Eric Ebron is the consensus #1 TE prospect, but he’s joined by a few others in the discussion for the “Best Athlete” at the position (Photo: US Presswire)
By Marc Sluis, Staff Writer
The tight end position has endured a paradigm shift in recent years evolving from an athletically limited, run blocking specialist to a hybrid receiver with the separation skills of a wide out and the size of a tight end. With Rob Gronkowski being unreliable in terms of staying healthy the Pats could very well decide to supplement his elite skill set with someone who would complement as well as fill in for the man we call Gronk.
The NFL Scouting Combine developed as a central location for evaluators to convene and, well, evaluate future NFL talent. There are multiple drills, tests, medical checks and grueling interviews designed to analyze everything about a prospect and whether or not he’s worth the million dollar investment.
Ask those in the know and they’ll tell you the medical checks are the most crucial. Just take how Cyrus Kouandjio’s stock has taken such a bit hit after several team doctors failed his medical check (complications from a knee surgery). That being said most of us aren’t doctors and most of us would rather watch prospects run and jump as its much more entertaining. Unless of course you’re a House junkie I guess.
But how exactly do we judge a prospect’s potential based on the information we gather at the combine? To be honest a lot of what’s televised and reported is for show. I mean does an offensive lineman ever run 40 yards in a straight line? However, it does give you a picture of his overall athleticism, movement skills and coordination. In fact the combine is built to do just that: gauge athleticism. There is a clear distinction between athleticism and skill. Skill refers to the acquired or learned abilities you can actively practice, improve and eventually master. An example of a football skill would be for a running back to carry the ball high and tight, an offensive lineman to execute a proper cut block or for a quarterback to master a seven step drop. All those skills are vital to being successful at the NFL level, but to be elite it requires talent.
Talent is the inherent raw ability to jump higher and run faster than the competition. Although yes its possible to “learn” to run faster through technique and practice, but everyone is limited by their genes. And you certainly can’t learn to be taller. So, let’s focus on the main aspect the combine helps to evaluate. Talent. Every position needs a different type of athleticism. Height is great, especially for receivers who need to attack the ball at its highest point, but interior offensive linemen lose leverage at anything over 6’5 or so.
The following is my attempt at being creative. I took the most athletic prospects at each position and used the intensity of the color green to map each prospects level of talent at each attribute or measurement. The darker the green the better or more elite a prospect is in terms of that particular trait. Height and weight are listed first and then what I consider to be the most important trait next. Notice how the 40 is one of the last indicator for the offensive line.
The list is predominantly based on pure measureables and combine results with what is seen on tape as a lesser component. It tries to find not the best overall athlete but who has the best set of physical traits to play the tight end position.
Colt Lyerla, Oregon
Lyerla has clear first round talent, but sever off field red flags that will push his stock to the mid to late round range. Some teams will even take him off their boards completely. My opinion matters little but I’d be awfully cautious with someone who is a threat to be taken off the field not for his play but decision making between games. Athletically speaking he’s special and a prototype “F” tight end who acts as a gloried wide receiver split outside, in the slot and even in the backfield.
His vertical and broad jumps demonstrate the lower body explosion to get up for the ball in the red zone, but its his speed and toughness that make him a weapon in the middle of the field. While not the strongest at the position (his 15 reps will scare teams) he is tough to bring down after the catch and has the speed to run away from linebackers and even safeties.
AC Leonard, Tennessee St.
The other talented tight end prospect with major character issues doesn’t get the buzz Lyerla does but the situations are relatively similar. Leonard was booted off the Florida Gators (officially a mutual decision) and received a second chance in the form of Ohio Valley Conference football.
At that level he looked out of place at times using great speed, long arms and the skill set of a receiver to overmatch defenders. Leonard was never considered a prospect the caliber of Lyerla but does offer a hybrid receiver option to teams willing to overlook or come to terms with what he reportedly did to his girlfriend
Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
On paper Niklas is the ideal tight end prospect. 6’6 270 lb with big hands, long arms and a well proportioned frame are what you’d use to create the ultimate tight end in Madden. On the field he’s not too shabby either if untested. He’s widely considered the best blocking prospect along with CJ Fiedorowicz but offers far greater potential than CJF both as a blocker but more so as a pass catcher. He looked natural running routes but there isn’t the body of work as a receiver that’d you would see with guys like Ebron, Amaro or even Seferian-Jenkins.
Finding a true two way tight end is something so difficult most teams give up and keep two distinctly different players on the roster. One to primarily block and anther to be a pass catcher. Then again, you can take a dual threat like Gronk and pair him with just about anyone to create a dynamic duo. The fact that the Pats have such a rare commodity would suggest a speedier, hybrid type would fit better next to Gronk. However, Gronkowski has struggled to stay healthy and adding a tremendous blocking prospect who can also get open and abuse defenders in the red zone to play WITH Gronk would be tough to pass up.
Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Ebron is hardly a tight end, although nowadays that hardly matters and can even be a complement. The Tar Heel actually has some decent functional strength and might have more upside as a blocker than some people think. His top ten overall status is build entirely on his athletic ability and prowess as a pass catcher.
He might be undersized as a tight end but split out wide his 6’4 250 lb body will be a flagrant mismatch against any corner or safety and his 4.60 speed will be no match for linebackers. That skill set would seem to complement the Pats current cast on offense but there is no chance he’s a Patriots unless a deal is done. His vertical was much less impressive than expected but he shows much better explosion and leaping ability on tape and that is a much more important piece of data.
Marcel Jenson, Fresno St.
A tight end is a mismatch either because of his size or athleticism. Jenson is the prior but does show some sleeper athletic ability with a 35 inch vertical. Height and arm length are certainly elite for the former Fresno St. Bulldog and his big hands (a tad less than 10”) unite to build a red zone monster in the making.
In Tim DeRuyter’s quick spread attack Jenson had very little opportunity to be the possession style receiver teams that draft him will mold him into. As evidenced by his average 20 yard shuttle and 3 cone drill results he is not the quickest or fastest guy in a straight line or changing directions smoothly. But he does have some linear explosion and gives his quarterback plenty of room for error as his catch radius is as high as anyone.
Jace Amaro, Texas A&M
Amaro is a better player than he showed in Indy and by all accounts he improved upon his results at his Pro Day. I do like that he measured the at the same size as Fiedorowicz when Amaro’s size was not considered a plus.
He also confirmed his lanky frame you see on tape with 34 inch arms but his 9” hands are a red flag. Teams will surely question whether or not he’ll be able to squeeze the ball when contested but his game is more of a receiver running in space and exploiting any team foolish enough to match up a linebacker on him. His agility results were average but tape tells a different story. I’ve mocked Amaro to New England a few times, but that is not a pick I’d chose again.
CJ Fiedorowicz, Iowa
CJ Fiedorowicz is not known for his athleticism so his combine results were a little surprising. CFJ is known for his run blocking and would allow teams to employ an almost extinct species: the in-line blocking tight end. Not that he’ll ever be a major receiving threat but he has big strong hands and underrated foot quickness and agility.
Tags: 2014 TE prospects, AC Leonard, Colt Lyerla, Eric Ebron, Marcel Jenson