Tight ends aren’t typically a first-round commodity; over the past decade only 14 tight ends have gone off the board in Round One, and in seven of the past nine years only one player at the position has warranted a first-round pick. Worse, those first-rounders have done nothing but lay eggs in their first NFL season; of the aforementioned 14, only Heath Miller in 2005 topped three touchdowns and only Jeremy Shockey in 2002 put up more than 540 yards as a rookie. The average production for a first-round tight end in Year One: 29 catches, 323 yards, and two touchdowns.
Maybe the entire class of 2010 will avoid the Curse of the First Round by simply avoiding the first round, though most mocks have one and sometimes two tight ends hearing their name called Thursday night. But that doesn’t mean the class is devoid of talent—or fantasy helpers.
The Upper Echelon
Brandon Pettigrew was the 20th overall pick in the 2009 draft, but in his final collegiate season he couldn’t even beat out Jermaine Gresham for All-Big 12 honors. Gresham likely would have been picked ahead of Pettigrew last year, but he opted to return to Oklahoma for his senior season. Unfortunately, he tore ligaments in his right knee and missed the entire season, so instead of using the Combine to solidify his perch he’ll need to demonstrate that the knee is fully healed. How he checks out medically is likely the difference between being a first-round or second-round selection. Working off the skills he displayed as a junior, Gresham has the complete package to play a traditional NFL tight end: he has the size and determination to be an effective blocker and the hands and route-running to be a quality receiver. If the knee is cleared at the Combine and Gresham shows he can still run, he’s the most likely member of this class to have a chance of proving the Curse wrong.
Sans Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy at Florida, Tim Tebow needed a new target in 2009—and Aaron Hernandez answered the call, leading all college tight ends in catches and yardage and becoming the first John Mackey Award winner (for best college tight end) in SEC history. However, scouts are concerned about how his 6-2, 250-pound frame will translate to the NFL. It’s unlikely he’ll be asked to fill a traditional in-line tight end role, but Hernandez is a good enough blocker to play H-back and has the hands and speed to succeed working out of the slot—too fast for a linebacker, too big for a corner. Since fantasy owners don’t much care about the blocking, so long as it doesn’t prevent a player from getting onto the field, in the right offensive system Hernandez has the potential to be a very productive fantasy tight end.
Another tight end who missed the entire 2009 season due to injury, Rob Gronkowski is every bit the complete package Jermaine Gresham is. He set school records for his position despite playing just two seasons at Arizona, and he has every attribute NFL teams are looking for in a three-down tight end: good hands, decent speed, and the size and aggressiveness to be a better-than-average blocker. The problem is a balky back that cost him all of last season and resulted in a microdiscectomy last fall. Gronkowski will be thoroughly poked and prodded at the Combine, specifically with regards to his back issues; a clean bill of health could lead to teams fighting over him as early as the second round.
Perhaps the tight end with the biggest fantasy upside in this class is Oregon’s Ed Dickson. At 6-4 and 243 pounds he has the size to create match-up problems, and the former wide receiver has enough speed to threaten defenses down the seam as well. Dickson improved his stock at the Senior Bowl, drawing comparisons to fantasy stud and current Packer Jermichael Finley with his route-running and athleticism. While he won’t blow anyone away with his blocking, Dickson has the frame and weight-room strength to at least not be a liability in that area. Competent blocking and dominant pass-catching is a combo most NFL teams—and any fantasy owner—is more than willing to accept.
If an NFL team is more concerned about the blocking they get from their tight end, but they still want some offensive productivity from the position, Tony Moeaki is the perfect fit. He may be a tad undersized at 6-3, 252 but he held up as an in-line blocker at Iowa and could handle the workload as a tight end, H-back, or fullback in the NFL. And while it may be his blocking that gets him onto the field, he has the offensive game to contribute as a receiver as well. Moeaki has good hands and knows how to get open, though he won’t drop any jaws with his open-field speed. The two major concerns about Moeaki as a pro are his limitations as an athlete (he’s a little shorter and a little slower than prototypical NFL TEs) and his durability; his injury history includes a broken wrist, dislocated elbow, fractured foot, concussions, and hamstring and ankle injuries.
Be Very Afraid
From an NFL perspective, Anthony McCoy should be a solid tight end; he has good size at 6-5 and 252 pounds, and his strongest asset is his blocking. In addition, he demonstrated quality route-running skills at the Senior Bowl and has a soft pair of hands. However, he hasn’t flashed the speed pro teams are looking for in a seam-splitting tight end and he may be doomed to short-yardage work and the occasional one-yard TD on a play-action at the stripe. That sort of tight end is a dime a dozen in fantasy leagues, and rarely worth even that much because their scores are so unpredictable.
Take A Chance On…
Clay Harbor has the same H-back size (6-2, 250) as a couple candidates mentioned above, but he also owns 150 career receptions for 1,906 yards. He’s not drawing the same attention as Hernandez or Moeaki because Harbor played his college ball under the radar at Missouri State. However, matched against a higher level of competition at the Texas vs. the Nation all-star game Harbor more than held his own as both a blocker and pass catcher. His receiving skills should earn him a late-round selection, and in the right system he could turn into a frequent mismatch candidate and a red zone favorite.
Who Needs One?
As noted above, tight end isn’t exactly a pressing concern that’s frequently addressed in the first round. This year the Bengals are the prime candidate, though they’re currently raving about 2009 pick Chase Coffman. The Ravens, Browns, and Bills might also be in the market to fill the position sooner rather than later, and while the Rams and Chiefs have plenty of other needs they may find a tight end value in the second or third round they simply can’t pass up. Later on in the draft, look for the Panthers, Cardinals, Broncos, Giants, and Patriots to add depth at the position.