NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
It’s September. The developments between now and next May are ever-changing. Through the college schedule and the pre-draft process, prospects’ stock will inevitably rise and fall. And the needs of all 32 franchises – including the New England Patriots – will follow suit.
While the 2014 NFL draft is eight months away, it’s never too soon to examine potential late first-round talents who could fit the criteria of head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. And in this exercise, we’ll look at three potential Day 1 options at a position generating plenty of discussion:
The Patriots are sorting things out offensively, and a healthy Rob Gronkowski in the huddle will certainly help open the throttle. With that said, Patriots tight ends have been on the receiving end of only one catch and two targets through two contests this season. Undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld is still acclimating, and veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan are utilized primarily as blockers.
The long-term ingredients might already be in place. But adding firepower at a position New England has leaned on remains an intriguing notion. In light of this, here are three top-tier tight ends worth monitoring.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the size at 6’6”, 276 pounds, and the athleticism as a former college basketball player. With those components on the docket, it’s no wonder he has so many eyes on him.
Seferian-Jenkins relishes as an in-line run-blocker, jabbing his hands at the opponent’s numbers and using his wide base. From there, though, he also knows how to disengage from blocks and slip downfield. He’s not overly fast and seems to take short strides in his routes. Although in jump-ball situations, he’s hard to defend.
Seferian-Jenkins be seen lining up next to the offensive tackle, in the seam or out wide, where he has been able to challenge secondaries with his physical frame and rebound for balls. He may not be known for yards after catch, but Seferian-Jenkins also knows how to stiff-arm and keep his feet moving through tackles.
The 20-year-old junior was suspended for the first game of 2013 after pleading guilty to a drunken-driving charge in July. Aside from his arrest – as well as ankle and pinkie injuries suffered over the last year – there are no other known issues holding him back from being the No. 1 tight end in 2014.
Colt Lyerla, Oregon
In a different mold than Seferian-Jenkins, the 6’5”, 250-pound Colt Lyerla can be seen setting up in-line, at fullback, H-back and in the seam within Oregon’s rapid spread offense.
Lyerla has good speed and explosion for the position, which figures to make him a versatile chess piece at the next level. Despite his slim build, getting off his blocks and downfield is not a glaring problem for Lyerla. He’s adept in containing pressure off the edge to free up the running game. And while he’s not heavily featured in the passing game – as evidenced by his production – the junior is a dynamic asset both vertically and horizontally.
He’s got the skill to make difficult catches, but he has not had a clean sheet in regards to the easier ones. Nevertheless, he knows how to get open. Lyerla is quick into the defensive backfield and dangerous when sneaking out into the flats. He creates opportunities for himself, running low and delivering the shoulder to pick up extra yards.
Lyerla has missed time for “personal issues” in the past. And he was unable to play against Tennessee due to illness, which led to a public venting about the way Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich handled the situation. But in the grand scheme of things, there doesn’t appear to be any long-term concern with the tight end’s behavior. The 20-year-old’s athleticism and shiftiness outweigh his inexperience. His abilities as an “F” receiver will draw many suitors, especially with two-tight end sets on the rise.
Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Seferian-Jenkins and Lylera headline the draft class, but not far behind is North Carolina’s Eric Ebron. A 6’4”, 245-pound Tar Heel, Ebron is a smooth runner who’s seen in-game work dating back to his true-freshman season in 2011.
Ebron may be one of the best athletes in this year’s group of draft-eligible tight ends. Case in point: He has also been used as a situational pass-rusher in North Carolina’s defensive front. He’s strong and he’s quick off the snap – on both sides of the line. Ebron’s ability to separate from the line of scrimmage nets him many targets, both over the middle and on the outskirts.
Post-catch, Ebron does an excellent job driving through tackles and reaching out to move the sticks. And as a talent who can expose linebackers and defensive backs from in-line and in the slot, there isn’t much holding the highly recruited pass-catcher back.
When it comes to sticking points, Ebron has two that stand out. Even though he has the long arms to make an array of catches, the junior has dropped more passes than a first-round caliber tight end should. In terms of blocking, Ebron is growing into his responsibilities but has some technical aspects to improve upon. Elements like hand placement, pad level, and lower-body leverage will continue to be addressed, as he can get circled at times. Yet in all, the 20-year-old’s upside makes him one poised to jump up draft boards.