The role of the tight end has changed a lot in the last few years. As spread offenses have taken over college football and inline blocking has become less of a priority in many offenses, tight ends have functioned more like "big receivers" and less like multifaceted offensive pieces in the historical sense. However, the best rookie tight end in 2010 was the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski(notes), who not only proved his ability to catch anything thrown his way, but also blocked inline like a smaller, less-practiced right tackle. So, it's still important for tight ends to do more than catch in specific offenses.
Who might look best at the next level?
Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame
D.J. Williams, Arkansas
Route-running: Has an excellent sense of route complexity; Rudolph is very tough in anything over the middle and will make catches in traffic off slants and crosses. Can hit the seam upfield and run the comeback. Sits down in zones and presents an easy target.
Route-running: Williams runs tight, consistent routes – he doesn't round things off. Better at using his agility to get off the line or out from the flex/slot against press coverage.
Release: Quick off the snap inline or in the flex position, especially for his size. Will get past nickel defenders on intermediate routes from the flex position. Excellent toughness on short routes in short yardage situations; will extend for the first down. Shows good short-area agility for a player his height.
Release: Gets off the line quickly and decisively – Williams has decent speed in intermediate areas and a second gear once he gets up to speed. Flexible enough to sell fakes and get open quickly in short areas.
Body control: Not an especially flexible player when he needs to extend his body on errant throws; will need to learn to reach in traffic and in tight coverage. Right now, quarterbacks must hit him in the numbers if they want a catch assured.
Body control: As with most aspects of his game, Williams has a command of the little things that show up here. Keeps a laser eye on the ball and can break coverage to bring in errant throws. Gets his body inline to burst upfield very quickly.
Hands: Generally a good hands-catcher with decent form, though he will drop balls at times that should easily be caught. Struggles at times to bring the ball in before heading upfield.
Hands: Perhaps his greatest asset. Williams has great discipline with his hands, lines them up and avoids body catches. Good at grabbing passes outside his body and bringing them in; can take errant throws and turn them into plays. Takes the ball right away from defenders at times.
After the catch: Will blast upfield with power, but he's not as effective as he could be after contact. Good leg drive but he doesn't break as many tackles as you'd expect of a player his size. Tends to fold before a big hit once in a while.
After the catch: Very good for his size. Physical player who will drive through arm tackles and fight for extra yardage. Somewhat elusive in space, though quicker defenders will catch up to him downfield. The challenge then will be in tackling him.
Blocking: Again, a disturbing lack of physicality at times. Rudolph has the frame to box out defenders and seal the edge, but he doesn't get low enough to win battles consistently. Problems are a matter of technique more than effort.
Blocking: Frequently debited as a potential inline blocker because if his height, but he's worked hard to be better at it. Willing to seal the edge and chips very well to go upfield. Speed ends will confound him, and he's more an H-back than a bulky blocker.
Intangibles: Acknowledged team leader with good work ethic, Rudolph was the first true freshman in Notre Dame history to start his first game, and started the 2010 season very strong before injuries stopped him short.
Intangibles: Williams overcame his early life in an abusive household; his father frequently abused his family and is currently serving consecutive sentences of 25 and 27 years for different charges. Won the 2010 Disney Spirit Award as college football's most inspirational player for his work as a student athlete, and his work on behalf of domestic abuse awareness. Respected by teammates and coaches. Self-described "Twitter addict" with a great sense of humor.
Conclusion: The common comparison for Rudolph is Gronkowski of the Patriots because Gronkowski is another big tight end who got injured during his last college season and came back to succeed. But I can't make that jump, because Gronkowski is so much better at getting open, extending to make a play, and especially in the blocking category – in his rookie season, Gronkowski was used as an inline blocker, and showed rudimentary tackle form. Rudolph brings most of the skills you'd expect of a hybrid tight end, but he'll be a lot better off if he works on the unglamorous aspects of the tight end position – the ones that make the best and most complete tight ends.
Conclusion: Williams was a key cog in Arkansas' dynamic passing offense, but he really impressed during Senior Bowl practice week when he showed everything he can do in a more isolated situation. His command of the things that make players great at his position beyond the things that pop off the tape could make him a crucial part of an NFL offense sooner than later.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog, and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.