November 7, 2009; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers tight end Dwayne Allen (83) scores a touchdown against the Florida State Seminoles at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE

Examining The TEs In The 2012 Draft Class

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These days the NFL is very, very different. Defenses are bigger and faster than ever before, making running the ball as hard and as punishing as it can be. Meanwhile, rule changes in the NFL have forced pass defenses into handcuffs, allowing receivers and quarterbacks to function largely at will if the talent is there. That’s the reason we had not one, but three quarterbacks challenge Dan Marino’s now-shattered yardage record in a season, and why Cam Newton had the best passing yardage of any rookie QB ever.

The NFL is also a league of copycats. Taking full advantage of the pass-first philosophy the league clearly wants the teams to embrace, QB Tom Brady the New England Patriots lit the world on fire by featuring a duel threat of lethal tight ends who can make noise down the field. Tight ends, after all, are the ultimate utility guys; the position’s flexibility serves for endless possibilities based on whatever talent you wish to acquire: blockers who receive? Receivers who block? H-backs? In-line specialists? Out wide?

The Patriots quickly acquired two talented, sizeable, super-athletic tight ends who compliment one another and provide golden mismatches all over the field. And teams are starting to take notice. Now everybody wants two tight ends that can make noise all over the field, and the Kansas City Chiefs are no exception. Hell, it makes a ton of sense in Kansas City, since stud TE Tony Moeaki is a constant injury threat.

But ask yourself: which other teams in the league could truly claim they have two tight ends they love, outside of the Patriots? Not one. Most teams will be scouring the 2012 NFL Draft for another tight end to compliment the one they’re relatively happy with. Some don’t have any that they’re happy with, and may want two.

The problem with this is that the talent just isn’t there in the draft this year. For my money, there are no top-end prospects that demand a first round pick, although there are a trio of tight ends of second-round value I really like. As a result, teams will be reaching for tight ends all over the draft, so the Chiefs may want to be wary of drafting at this position.

Nevertheless, I am committed to giving you an introductory rundown of some of the prospects I’ve followed and graded out this year at the position. The vast majority of the players at this position are projects; this is not a very strong draft class at this position.

Check out my rundown of this year’s QB prospects, as well as this year’s RB prospects.

Dwayne Allen, Clemson (projected: 2nd)
6’4″, 255 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
50 receptions for 600 yards & 8 TDs in 2011

Allen is an NFL-sized tight end who has experience doing just about anything you can ask a tight end to do. He can split out wide (where he clearly prefers to play but doesn’t exhibit the on-field ability to excel there in the NFL), he can play in-line (which his size dictates would be his best spot but his blocking needs a ton of work), and he can even take plays out of the backfield if he’s asked to do so (only occasionally, at best). Allen would have been a first round pick five or six years ago; since then, the standards of the NFL draft demand much more speed than he brings to the table. If you’re going to take a TE with a first round pick, you want someone who can be a critical part of your offensive attack. I don’t think he is that,though– I think he’s a good complimentary piece that’s reliable enough with his hands and strong enough in his route running that he can help your offense capitalize when the defense sucks too much attention over to your stars. He will need some development as a blocker, but he’s really the only prospect I see in this class who can be exactly the kind of Hernandez/Gronkowski clone most teams are looking for.

Coby Fleener, Stanford (projected: 2nd)
6’6″, 240 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
34 receptions for 650+ yards & 10 TDs in 2011

I don’t think there are any key first-round tight ends in this draft. You typically want a guy who can play the role of a star receiver from the in-line position and tack on some blocking for good measure. You want a difference maker that force defenses into mismatches. Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham. I do not see Fleener, a very tall, decently athletic route-runner, in that class of talent. I do see him as a very reliable second- or third-target. He has a lot of the escapability from coverage and the ability to target any soft spots in a zone defense are what set him apart from this year’s pack (though Orson Charles is not far behind him). There is no tight end route he can’t run; I wouldn’t ask him to streak deep or anything, but he presents such a great matchup in the intermediate game for any quarterback looking for the safest possible outlet. His frame allows for him to bulk up, so I think Fleener does have some “boom” potential in the blocking game.

Orson Charles, Georgia (projected: 2nd)
6’3″, 240 lbs; projected 4.6 40 yard dash
45 receptions for 550+ yards & 5 TDs in 2011

In a normal year, Charles would be a bottom 3rd-round, top 4th type prospect. He is a true boom-or-bust kind of prospect, with daring speed and great hands that would make him the second coming of Jimmy Graham in the right system. But he also needs a LOT of coaching that I don’t feel he adequately received at the University of Georgia. But this year, there is no top-end must-have tight end, so I think a prospect with such ridiculous upside as Charles is going to entice a few more teams. These are the years of the tight end, and every team believes they need more than one dynamic tight end to match what Brady and the Patriots have accomplished. Charles would be a good fit in Kansas City, as Kansas City already has a great workhorse in Tony Moeaki who could use a more dynamic compliment. Charles may never develop into that “true” tight end that can block and receive in equal parts, but he adds some in-line dynamism and can line up out wide on a regular basis.

Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette (projected: 3rd)
6’6″, 235 lbs; projected 4.6 40 yard dash
51 receptions for 600 yards & 8 TDs in 2011

Which brings me to my favorite prospect in this draft at the tight end position. I think Ladarius Green has the ability to be a star in this league. He is blessed with phenomenal length — that slender 6’6″ frame could easily fill out in a year or two, and with his Kevin McHale arms, he plays like he’s closer to 6’9″. He comes from a small school, so he needs to be coached waaaaay up; his route-running is decent and will need work, his blocking is darn near pathetic and will need to be completely re-done. But he is truly a gazelle in the open field, as fast as any TE in this draft class outside of Orson Charles, and has the biggest catching radius in the NFL Draft this year. Paired with Moeaki, the Chiefs would have a combination of two of the more athletic tight ends with strong, brilliant hands.

David Paulson, Oregon (projected: 4th)
6’4″, 245 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
31 receptions for 400+ yards & 6 TDs in 2011

I think people bury the lead with Paulson. He is a darn good receiver that simply wasn’t featured in the Ducks’ amazing offense this year. There’s no real holes in his game; you’re getting good hands with fantastic blocking for a guy who doesn’t have elite size. He’s going to be more of a complimentary TE or a backup than he is a guy who can create a ton of noise in the league but the good news is you can put him on the field and expect him to fulfill his role without much trouble. Paulson’s already entering the NFL at his floor, so there’s virtually no chance of him busting– he’s the safest TE pick you can make. He doesn’t have much of a ceiling, however, so you’re getting what you’re getting.

Michael Williams, Alabama (projected: 5th)
6’6″, 270 lbs; projected 4.8 40 yard dash
16 receptions for 200 yards & 2 TDs in 2011

C’mon, who wants a big ugly? Every draft’s gotta have one. And if you’re looking for a pure blocking tight end, they don’t come any purer than big Michael Williams. He is like a sixth offensive lineman on the field, and is about that versatile… you can send him into a route if you want, but he’s about on par with Leonard Pope. However, he brings the pain like Jason Dunn. Not much to profile here that you don’t already know from your dreams.

Rhett Ellison, USC (projected: 5th)
6’5″, 245 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
22 receptions for 140 yards & 2 TDs in 2011

Jack of all trades and a master of none. If there is something you ask a tight end to do, Ellison can do it. He won’t do it in ways that will earn highlight films or the praise of anybody but the most attentive of fans, but he’ll do it effectively enough. He is a good (not great) in-line blocker, a good (not great) route-runner who can get open despite his pathetic numbers this season. He is a good (not great) H-back who can plow for running backs out of the backfield  He can line up out wide or serve effectively in underneathe routes for the quarterback and can go to work as a red zone target. That versatility will make him attractive to a large number of teams in the midrounds, as I don’t envision any NFL offense being completely unable to work him in in one way or another unless it’s some kooky Mike Martz offense that hates tight ends.

Michael Egnew, Missouri (projected: 6th)
6’5″, 250 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
50 receptions for 500 yards & 3 TDs in 2011

Egnew proves the fantasy football adage that a receiver is little more than his chemistry with his quarterback. Switch out quarterbacks, and the exact same sets of players will all of a sudden look radically different. Different receivers get the ball, different routes are run, and different talents are utilized. The most extreme example of this in college football is Michael Egnew, who put up All-World numbers last year as a junior with future NFL first round pick Blaine Gabbert chucking him well over 100 passes in a single season, 90 of which he was able to haul in. But alas, not all quarterbacks are created equal, and the second an average quarterback is under center, Egnew’s flaws become apparent. He’s not particularly fast, not too athletic, and for all his great size, Mizzou never asked him to block in-line. So you really have no idea what you’re getting here, but the Jaguars may be supremely interested due to his connection with Gabbert.

Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern (projected: 5th)
6’3″, 235 lbs; projected 4.6 40 yard dash
45 receptions for 500+ yards & 6 TDs in 2011

I noticed this guy while watching (and loving) Northwestern QB Dan Persa. Persa is a Tim Tebow kinda player at the QB position, doesn’t have the word “quit” in his vocabulary, makes a bunch of unconventional plays and has some ridiculously weird stat-lines. His safety valve that kept popping up time after time was this guy who’s not that big, and not that great of an athlete, Drake Dunsmore. Surrounded by crappy teammates, Dunsmore was really the lone weapon Persa could rely on all year, and he made Persa look a lot better by continuing his routes and fooling coverage schemes. I think he’s probably a very smart player, and although I honestly don’t know a lot about him, I love how he’s able to get open despite being the only freaking weapon Northwestern has downfield. He’s a bit undersized, but he’s surprisingly fast. I see a sleeper.

Kevin Koger, Michigan (projected: 6th)
6’3″, 260 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
23 receptions for 250 yards & 4 TDs in 2011

A biiiiig project of a big tight end, it’s not exactly clear what Koger has to offer. Granted, Michigan’s offense has been pretty ugly this past season, but whenever I watched Koger play, I did not see an NFL prospect. So I am not stepping up to the plate to defend this guy for any other reason than he’s mentioned across virtually all draft sites as being a relatively valuable prospect. He’s got good hands, but he runs crap routes. He’s not that fast, and he doesn’t dominate at the point of attack enough to be a blocking tight end. It’s possible some team whats to try to stow him away on a practice squad for a couple years, but like I said, I don’t see it.

George Bryan, North Carolina State (projected: 6th)
6’5″, 265 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
33 receptions for 300+ yards & 4 TDs in 2011

Bryan is your typical NC State prospect: the measurables make you drool, but he’s going to take a lot of development to get where he needs to be. Bryan is a damn big tight end who blocks like a truck. It’s such a blast to watch him work defensive ends in-lne and linebackers at the second level. It’ll be interesting to see if he can take that talent to the NFL; he’s certainly got the size for it, but NC State prospects are always so raw. (I’m not sure how much coaching they do at that school…) He’s got a little of zing to his downfield runs, so he can actually develop as an effective receiver on hot routes and as a safety valve, a 4th read if need be for a desperate QB  looking for an outlet. Typically teams don’t like to take blocking tight ends if they have to develop them, so it’s possible Bryan may dart around on a couple of teams before landing somewhere he fits.

Josh Chichester, Louisville (projected: 6th)
6’8″, 240 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
28 receptions for 400 yards & 2 TDs in 2011

Here’s a fun science experiment: take one of the tallest, lankiest players in this year’s draft and turn him into a full-on tight end. Because Chichester is one tall guy, and he has plenty of room to grow, but I’m not entirely sure what he’s going to be growing into. He needs to put on substantial muscle, he hasn’t performed hardly any substantial blocking work at Louisville, and the Cardinals’ offense rarely targeted him in the red zone despite having such fantastic size. Why? Because he can’t shake coverage in tight areas. He’s more of a strider than he is a juker, and at that point, the only direction he has to go is up to get a football. I don’t know… I’m withholding judgment on how willing I’d be to develop this guy until after the Combine. It’s possible he emerges with some intriguing measurables and athleticism that I haven’t been seeing on the field.

Chris Pantale, Boston College (projected 7th)
6’6″, 250 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
21 receptions for 236 yards & 3 TDs in 2011

I love Boston College prospects because they come from a pro-style offense, they have incredibly high character, and they’re usually very smart. It saddens me that no Boston College players color the Chiefs’ roster. At this level of the draft, it’s typically your smarts that allow you to instantly find your place in a scheme, and I don’t know much about Pantale because BC’s offense was absolute crap this year, but he can be an effective blocker and he can find some space downfield if your offense is competent enough to give him a chance. You must find these smart late-rounders to be successful, which is what GM Scott Pioli was doing by drafting Yale FB Shane Bannon last year. If he wanted to take another shot at that approach this year, you could find worse prospects than Pantale.

Brian Linthicum, Michigan State (projected: UDFA)
6’4″, 250 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
31 receptions for 350+ yards & 0 TDs in 2011

When you get to the bottom rounds, you’re largely looking to fill out the deepest parts of your roster, your practice squads, and your special teams units. In that respect, Linthicum makes sense to me. I think he could find himself a role in the NFL in jumbo packages and any time the offense wants to open the game up a little bit in short yardage.  Really I don’t think he’s much of a prospect, but he had a good start to his football career playing in Clemson. Since transferring from Clemson, however, he’s been in trouble with the law and has struggled all over the field.  Some team that doesn’t place an emphasis on character can take a whack at him to see if a change of scenery is what he needs… but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Anthony Miller, California (projected: UDFA)
6’4″, 260 lbs; projected 4.7 40 yard dash
24 receptions for 250+ yards & 3 TDs in 2011

I’ve seen a lot of scouting reports that complain that Miller doesn’t really give full effort, and that might be reason enough to avoid drafting him. But, as a UDFA prospect, you literally have to earn your way onto the back end of a team’s roster, and you don’t stay there for long if you can’t keep up the goods. I’d say that’s a decent low-risk, high-reward idea for a tight end with above average speed and size. His numbers aren’t gaudy either, but that’s because the Bears don’t really seem to give a damn about tight ends in their offense. I think he may be a sleeper if some team thinks they can channel his enthusiasm.

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