While no Vernon Davis type of athlete or prospect exists, this year's class of tight ends features a pair of possible mid-to-late first-round talents and a solid core group of players that could contribute, especially as receivers, between rounds three and five.
Although not listed among the top five prospects, BYU has a pair of fine players at the position in Jonny Harline, a receiver/H-Back, and Daniel Coats, who may be the best pure blocker at this position in the entire draft.
A pair of interesting names that could jump out during the NFL combine are Western Oregon's Kevin Boss (who will not be able to complete a full workout because of offseason shoulder surgery) and Whitworth College's Michael Allan. Both small-school prospects have been timed in the mid-to-late 4.6-second range in the 40, and that could position them to be taken between the middle to late rounds.
Today's NFL game is all about creating matchup problems, so keep an eye on the players listed or talked about as "hybrid" guys. Offensive coordinators have their eyes open for prospects who can line up in a variety of roles.
TOP TIGHT ENDS
1. Greg Olsen, Miami (Fla.). An athletic underclassman, Olsen has the receiving skills to become a difference maker in the NFL. He shows above-average athleticism, balance and the best run-after-catch skills of anyone at the position this year. A long, lean body type allows him to separate from defenders as he creates an inviting target for the quarterback, and he can escape coverage thanks to his quick feet and long arms.
Olsen was better during his sophomore campaign, but teams keyed on him last season as he fought through some inconsistency at quarterback. He needs work as a blocker even though the effort usually was there, and he does not anchor his position well at the point of attack. He also fails to sustain his blocks at times because he puts himself in bad position and then just pushes or holds rather than digging in and powering forward. His erratic play comes only from a lack of playing angry or aggressively on the field.
Olsen allows some balls to get into his body, and he does not always fight defenders for the ball. (He had several balls stripped or knocked down.) Moreover, he was not an ideal target on third down. He has the skill level to become a go-to guy in the pros, though.
He's not explosive as it takes him a few steps to get up to full speed. While he runs in the 4.7 range, he does not appear that fast on his game tapes. Still, he will be a solid mid-range receiver and second option in the red zone. He even has served as a long snapper for punts with fine results.
Olsen, who won't turn 22 until March 11, has the body type to mature into a bigger, stronger, more physical player. If paired with an aggressive position coach who will push him to be at his best full-time, he has the natural skills to become a Pro Bowl-type player. His extra step of foot speed on the field gives him the edge over Zach Miller.
2. Zach Miller, Arizona State. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of All-Pro tight end and former Sun Devil star Todd Heap, Miller shows very good hands and creates problems for most opposing defenders as a short-to-intermediate receiver. He provides a big, strong and solid target, but he lacks the straight-line speed to threaten opponents vertically.
He can be a solid blocker at the point of attack, and he has showed the willingness and determination to make that part of his game special or just as important as if the ball were in his hands. That said, he needs to get firmer at the point of attack, and he does not sustain all his blocks long enough. He has good, but not great, overall strength. He could use a better anchor, but he would be sacrificing his speed if he gained too much weight.
Miller, who was Arizona State's go-to guy on third down, shows good balance and power to run through tackles and gain yardage after the catch. However, he can have some mental lapses on the field as he fumbled twice and had a few drops (including in the Sun Devils' bowl game), and he can be a bit overanxious, which is when he draws penalties.
The combine will not be the best advertisement of his ability and potential, as he is a very hard worker, but Miller is likely to produce a 40 time in the 4.8 range and just steady marks across the board. There are a handful of teams looking hard at the tight end position early in this year's draft, and Miller should come off the board in the middle or late portion of the first round.
3. Ben Patrick, Delaware/Duke. An excellent student, both on and off the field, he spent the formative years of his career at Duke, then made use of the new NCAA rule that allowed a graduating senior to transfer if he still had a year of eligibility remaining. He went looking for the best Division I-AA offense to showcase his talents, and the Blue Hens ended up being a perfect match for the former Blue Devil.
His tremendous senior campaign ended with him being invited to the East-West Shrine game before being added as a last-minute injury replacement at the Senior Bowl. Patrick led all Division I-AA tight ends with 64 catches, the third time he led his team in catches during his career.
He's dangerous after the catch as he will use a strong lower body and deceptive speed to hammer out additional yardage. He also stays low and plays with balance and power as a blocker. In fact, he does his best blocking on the move as he will get in front of his man and look for a linebacker to block after the snap if uncovered.
Patrick could be more aggressive, but he has the body type to improve as a blocker with more coaching and continued development. He will be more of a short-to-intermediate pass-catching threat in the NFL as he lacks that explosive extra burst to get into downfield routes fast enough to be a difference maker. This smart, hard-working prospect offers the next-best combination of pass catcher and blocker in this group for teams who pass on taking a tight end in the first round.
4. Scott Chandler, Iowa. A converted wide receiver who continued to grow in college, Chandler has developed into the latest successful tight end from Iowa's program, which has had four tight ends drafted since 2000.
Chandler has a tall, long frame that allows him to shield defenders from the ball, as his long arms help him disengage from defenders, but he has yet to use those arms to increase his stock as a blocker. He does more holding and shield blocking but fails to keep his feet moving and slips off blocks sooner than desired.
He has a long stride and takes a few steps to get up to full speed. However, he is a rangy guy who can grab hold of balls that seem out of reach, and he has room to grow in terms of weight and strength. He needs to be more aggressive in the weight room and develop a more intense work ethic. Any additional strength would help him most in pass blocking, where he has been rag-dolled on a few occasions because of his long arms but lack of lower body strength.
Chandler runs effective routes, plays with good balance, stays low in and out of his cuts and would be a solid fit for a team that uses a lot of two-tight end sets. He would become an even better pro than college performer if he could develop more of a mean streak on the field.
5. Matt Spaeth, Minnesota. If there's a prospect in this draft who will impress evaluators simply with his strong mental and physical approach and team leadership, it's Spaeth. He played through an injured shoulder his senior year in hopes of helping lead the Gophers to a bowl – a game that he subsequently could not play because of the serious nature of the surgery/rehab process needed to get him back to full strength.
Possessing long arms and very big hands, Spaeth takes up space as a blocker. Despite his natural size, he needs to get stronger at the point of attack. He can get himself in front of his man, but he struggles at times against quicker edge rushers, failing to get his feet back in place if beaten off the snap.
An ample target as a short-to-intermediate receiver, Spaeth lacks the foot speed to get into deeper routes. He's a little more athletic than he is given credit for as he shows good balance, but he is not the most flexible or agile prospect at this position. He had postseason surgery to correct his separated right shoulder and is expected to be able to work out before the draft.