NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The NFL regular season is in its final week, which means that many front offices are setting their sights towards May’s NFL draft. Yet like all organizations in playoff contention, the offseason evaluations of the 11-4 New England Patriots remain on the back burner.
But with many college prospects suiting up for perhaps the final time this bowl season, an unrelenting reminder is in place – the NFL’s future is only months away. And one position that figures to draw its share of intrigue in the near future is tight end.
For Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and football research director Ernie Adams, it’s a position that will be monitored closely from here on out.
Now this draft may not carry the deepest tight end pool. It may not carry the highest level of firepower, either. But regardless, it carries prospects who could fit New England’s personnel and schematic need.
In light of that, here is a closer look at four tight ends the Patriots could take an interest in over the coming months.
Eric Ebron, North Carolina – 6’4”, 245-pound Junior
North Carolina’s Eric Ebron plays on punt return and kick return units. He lines up in in-line, in the slot, in the seam and out wide. He’s no stranger to five-wide sets and will be a sought-after talent for two-tight end offenses. He has the makings of a first-round draft pick.
A prominent runner of post, dig, out, curl and screen patterns, Ebron is resilient off the line in separating from defenders and dynamic after the catch. He catches the ball in stride and has the field vision, as well as lateral movement to break 10-yard receptions into 40-yard ones. A first-team All-ACC selection, Ebron looks the part as a mid-air attacker, adjusting to make difficult and sometimes acrobatic grabs. Ebron’s open-field and sideline ability creates opportunities for teammates; he has the body of work to attract safety coverage over top and free the outskirts.
He could have a better catch radius and hands. He also has a tendency to drop the easier passes but is improving in that respect. In terms of blocking, he must improve his positioning, as he can get lost on a play and allow opponents to sidestep him en route to the backfield. In that area, he can be a liability when he relies on his hands to make up for lapses in footwork and downhill leverage.
Ebron is not a complete tight end. Although when considering the entire product, the two-year starter has the skill set, the speed and fluid motion to develop into a Vernon Davis-style player down the road. NFL scouts will be hard pressed to find a better athlete at the tight end position in the 2014 draft. And he’s only 20 years old.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech – 6’5”, 260-pound Junior
Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro lines up as a wide receiver, in the slot, in the seam, as an H-back and in-line. The 21-year-old has the size and strength to sustain blocks at the point of attack and force his opponents back with low pad level and punch. And while he’s not the prototypical “Y” tight end, Amaro looks to be a better blocker than his catch totals suggest.
As a receiver, he runs smooth and has an eye for finding space on vertical routes. But he also has the build to work the underneath-to-intermediate ground and make contested receptions. Amaro is turn-key when it comes of catching the ball away from his body and reeling it in on the run. And after the catch, he showcases competitive speed and vision to net extra yards. Although not elusive, he can fight for ground and lower his shoulder to acquire first downs.
His first full season as starter was just this fall. In which, the San Antonio native continued drives and punched in touchdowns with a steady clip of eight receptions per game. And even if his superior production came in the Red Raiders’ air-raid attack, Amaro was a heavily targeted option for good reason.
While not a burner, Amaro is a sound route-runner, pass-catcher and run-blocker, and those three strong suits make him a well-rounded prospect for almost any offensive scheme. If he decides to declare, he figures to be a first-day candidate.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington – 6’6”, 276-pound Junior
A former Washington Huskies basketball player, Austin Seferian-Jenkins has the size to establish the red zone and the line of scrimmage as both a target and blocker. In the passing game, he is seen lining up on the line, off the line as a wing, as an H-back and in the slot. And in the running game, he uses his bulk efficiently to drive through linebackers and ends.
Some refinement in respect to hand use and leverage would serve Seferian-Jenkins well – as more agile edge rushers stunt him and thrust him upright. Moreover, he lacks the quickness to separate, but his ability to compete for the football alone is another dynamic of separation in itself.
With long arms and a thick frame, No. 88 is hard to miss; his catch extension exemplifies that sentiment as well. Now this year’s John Mackey Award winner is not the most explosive pass-catcher, nor is he the type of player who will take over a game. Still, he can shift into second gear when open space allots for it. And from there, his power and momentum is hard for defenders – especially defensive backs – to halt. Because of that, Seferian Jenkins is an underrated option on quick screens and outs.
At this point, the 21-year-old is not a finished product. The rise of Ebron and Amaro has likely relegated Seferian-Jenkins to the second tier. Yet as a towering target with the upside to mismatch defensive backfields, the second tier isn’t a bad place to be.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa – 6’6”, 265-pound Senior
Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz is the top senior tight end in the country, and it’s because the 22-year-old is as steady as they come. Fiedorowicz isn’t outstanding as an athlete or a receiver. But as far as all the requirements in the job description go, he does them well. His starting experience with the Hawkeyes dates back to his sophomore season in 2011. And he’s well-versed as a special-teamer and secondary tight end, too.
More of a conventional in-line tight end who can be an asset as a tall and well-grounded blocker, Fiedorowicz knows how to establish the edge and thrust his opponent away from the C-gap. He possesses ideal length to hold his own out of the gate. As a receiver, Fiedorowicz is – in a word – reliable. He can fend off jams at the line of scrimmage and find the soft spot secure the football. He’s physical and uses good body lean to sway defenders. And his hands have proven to be worth trusting in the mid-range passing game.
Post reception, Fiedorowicz lacks breakaway speed and the change of direction to eclipse his man. He appears to have reached his limit in that respect. Nevertheless, he has the route-running ability and decisiveness to outlast coverage – notably inside the 20-yard line. So while he may never be a game-breaker, there’s reason to believe Fiedorowicz will be a plus-receiver and an A-plus-blocker at the next level.
And for what it’s worth, Fiedorowicz has been under the tutelage of Kirk Ferentz – a former offensive line coach from Belichick’s tenure with the Cleveland Browns.