The Tight End of the Wedge

Move over wide receivers! The National Football League is all about the tight end. Watch any NFL TV programming, listen to any NFL podcast or radio show and go on any NFL website (ideally Second City Fanatics) and this is something you’re bound to hear.

Of course, it’s true. The likes of Jermichael Finley, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have changed the way in which the position is played in all but a few offenses.  Drafting a tight end early does not have any stigma attached to it anymore. You are effectively drafting a powerful receiver, not an athletic full back.

The 2012 draft class is pretty good, with the top two clearly above the rest, after that, there are half a dozen guys who could next in line. After so heart-wrenching decisions, I’ve narrowed it down to my top five:

Zach Ertz – Stanford | Junior | 6’6 | 252lbs

Over the course of the 2012 season, Zach Ertz has established himself as one of the best tight ends in the country and moved ahead of pre-season top-ranked tight end, Tyler Eifert. In Palo Alto, Ertz has taken over where Coby Fleener left off. Of course, the David Shaw / Pep Hamilton offense at Stanford is very tight-end friendly but unlike Fleener before him, Ertz hasn’t had the benefit of a having Andrew Luck throwing balls at him.

Ertz is a big, almost spindly target and can run like a wideout. He’s strong and gets off the line with exceptional speed. Sufficed to say, he’s going to be a challenging matchup and has the potential to blow up a defense. His signature game against Cal (unfortunately) last October will attest to this; turning a short dump-off into a 68 yard gain, followed up with 20 yard TD catch a few drives later. Ertz is a disciplined route-runner and shows no fear catching the ball in traffic.

Although Ertz can appear lethargic in jump-ball situations, he attacks the ball as good as any wideout in the class. He also shows willing as a blocker, despite relatively poor success rate.

Ertz’s blocking is perhaps is only real weakness. Due in part to his height, Ertz appears reasonably lightweight and I’m concerned that at the next level he has to potential to be abused by teams rushing more than four men. Initially at least, this may limit Ertz to being the H-Back or flexed as a Y or even Z receiver.

Projected Round: 1-2

Tyler Eifert – Notre Dame | Senior | 6’5 | 252lbs

Eifert saw his productivity slide in 2012 but still lead the Irish offence with nearly 700 yards and 6 Touchdowns. Like Ertz, Eifert’s strength is in his ability as a receiver. He shows a natural instinct catching the ball, attacking the ball and bringing it into his chest with ease. This makes him a dangerous target both inside and outside the numbers.

Eifert can look sluggish off the ball and struggles in one-on-one situations, limiting him to a more traditional tight end roles with the occasional venture to the slot. Most impressive is his route-running which is smart and calculated before the catch, which is good as he tends to struggle after the catch.

As seems to be the fashion, Eifert’s blocking leaves a lot to be desired. Although he out performs Ertz as a blocker, he does not possess the footwork or strength to show pass rushers to the outside. As he already lacks explosion off the line, I doubt he will want to add mass but might have to if he is to fulfil his potential as the best all-round tight end in the class.

Projected Round: 2

Jordan Reed – Florida | Junior | 6’3 | 243lbs

The Florida Junior is taking a huge risk coming out before his Senior year in Gainsville. Playing just two years at tight end, the guy doesn’t look like the prototypical ex-basketball playing tight ends franchises seem to covet.

Despite this, he led the SEC in receptions for tight ends, due in part to his outstanding acceleration. Despite being a bit shorter than some in the class, Reed might be the best athlete in the tight end class and is versatile enough to be used in a number of different ways. What impresses most is his ability to find space and drag defenses out of position.

Reed’s ball security is a big concern. Despite a good initial attack, he has a tendency to let the ball slip either during or (more troublingly) after the catch with the fumble against Georgia being the key piece of film that naysayers will point to. However, poor this aspect of his game presently is, he has the instinct to be a competent receiver in the NFL. He just needs work on his concentration.

In a Conference hell-bent on getting upfield, Reed also flashed the ability to block although, again, this is hardly a strong point and he seems unable to sustain blocks and unlike the top two prospects, who both show willing (and in Eifert case good instinct) as blockers, Reed can sometime drift off.

Reed can only be considered as a project but he has the ability to contribute as a rookie. I could see a number of teams enthusing over his raw talent and biting the bullet before Day 2 is over.

Projected Round: 3

Gavin Escobar – San Diego State | Junior | 6’6 | 255lbs

Here’s a guy it’s hard not to love. The SDSU tight end has shown over the past season to be a one of the best and most natural receivers in the MWC. Despite a slight drop off in productivity (unsurprising due to the departure of shock-NFL starter Ryan Lindley at quarterback), Escobar lead the Aztec receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

Escobar shows phenomenal touch and picks the ball cleanly out of the air with very few drops to his name. He has consistently shown excellent concentration catching the ball across the middle of the field and shows no fear in getting hit.

Playing in a run-first team has helped Escobar who displays above average skill in run-blocking, gets into opponents’ bodies with speed and aggression, using his significant frame and arm length to his advantage.

Escobar’s weakness is without question, his pace as he rarely manages to get much separation. That said, his height, instinct and competitiveness will make him an instant Red Zone threat. That’s likely to be good enough for someone to mid-round pick on but this is a guy who might well climb boards as the pre-draft process continues.

Projected Round: 3-4

Vance McDonald – Rice | Senior | 6’4 | 262

One of the best physical specimens in the class, McDonald has benefitted from a trip to the Senior Bowl. Although he didn’t grab the headlines, he established himself as one of the best seniors coming out and he scrapes into this top 5 list. Just.

McDonald has been a productive receiver at Rice, spending as much time at reciever as he did on the line. McDonald is suited to a good vertical passing game and despite a handful of drops, usually uses his hands well, showing good touch.

McDonald moves very well after the catch and is always looking to get downfield, perhaps the reason behind some of his drops. Yet, much like Reed, concentration is his biggest weakness as a receiver but it’s a skill that all coaches will be confident of teaching the big Texan.

What’s more, reports from Mobile suggest that McDonald’s blocking is improving. In spite of some fairly damning tape, numerous sources have indicated that there has been a new found aggression and determination. It remains to be seen if this trait continues but all signs point to McDonald.

Projected Round: 4

Honourable mentions…

Dion Sims – Michigan State
Travis Kelce – Cincinnati
Ryan Otten – San Jose State
Joseph Fauria – UCLA

Follow us and James on Twitter at @SNL_Football and @InsideWarRoom.

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