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Shutdown Corner

NFL Draft Rankings: Tight ends not very deep, but UNC's Eric Ebron could be special

Leading up to the NFL draft on May 8-10, Shutdown Corner will examine each position, rank the top players at each spot and try to identify some top sleepers, sliders and lesser-known gems.

Tight end has become a vital position, with teams using the hybrid position for both run and pass blocking, receiving and as key members of special teams units. With true fullbacks becoming less common, more clubs are opting for versatile tight ends, including those who can occasionally line up in the backfield and will keep four or more on the active roster.

As recently as 2010, a banner class at the position the likes of which we might never see again (Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jermaine Gresham, Aaron Hernandez, Dennis Pitta and others), there were 20 tight ends drafted. The past three seasons that number has been 15, 12 and 12. That's about the range you can expect to hear called off the board over draft weekend.

It's not a banner class this season, with only one player — North Carolina's Eric Ebron — showing the type of rare athleticism that could make him a true difference maker (more receiver than blocker, though).

But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. In fact, there are 5-6 potential starters in the group, including Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, Notre Dame's Troy Niklas and Washington's Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. Beyond that, there are some intriguing developmental prospects with redeeming qualities.

Overall, is it a jaw-dropping class? No, not at all. But there should be 7-8 contributors, and Ebron has the best chance to be the best of the group.

Here are our top 10 tight ends for the 2014 NFL draft (not what order they will be drafted but how we think they ultimately will perform in the NFL):

Ranking Player School Height Weight Notable statistic Skinny
1. Eric Ebron North Carolina 6-4 250 Broke Vernon Davis' ACC receiving-yards record for TEs Ebron isn't on Davis' athletic stage, but he's just shy of that — with elite receiving ability
2. Jace Amaro Texas Tech 6-5 265 Breakout season in 2013: 106 catches, 1,352 yards, 7 TDs Detached tight end with receiving touch, toughness to become an improved blocker
3. Troy Niklas Notre Dame 6-6 270 20 tackles as freshman pass rusher; converted to TE as sophomore Poor man's Gronk who needs refinement but could be best of the bigger TEs this year
4. Austin Seferian-Jenkins Washington 6-5 262 Fell from 69-852-7 receiving in 2012 to 36-450-8 in '13 Ran wind-aided 4.53 at pro day, proving massive mover is past right foot surgery
5. C.J. Fiedorowicz Iowa 6-5 265 Caught 91 passes for 999 yards, 10 TDs in 51 games Massive run blocker with huge wingspan might never be more than adequate receiver
6. Colt Lyerla ex-Oregon 6-4 242 Ran 4.61 40, top broad and vertical jump among TEs at combine Highly athletic H-back must prove to teams he has matured greatly after legal problems
7. Marcel Jensen Fresno State 6-5 259 692 receiving yards, 7 TDs last two seasons combined Strapping, athletic specimen could be better in pro scheme with continued development
8. Crockett Gillmore Colorado State 6-6 260 Recorded slow 40 (4.89) but great vertical and broad jump Yoked-up, high-energy tight end opened eyes at Senior Bowl but might be No. 2 material
9. Trey Burton Florida 6-2 224 Produced 2,445 yards, 17 TDs past two seasons combined Jack of all trades could win team over with running, receiving, special-teams ability
10. A.C. Leonard Tennessee State 6-2 252 Combine-best 40 time (4.50) among tight ends Florida transfer shined in Indy but must answer character questions after multiple incidents

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Crockett Gillmore (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

SLEEPER

Gillmore

He made a splash after showing up late to the Senior Bowl, catching a touchdown pass in his first practice and dunking the ball over the goal post. (Note to Crockett: That's illegal in the NFL now.) But Gillmore cleaned up some of his blocking assignments in Mobile and looks the part of a solid No. 2 tight end. The Texas-bred Gillmore might play with flare, but he's no-nonsense, says teammate Weston Richburg, and NFL teams appear to be interested in the upside of the converted defensive end.

OVERRATED

Seferian-Jenkins

Touted as a possible first-round pick entering last season and with the body of a Greek god, Seferian-Jenkins took a long time to get going in 2013. Part of that can be blamed on injuries, which definitely slowed him down early in the year. He appears to be recovered from foot surgery this winter. But we might always be waiting for this basketball convert to fulfill his potential. Few athletes can move the way ASJ can, but he isn't yet a complete blocker and must prove to be completely accountable.

SMALL SCHOOL WONDER

Dixie State TE Joe Don Duncan

One of the more unfortunate breaks was Duncan suffering a broken foot while training prior to the Senior Bowl. His blocking, athleticism and hands certainly could have been on display amid a so-so TE crop in Mobile. Duncan pumped out 35 reps on the bench press at the combine and has received good medical reports (although he has a lengthy injury history) in recent days. Duncan is smart and committed to the game and his tape flashes some shocking ability if he can stay on the field.

COULD SLIP

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Jace Amaro at his pro day (AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Stephen Spillman)

Amaro

Amaro is a good player who was overhyped considering his incredible production this past season. The more scouts have pored over the tape, the more they want. Right now, Amaro is as much potential and upside as he is a ready-made product. There's a chance he slips to the late second round after being mentioned in the first-round range.

COULD RISE

USC TE Xavier Grimble

Although many scouts felt Grimble could have benefitted from another year in school, he has slowly risen up the charts and could end up in the fourth- or fifth-round range. Injuries (shoulder, calf, ankle) set him back this past season, and Grimble never fulfilled his big-time hype coming out of high school. But he has the frame and athleticism to be a good down-the-road investment for a patient team.

LATE-ROUND STEAL

Burton

He's never going to be a true, in-line blocker and likely will have to make it playing a variety of other roles. But the team captain and multi-talented player has make-it traits and could be a producer in the passing game for a smart team that uses him properly.

PLAYER WHO WILL GO UNDRAFTED BUT SHOULDN’T

Missouri TE Eric Waters

Mizzou featured three NFL-caliber receivers and a loaded backfield, so there were not a lot of plays in the offense that featured Waters as a receiver — he caught only eight passes last season, and a mere 14 in three seasons. But the highly athletic Waters was the Tigers' best perimeter run blocker, a key special teams contributor and he stunned observers at MU's pro day with a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and a 39.5-inch vertical jump that would have been tops in Indy (had he been invited). A smart coach like Andy Reid or Bill Belichick could roll the dice on Waters' upside.

IDEAL FIT

Ebron to the Jets

Yes, the Jets probably want to get back to a ground-and-pound offense that would require Ebron to hone his blocking skills. But they also badly need a seam threat to tilt the field, and that's exactly where Ebron makes the most hay. He has a boisterous and confident demeanor, the kind that will work just fine in New York and for Rex Ryan. This pick just makes too much sense.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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