With the recent advent of the spread offense, college tight ends have been divided more and more into two distinct subgroups; "big receivers" who play the flex position and block once in a while, and basically sixth-man linemen with unspectacular 40 times and logey route consistency. Occasionally, you'll get a guy who can still do it all, which is why Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew(notes) set the pace in last year's draft. Pettigrew's 4.8-40 didn't matter, because he came out big, tough, consistent, and productive. The top of our 2010 list features another player who seems to have everything going for him (except injury luck) ... after that, the questions get a little bit louder.
Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma): The 2009 Sooners offense was a big cauldron of "What If?". When Gresham tore ligaments in his right knee in August, followed shortly thereafter by Sam Bradford's first shoulder injury, Oklahoma's two biggest gamebreakers were shut down for the season (Gresham) and very limited (Bradford). Much was expected after he caught 66 passes for 950 yards and 14 touchdowns in the team's 2008 Circus of Points. A serious home run threat for his size (6-foot-6, 258 pounds), Gresham was consistently getting downfield for big gains going back to his days as a true freshman in 2006. Gresham is very solid with route complexity, but where he really stands out is in his ability to make defenders look very, very silly after the catch -- he's a monster in the open field, and anyone trying to arm-tackle him is going to wind up in a bloopers video. Like Bradford, Gresham is a few good medical evaluations away from some very big bucks. Pettigrew went 20th overall to the Lions, and a healthy Gresham might carve out a similar spot come draft day.
Aaron Hernandez (Florida): Where Gresham just overpowers and then outruns defenders, Hernandez impresses downfield with a smooth agility that brings any number of running backs to mind. He led all NCAA tight ends in catches and yards in 2009 (68 and 850, respectively) and became Tim Tebow's primary target after the departures of Louis Murphy(notes) and Percy Harvin(notes). Hernandez will find a place in the NFL, but at 6-foot-2 and 250 pound, it may be as an H-back. He'd be a great asset to any option/Wildcat team, and he'll probably go in the second round.
Rob Gronkowski (Arizona): Gronkowski is another great talent who missed all of 2009 due to injury -- in his case, it was a back injury suffered in fall camp. In 2008, he missed three games due to mono and still caught 47 passes for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's got ideal size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds), great hands, and the ability to block, but health is a skill, as well.
Ed Dickson (Oregon): Dickson is one of the new breed; he'll make his bones as a receiver with extra size as opposed to a great blocker. He's got good release off the line and the ability to get free in traffic and make things happen after the catch. Dickson made All-PAC-10 first team and impressed during Senior Bowl week. Any team with plans for two tight ends -- one blocking and one receiving -- would benefit from his acumen.
Anthony McCoy (USC): Others may blow you away with a few select characteristics; McCoy may be among the most well-rounded (if unspectacular) tight ends in this class. Nothing he does really stands out -- he's got good size, runs routes well for a pro-style guy, makes an impact as a blocker, and has good hands -- but nothing on the field really drops out of the picture, either. Several academic suspensions have made some question his focus, but that might be obscured by the general feeling that the SC program hasn't been ... shall we say ... the most aboveboard in recent memory.
Honorable mention: From Tony Gonzalez(notes) to Antonio Gates(notes), there's an impressive history of basketball players-turned-tight ends in recent NFL history. Miami's Jimmy Graham is one to watch in this regard, having played only one year of football after four seasons of basketball for the Hurricanes. He's not a great blocker, and he's still putting it all together in a football sense, but his athleticism makes him a project player well worth considering.