The days of the tight end being an extra offensive lineman are dead. Today's tight end must be equal parts wide receiver, fullback and offensive tackle.
The current passing-friendly era of the NFL has brought a renewed importance to the tight end position. Fast players with long arms and big frames are the new matchup nightmare preferred by offenses and feared by defensive coordinators. NFL teams are looking for size but also speed, agility, balance and most importantly hands. You can see a full list of what scouts want in our "How to Scout" series, but today's tight end looks more like an NBA power forward.
And that's good news for this year's draft class. The top 10 players feature speed, size, long arms and the hands to catch in traffic or stretch the field. Here are the best of the best among tight ends for 2014.
Watch any Dixie State game and you're destined to be enamored with tight end Joe Don Duncan. And mostly because he's not just a tight end. Duncan was the focal point of the Dixie State offense, and that tiny school in Utah used every one of his skills to push the ball downfield.
Duncan is, first and foremost, an exceptional athlete. At 6'4" and 270 pounds, he definitely looks the part and plays with the type of strength you'd expect from a player that stout. But there's also impressive quickness in space and straight-line speed here. A 2012 knee injury cost Duncan his junior season, but this past season he looked back to 100 percent. That's what the NFL is banking on.
Duncan's size, athleticism and natural abilities stand out at the small-school level, but projecting those traits to the NFL you see a starting-caliber tight end with the all-around tool set to be a very good pro.
Fresno State tight end Marcel Jensen is so much more than just the guy who caught passes from Derek Carr. He's a big, long, thick athlete with impressive movement skills for one of the bigger players in the class.
Jensen, at 6'5" and 264 pounds, is one of the most impressive tight end prospects from a physical and athletic standpoint. A man that big is expected to be heavy-footed and lumbering, but Jensen moves easily and has good change-of-direction skills. He also knows how to use that size to box out defenders and high-point the ball away from his frame.
The former Bulldog is an exciting player considering what he can do now and his potential to improve with NFL-level coaching. And with his size, it's easy to project him as a matchup player in the red zone and running up the seam busting Cover 3 defenses.
A late invite to the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl, Colorado State tight end Crockett Gillmore was one of the more impressive players in Mobile, Ala. last month. His head-turning hands and route running meant a rush of film study after the game, as Gillmore wasn't on my radar before heading to the game.
He is now. And will be sticking around for a long time.
Gillmore showed the movement skills of an H-back at the Senior Bowl, and that's what you want from a tight end in today's NFL: Being fluid enough to break down in space and change direction yet strong enough to beat press coverage and maintain balance while getting jammed and rubbed at the line of scrimmage. Gillmore did all that while showing strong hands and the ability to make tough grabs off the line of scrimmage or out of the backfield.
The NFL is all about getting the most athletes on the field as possible these days. With the trend of smaller, faster, more dynamic tight ends all the rage, California's Richard Rodgers stands to gain from the innovations on offense.
Rodgers, at 6'4" and 245 pounds, has the body-type teams want from the position. Built like a small forward, Rodgers has the speed and length to beat defenders with a variety of skills. He'll post-up over the middle, but also shows the quickness to make plays in space. That versatility is huge for the tight end position.
Just a redshirt sophomore when he left Cal, Rodgers' film is limited, but his talent is not. Teams who ignore his statistics and focus on his athleticism and upside will fall in love.
Georgia's Arthur Lynch is a throwback player stuck in the wrong era. And that might be what teams love most about him.
Watching Lynch play, you're reminded of Heath Miller and Ben Coates—two very good athletes but not the NBA-style tight end we're seeing today. That's Lynch. He's an all-around athlete, showing both quickness and strength, but he makes his living with timing, positioning and the power to outmuscle defenders for the ball. He won't outrun a safety up the seam and to the end zone like Julius Thomas, but he will put a defensive end on their butt in the run game. And Thomas doesn't do that.
Lynch's ability to step right into an NFL offense as a three-down player cannot be overlooked. In a day and age of specialization and super-athletes across the board, the versatility of Lynch is a refreshing sight. He's ideal for today's game because he'll never have to leave the field, allowing an offense to remain versatile and secretive in personnel packages and substitutions.
There's a lot to like here, but the appeal to Lynch is that he's a do-it-all tight end.
Ready for a tight end who can crush defenders on the edge, move up field and extend away from his body to make tough catches? If so, you're ready for C.J. Fiedorowicz.
The Iowa tight end was well-coached coming out of Kirk Ferentz's system. Like the many great NFL offensive linemen and tight ends to leave Iowa before him, Fiedorowicz is a true three-down player. With his size (6'6", 262 lbs) and athleticism, he's strong enough to play in-line next to the tackle and make plays as a run-blocker or receiver. That's the versatility you want at the position.
Fiedorowicz isn't a smooth athlete in space, and he won't run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, but he also won't be overpowered by a strong safety or weak-side linebacker coming off the ball. He gets into his route, and like a good power forward, he'll box out and use his long arms to pick the ball out of the air. If your favorite NFL team can use that skill set, go ahead and fall in love with Fiedorowicz.
When the 2013 college football season ended, there were several Notre Dame underclassmen expected to forego their final year of eligibility for the NFL. The lone surprise was Troy Niklas, and that left many evaluators, like myself, going back to the film to scout the big tight end. The results were good. Surprisingly good.
It's easy to look at Niklas and compare him to Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph, two of the better tight ends to leave South Bend in the last few seasons. While comparing Niklas to former players from the same team can be a lazy exercise, it's also not far off the mark.
Looking at his game, you see a tight end with ideal size (6'6.5" and 270 lbs) and the movement ability of a smaller man. He looks huge on the field until you see him make a cut in a route and leave the coverage behind. And when asked to kick out a defensive end or linebacker in the run game, Niklas puts all 270 pounds into his blocks.
I talk a lot about three-down tight ends, and Niklas is pro-ready one right now.
What would happen if you took a smaller left tackle and gave them the agility of a wide receiver? You'd have a 280-pound receiving threat and true three-down player with incredible versatility both in terms of on-field use and in designing offensive formations and personnel packages.
That's what you get with Austin Seferian-Jenkins. At a listed 6'6" and 276 pounds, Seferian-Jenkins is a mismatch that few NFL defenders can deal with. He's too big and too powerful for a safety but too fast and powerful for most outside linebackers. How do you cover him? That's a good question.
Seferian-Jenkins must improve his consistency, and there will be concerns about his lack of elite production, but when projecting his abilities at the next level, it's hard to not fall in love with his potential. In one player you have an in-line run-blocker, a seam-busting pass-catcher, a big body for goal-line packages and a red-zone target with the length and athleticism to attack jump balls.
Sign me up for that.
The new era of NFL tight ends features a smoother, more streamlined, athletic player. That description perfectly fits Jace Amaro.
The Texas Tech tight end comes to the NFL ready to attack all over the field. Amaro is the perfect athlete for the flex tight end position—meaning he can line up in the slot, in the backfield, in motion or split out wide like a wide receiver. No matter where he starts the play or where he eventually releases into his route, Amaro is the type of athlete who will always provide a mismatch. And that's why NFL teams love him.
The hands of Amaro are strong, tough and battle-tested. He'll pull the ball down in traffic and doesn't shy away from contact. And at 6'5" and 260 pounds, he has the size to beat defenders in one-on-one situations with speed or power. There aren't many matchups Amaro can't win when put in a man coverage scenario, but that's a problem for defenses to worry about.
A legitimate top-25 talent in this year's class, Amaro is an exciting, game-changing weapon on offense.
No matter the position, athleticism always wins out in the NFL. And if you're at a position where you're either touching the ball or asked to cover the guys trying to touch the ball, speed is the most important athletic trait scouts look for.
If the NFL is still a height, weight and speed league, then teams are going to love Eric Ebron. The North Carolina tight end doesn't move like a tight end, and that open-field ability he brings to the table is tantalizing. Give him an inch and a little daylight and he's gone. And that's from an in-line or flexed position. Ebron doesn't care. Just give him the ball and watch big plays happen.
But he's not just a pass-catcher. Ebron worked his tail off to improve as a blocker in 2013. He's capable of taking angles and playing with leverage to hold off strong or weak-side linebackers, and he'll even crack down on defensive ends if needed. But the reason you're drafting him, ultimately, is all that speed he brings to the offense.
A true weapon, Ebron is this year's most exciting and most NFL-ready tight end.