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Meet Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman, the Secret Weapon at TE in the 2015 NFL Draft

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMarch 26, 2015

Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, center, is tackled by Indiana defenders Mark Murphy, left, and Antonio Allen during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Some NFL draft prospects are such well-kept secrets that even their college teams didn't know exactly how to properly use them. 

Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman is a perfect example of an underutilized prospect who will go higher in the draft than expected. 

The 2015 tight end class is considered one of the weakest position groups in April's NFL draft. Minnesota's Maxx Williams stands above the rest as the clear-cut No. 1 prospect and a potential first-round pick. The waters then get a little murky when trying to differentiate between the rest of the class. 

Clive Walford is generally considered the draft's second-best tight end prospect, but Heuerman isn't far behind the Miami product, if he is at all. 

A cursory glance will show that Heuerman didn't have a very productive career during his time in Columbus, Ohio. 

In four seasons with the Buckeyes, the tight end caught 52 passes for 792 yards and seven touchdowns. By comparison, Williams ensnared 62 receptions for 986 yards and 13 touchdowns during his two seasons as the Gophers' starting tight end. 

2014 Statistics for Top Tight End Prospects
PlayerSchoolReceptionsYardsYPCTouchdowns
WilliamsMinnesota3656915.88
WalfordMiami4467615.47
HeuermanOhio State1720712.22
ESPN.com

However, Heuerman's production never met his actual potential. 

Today's NFL is constantly in search of those rare tight ends who not only present mismatches in the passing game but competently block as well; let's call it the Rob Gronkowski factor. 

As talented as the Seahawks' newly minted tight end Jimmy Graham is, he's not a complete tight end. The same can be said of Julius Thomas, who received a massive payday from the Jacksonville Jaguars during free agency. 

There is still a high value placed on tight ends who can block and be a threat in the passing game, even though very few actually exist in the league. 

Heuerman presents the type of traits that allow him to project well as a legitimate dual-threat tight end.

Everything starts with a prospect's physical tools. 

The Ohio State product stands 6'5" and weighs 254 pounds with 34.25-inch arms and 10.125-inch hands. However, Heuerman didn't work out at the NFL combine in Indianapolis due to a lingering right-ankle injury. He did bench, though, and completed 26 repetitions of 225 pounds. 

At Ohio State's pro day, the tight end posted respectable numbers across the board. 

"...He kept that positive momentum going at Ohio State's pro day with a 40-yard dash in the 4.72-4.78 range and solid numbers in the vertical (34.5-inches) and broad jump (10-feet)," CBS Sports' Dane Brugler reported.

Each of those results would have placed Heuerman's among the top five performances at his position at the combine. His time in the 40-yard dash and the broad jump were particularly impressive and would have placed him among the top three tight ends in each event. 

It's then a matter of taking that raw athletic ability and translating it to on-field performance. 

While Heuerman was underutilized during his time in Ohio State, he displayed flashes that highlighted his natural abilities as a pass-catcher and an improving blocker. 

For tight ends, one question is asked about their abilities as receivers: "Can they stretch the seam?" 

Teams are essentially asking whether or not they can be vertical threats down the field, while also displaying enough toughness to make catches between a dropping linebacker and oncoming safety. 

Ohio State's offense didn't ask Heuerman to be a vertical threat often, but he proved to be one when provided with opportunities. 

As a junior, the tight end finished first on the team with an average of 17.9 yards per catch. To place that number into proper perspective, Devin Smith, who led the NCAA in yards per reception as a senior, averaged 2.9 less yards per catch during the same season.

Teams would often sleep on Heuerman, and the tight end would exploit the mismatch. 

Below is an example of a Purdue linebacker taking a wrong step against a play-action pass, and Heuerman was easily two steps behind him before he even turned to cover the streaking tight end:

Tight end Jeff Heuerman streaks past Purdue linebacker.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman streaks past Purdue linebacker.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

A 34-yard reception was the result, which set up a Buckeyes touchdown. 

Heuerman's athleticism also places stress on safeties when the tight end is asked to become more of a vertical threat. 

Here is a series of screenshots from earlier in the same game: 

Tight end Jeff Heuerman places pressure on Purdue safety.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman places pressure on Purdue safety.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

Purdue safety has a choice to make against Ohio State.
Purdue safety has a choice to make against Ohio State.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

Ohio State's Braxton Miller completes touchdown pass.
Ohio State's Braxton Miller completes touchdown pass.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

In the above example, Heuerman was able to place Purdue's safety into a predicament due to his ability to get vertical. 

The safety eventually rolled his coverage toward the field during the presence of two vertical threats. Purdue's boundary cornerback should have peeled off the shorter route to help with deep coverage on Heuerman. It was too late at that point. 

The tight end easily converted the 40-yard touchdown connection. 

Along with owning enough athleticism to be a downfield threat, Heuerman should prove to be a solid security blanket for some lucky NFL quarterback. 

Even though he didn't get to show it often, the Florida native owns a tremendous catch radius. Heuerman is athletic enough to go up high and pluck the ball out of the air or adjust to poorly thrown passes. 

Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod provided an example from Ohio State's pro day: 

Ben Axelrod @BenAxelrod

Jeff Heuerman makes a tough grab http://t.co/q9G6twy2nw

The ability to catch passes makes plenty of money for tight ends in the NFL, but willing blockers also have their place. Heuerman is more than adequate in both areas.

Ohio State asks its tight end to primarily serve as a blocker. Heuerman improved greatly during his senior year and consistently set the edge, which helped running back Ezekiel Elliott run for 1,878 yards in 2014. 

But let's go back to a game played much earlier in the year. 

During the 2014 Discover Orange Bowl, Heuerman was asked to block Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley one-on-one at certain points in the game. Heuerman held his own. 

Early in the contest, the tight end was able to reach and hook the future top-10 selection: 

Jeff Heuerman engages a block against Vic Beasley.
Jeff Heuerman engages a block against Vic Beasley.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

Jeff Heuerman successfully hooks Vic Beasley.
Jeff Heuerman successfully hooks Vic Beasley.Credit: NFLDraftBreakdown.com

As seen above, the tight end fired off the ball, extended his arms and played with good pad level. He kept his feet pumping and was able to reach Beasley's outside shoulder to successfully hook the defensive end, which allowed running back Carlos Hyde to bounce the run wide. 

This example was used because it's against arguably the best competition Heuerman faced during his career. 

System versatility should also be added to the equation. 

Heuerman played at the end of the line of scrimmage, as an H-back, and even lined up wide at times, too. He proved to be an effective contributor in each situation. 

But the tight end's allure doesn't simply reside with his physical tools and all-around game. Coaches will fall in love with him as a person. After all, his previous head coach did, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller: 

Matt Miller @nfldraftscout

Fun fact on Jeff Heuerman: Ohio State folks told me he's Urban Meyer's favorite player all-time. Including Tim Tebow.

Ohio State's strength coach Mickey Marotti even called Heuerman the "ringleader of what we want in terms of work ethic", per the program's official site

The tight end even contributed on special teams during his collegiate career. 

When his overall athleticism, on-field prowess and attitude are all taken into account, as well as the status of this year's tight end class, Heuerman should be viewed as a top-three prospect at the position. 

After Williams, the race to become the No. 2 tight end is wide-open. Teams may actually prefer Heuerman over Walford. Even if they don't, the Ohio State product should come off the board no later than the third round. 

Maybe Heuerman's future NFL team will finally be able to utilize the entirety of his game and get the most out of a very talented prospect. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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