How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Tight End Prospects?
The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"
It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.
Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?
With the skill positions almost complete—quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are done—here is a look at what it takes to scout tight ends for the NFL.
1. Know Your Scheme
The most important aspect to scouting a tight end is knowing how you will use them once you have them. This is where NFL teams are at a major advantage compared to those of us in the media trying to scout for all 32 teams.
An NFL scouting department is told by the general manager and/or head coach what to look for from each position, and while quarterbacks and running backs are largely the same, tight end has become a versatile, dynamic position with many different sets of criteria.
If you're the San Francisco 49ers, you want fast athletes who can run routes and be coached up as blockers. If you're the New England Patriots, you want a mixture of the traditional tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and a new-age flex tight end (Aaron Hernandez).
Before you can even begin to scout a tight end for your team, you must know your scheme. If you're scouting tight ends for every team, like we do in the media, then you must look at each player and determine which offensive role they best fit.
You wouldn't draft a Vernon Davis clone to be a classic in-line tight end, and you wouldn't draft a big, bruising tight end to fill the role of a flex tight end like Aaron Hernandez.
Once you know what type of tight end you're looking for, it's time to get down to business. Do we want a player who is primarily a receiver? If so, you have to start with the hands.
Tight ends will run a varied set of routes, depending on their college scheme and usage, but we can still track and score their ability to catch the ball at different levels of the field. Just like our chart used to track quarterback throws and wide receiver catches, I use the same basic chart to track tight end catches and drops.
When breaking down game film of tight ends, I'm not as picky about them catching with their hands and showing the fundamentals that we require from receivers when tracking the ball. Jason Witten has become one of the all-time greats, and he'll body-catch passes over the middle in traffic.
Obviously, body-catching can be a problem if the player can't consistently secure the ball, but from the tight end position it is acceptable to allow a little more leverage in how they bring in the ball. As long as the player successfully and consistently catches the ball, I don't care much how he gets the job done.
One added note on tight end catching: I want to see the player catch in traffic. Tyler Eifert was amazing at Notre Dame in traffic, catching the ball with ease no matter how many defenders were in his face.
This is an important aspect of receiving in the NFL—especially for tight ends who will be going over the middle often—and something that cannot be discounted on a final scouting report of the player.
Before we dive into blocking technique, it's very important to note that you can teach a tight end to be a good blocker if the willingness is there. Look at Vernon Davis, who came out of Maryland essentially an oversized wide receiver and is now one of the league's best run-blocking tight ends. The right coach can teach anyone to block.
But what if you need a player who can block right away? There are systems—Pittsburgh is one—where blocking is a must for the tight end.
The college game offers us a nice look at blocking from most tight ends, as coaches at that level are still largely looking at mismatch principles when run-blocking. Tight ends of all shapes and sizes are asked to set the edge, or at least weak-side block on an outside linebacker in the run game. This gives you a clear picture of how the player performs as a blocker.
What are we looking for from college blockers? If you need a player to step in right away and block in the NFL, you want to see toughness, quickness in getting to the defender, and accurate hand placement (inside the shoulders and with good spacing to control the defender no matter their next move).
A good blocker in the run game needs to play with their weight on their toes and their knees bent to give maximum pop when engaging a defender. If you can find that from a college tight end, treasure it.
More often than not every college tight end will need coached up as a blocker, but if you can identify a willingness to block, half the battle is won. It's easy to get caught up and say that Player A is better than Player B simply by looking at technique, but you have to factor in potential to get better once coached up.
3. Athletic Ability
We've all fallen into the trap of writing up a tight end and then moving him up the board once he performs at the NFL Scouting Combine. It's a slippery slope, and an easy habit to form, but why is athletic ability so important for tight ends?
This is a position that is easily influenced by potential. Quarterbacks, offensive linemen and most defenders can be graded on what they do right now, as they're early-impact positions. Running backs and wide receivers rely so much on athleticism that potential can be based purely on that one skill set.
But tight ends are unique in that what a player does in college can be the complete opposite of who he is in the NFL, thanks to potential and scheme changes from college to the pros.
Judging the athletic ability of a tight end can be done in-season by evaluating a player's game speed, his agility when moving in and out of cuts in a route tree, and in his strength coming off the line of scrimmage. Those three keys are invaluable to forming a foundation opinion of a player's athletic skill set.
But then comes the NFL Scouting Combine, where a player's full athletic ability is truly tested.
At one stop in my scouting background, I was handed a formula called the "Explosive Number," which is a numeric equation to give a solid number on a player's athletic ability. How does it work?
Bench Reps + Broad Jump + Vertical Jump = Explosive Number
While this is in no way a predictor of NFL success, this formula does give you a streamlined look at a player's athleticism. By taking the combine results, you can plug this formula in and see which players come out on top of the athleticism rankings.
It's always better to judge film over the scouting combine, but what I value about combine measurements is that you get everyone together on a level playing field. A tight end who may have dominated slow outside linebackers for big plays is judged equally with everyone else.
It's important to scout both film and off-field tests when looking at skill players—just try to remember that film is always the bigger part of the picture.
Just like blocking can be coached, so too can route-running.
It used to be that college tight ends knew how to run three routes—a quick out, a post and a curl. Those days have changed thanks to the opening up of college offenses, but we're still seeing a route tree dominated by seam routes and quick outs for tight ends.
Knowing which routes a player runs well now is important, but it's also key to know which routes the player can learn when coached. As with any position, the more a player can do right away, the higher he will be drafted.
One easy way to keep track of which routes a player can run is by charting them during a game. I use a simple yellow legal pad to draw out where the tight end lines up and then which routes he runs from that position.
This allows me to see what routes he can run from each of those positions. It seems simple, and it is, but it also works. Don't over-think a process just for the sake of being complicated.
Mental and physical toughness are so important to the game of football, but when evaluating a tight end—or anyone who plays in the trenches—you need to know how willing the player is to hit and be hit.
A running back or wide receiver is used to protecting his body when being tackled, but a tight end must deliver and absorb punishment as a blocker and as a pass-catcher. For that reason it's important to know the mental and physical make-up of your player. Does he enjoy blocking? Will be shy away from contact over the middle when asked to run through traffic?
This is an area where game film is very important, and why it is important to scout multiple games from the same player. Keeping a running note of the player's performance when asked to initiate contact and how the player acts when he knows the tackler is closing on the ball will give you a great look at the toughness of the player.
Being a successful tight end in today's NFL means being part fullback, part offensive tackle and part wide receiver.
It's a tough position to scout due to the differing demands on the position in each team's scheme, but evaluating tight ends is also one of the more fun positions to scout because the player is always doing something. There isn't a play where the tight end isn't involved in some way, and that makes for an enjoyable film study.
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