When evaluating the final four playoff teams of the 2011 NFL season, one thing is clear, the value of tight ends in the NFL is at an all-time high. Similarly, if you look at the tight ends on display in those championship games, you will see that value has been found in a wide range of rounds in the NFL Draft.
The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (second round) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth round); the Ravens’ Ed Dickson (third round) and Dennis Pitta (fourth round), and the 49ers’ Vernon Davis (sixth overall pick) and Delanie Walker (sixth round) all prove that you can find a threat at the position in almost any round of the draft..
With that said, the third round has been particularly fruitful of late with Chris Cooley (81st), Visanthe Shiancoe (91st), Jermichael Finley (91st), Tony Moeaki (93rd) and the now poster child for receiving tight ends, Jimmy Graham (95th) being selected on Day 2.
But here’s the problem: The 2012 group of tight ends is not particularly impressive, even if you’re searching for late-round value.
The top prospects, in no particular order, are Georgia’s Orson Charles, Stanford’s Coby Fleener and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen. Unless reaching for need, none appear to be sure-fire first round picks and all three of them could easily still be on the board in the mid-to-late second round.
But the talent pool is shallow, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a team had to select one of these guys in the late first or early second simply because that team has a void on its current roster.
At just 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Charles is undersized for a traditional point-of-attack type tight end, but his value comes in creating mismatches in the middle of the field. He will be difficult for a linebacker to cover, and may be too bulky for a safety to get an appropriate jam at the line of scrimmage.
If Charles can show he can be a move blocker, his value will increase. His size and skill-set isn’t all that dissimilar to 2011 prospect D.J. Williams, and he wasn’t selected until the fifth round by the Packers.
Fleener looks to be the best all-around prospect with great size and a willingness to compete as a blocker. I have heard him draw comparisons to Gronkowski, but that may be a bit of a reach. He isn’t nearly as physical as Gronk during his run-after-catch, but Fleener could be a similar vertical threat up the seam in that type of offense.
Dwayne Allen is the prospect that displays the more traditional skillset of a tight end. Because of that all-around ability, he is comparable to Brandon Pettigrew in that he can be an effective pass catcher, but can also impact the running game as a point-of-attack blocker. He just isn’t elite in either discipline. The Lions had to use the 20th overall pick to get Pettigrew, but that could prove to be a little rich for Allen.
After those top three, the most interesting prospect that fits the value of a third rounder is Missouri’s Michael Egnew. He has the size and athleticism to go along with the Graham body-type. Although he rarely lined up as a traditional tight end, Egnew showed that he is the type of downfield threat that typifies today’s elite tight ends.
Egnew put his athleticism on display at the combine during the various drills, but his inconsistent hands were somewhat disappointing. Teams would love to gamble on his potential — the question becomes, how long do you wait to pull the trigger for fear of losing out on him altogether? This scenario will likely push him up higher than he probably deserves to be picked.
Look for a team like Denver (second round, 57th overall) or the Giants (second round, 64th) to maybe pull the trigger early. Or will Buffalo (second round, 41st) reach as the Bills tend to do?