Fisher and Schottenheimer asks with equal aplomb. Instead, the tight ends on the roster fit into various roles that will ultimately determine their fate with the team.

Nobody knows what Schottenheimer and Fisher are looking for better than free-agent signee Matthew Mulligan, who spent some time on Tennessee’s practice squad under Fisher before playing the past three seasons under Schottenheimer in New York.

Mulligan is perhaps the offensive player on the roster most familiar with the current offense and knows full well what will be required of him and his position mates moving forward.

“There are a lot of things that as tight ends in this offense we have to do,” Mulligan said. “Everybody has a job to do. We have a lot of different things we are responsible for. We make some calls, protecting the quarterback, running routes and catching, playing as a smaller O lineman basically at times. Yeah, it’s a big responsibility at times but it’s one I think as a group we have a great group that is ready for the challenge.”

To best get an early handle on how the tight end competition might look come late July, it’s probably best to get an idea of where each player fits in. In Fisher’s time in Tennessee, the Titans almost exclusively started two tight ends, one attached to the line of scrimmage in more of a blocking role and another moving around to create matchup problems in the pass game and block in space.

The ‘move’ type of tight end role that Kendricks figures to fill falls in line to similar players from Fisher’s past such as Frank Wycheck and Bo Scaife. Tight ends on the roster that figure to fill a similar role include undrafted rookies DeAngelo Peterson and Jamie Childers, Mike McNeill and Ben Guidugli.

Kendricks is the incumbent at the position after leading Rams tight ends in receiving a season ago. He impressed in the preseason but a couple of early season drops and a head injury slowed him some.

Behind Kendricks is a group of intriguing young players. Childers has showed some soft hands during OTAs, McNeill has showed some versatility and Guidugli has the toughness to fill a role as a tight end or a fullback.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the young prospects is Peterson; a player many thought would be drafted coming out of LSU. Peterson doesn’t come with an impressive resume in terms of statistics, finishing his college career with just 39 catches and three touchdowns the past three years for the Tigers.

But LSU didn’t have much of a passing offense in general and Peterson spent most of his time working as a weakside blocker in the running game. He believes his athleticism makes him a ‘move’ tight end along the lines of someone like New England’s Aaron Hernandez.

“I’m more like a Hernandez-type,” Peterson said. “I can move around, I can get mismatches, I can run routes and catch the ball. But the thing that people don’t see is that I am a good run blocker too. I am showing the Rams I can do that, too.”
Peterson is doing a little bit of everything for the Rams but doesn’t project as an inline blocker much because he checks in at just 6’4 and around 240 pounds.  Regardless, Peterson believes to make the roster he’s going to have to try to do a bit of everything.

In his first month with the team, Peterson said he’s spent most of his spare time in his playbook, studying three or four hours every night to get up to speed.

“We are doing a lot of things,” Peterson said. “We move around to different positions. Sometimes we play fullback, sometimes we spread out, sometimes we attach and then for tight ends we have to learn each of the three positions because there is no telling where we’ll be playing. We have some two tight formations, some three tight formations, like we just put in today. You have to learn everything so you know you can be focused and ready when he calls it.”

Meanwhile, the competition among the more blocking oriented tight ends figures to be even fiercer.

Hoomanawanui has flashed the potential to be one of the team’s best all around tight ends but injuries have consistently robbed him of the opportunity to establish himself. He’s been limited during OTAs but should be back up to speed in time for training camp.

Mulligan was signed with the express purpose of stepping in and filling the role vacated by the departure of Billy Bajema as the team’s blocking specialist. The 6’4, 265-pounder has just six catches for 60 yards in his time in the league but is working to improve in that area so he can bring more value than just working as a veritable extra offensive lineman.

“I like to work on everything,” Mulligan said. “I like to work on running my routes. Generally I would be deemed as a blocking tight end, I like to think I have a little more wiggle than that. I try to work on those types of things like catching balls after practice, run better, crisper routes, things of that nature.”

At 6’5, 265 pounds, Eldridge profiles in a similar way to Mulligan. He played collegiately at Oklahoma and is tight with Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. He spent two seasons in Indianapolis working primarily as a blocker while catching 14 passes for 84 yards.

“He was hurt a little bit at Indy, missed some games there, but really very athletic and is just big, strong, big target and is a very good blocking tight end,” Fisher said.

Like Mulligan, Eldridge knows that his blocking will stand out but is hoping to find other ways to rise above the competition by improving his route running and pass catching.

“I think they want guys that can play multiple spots,” Eldridge said. “The past two years in Indy I did mostly a lot of the inline stuff. That was pretty much it. I guess it would be considered my strength but I think can do a lot more than that.”

The one tight end not present during OTAs is undrafted free agent Cory Harkey, son of former Major League Baseball pitcher Mike Harkey. Harkey went undrafted after posting just 28 catches in four years.

Still, Harkey was considered the best pure blocking tight end in the draft at 6’4, 270 pounds. He’s been absent from most of the offseason program and practices because of rules preventing college prospects that attend schools on the quarter system from leaving until their college class has graduated. He figures to be in the mix upon his return.

With training camp still a couple of months away and plenty of time before the final roster cutdowns, there will be plenty of opportunities for the many members of the Rams tight end corps to differentiate themselves.

Putting on pads and hitting at full speed will provide a much better indicator. Ultimately, the jockeying for position at tight end will certainly be one to keep an eye on in the coming months.

“Oh sure,” Mulligan said. “That’s at every position. You are competing not just against guys on your team but guys across the entire league and guys who might be at home right now. That’s the nature of the beast. A lot of times it’s in good spirits and you try to make each other better so you can make the team better.”