Stanford TE Zach Ertz finds himself in a dogfight to claim the top spot in this year's draft at his position. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS – If you’re an athletic tight end with the ability to run routes and catch passes entering the NFL these days, chances are life is about to be pretty good.
While much of the discussion about the evolution of the league centers on running quarterbacks and the emergence of a passing league, the fact remains that there’s one position that has probably changed more than any other over the past decade.
That position is tight end, where players no longer resemble nothing more than a glorified third tackle and now look more like NBA power forwards stretching the field down the seam and running 40 times that would make some wide receivers blush.
So if you are, say, Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, the player widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best tight end in the 2013 NFL Draft, chances are there are quite a few teams who covet your services far more than they would have 10 years ago.
“I'm lucky to be coming in at a time where the type of tight end that I am is being used quite a bit,” Eifert said. “In the passing game but also a guy that can stay in the game on every down throughout the game and can also block and create mismatch problems in the passing game.”
A look around the league reveals that many tight ends have come that have helped re-define the position. Tony Gonzalez started the trend and has established himself as the best to ever do it. He could retire this offseason but if he does, he’ll do so knowing he can still play at a high level and with the resume of the best to ever do it.
Since Gonzalez, a former basketball player, entered the league, others have followed in his footsteps. Fellow former hoopers like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham have come along and taken it even further. The likes of Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have helped make this something of a golden age of tight ends in the league.
Once asked to spend most of their time blocking while going out for the occasional pass route, tight ends are now viewed as legitimate offensive weapons, the types of players whom defenses must plan for during the week and lose sleep over on Saturday nights.
The influx is expected to continue in this year’s draft with what appears to be another class full of talent at the top.
According to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, one need only look to the alphabet’s fifth letter to find the next trio of tight ends capable of continuing the position’s evolution.
“There are three guys at the top of this class that are very similar,” Mayock said. “Eifert, (Zach) Ertz, and (Gavin) Escobar from San Diego State. All of them are 6'6", plus or minus 250 (pounds). And it will be interesting to see how the three run against each other, because they're all clumped together by most teams right now.”
It’s unknown how the Rams view those three and the rest of the tight end class but it remains possible that they’ll be paying close attention to them in the coming months.
Despite a solid season from
Rams general manager Les Snead has emphasized a need for weapons for the offense but has also stressed that those weapons can come in all shapes, sizes and yes, positions.
Armed with three picks in the top 46, it wouldn’t be inconceivable for the Rams to use a pick on one of the big three tight ends.
Through the scouting combine, Mayock believes it’s Eifert who is the best of the bunch with Ertz close behind.
“If you asked me to rank them today, it would be Eifert first, because I could line him up in-line, even though he's not a stone killer, trust me, he's not,” Mayock said. “But he can at least play leverage and block in line. However, both of their strengths are getting down field and catching the football.”
Eifert emerged as the Fighting Irish’s best offensive weapon in 2011, posting 803 yards and five touchdowns on 63 catches. For an encore, he put up 685 yards and four touchdowns on 50 catches in 2012.
Like his fellow tight end prospects, it’s not the pass catching that has teams wondering Eifert’s value. It’s his blocking.
While Eifert looked better than the other highly touted tight ends in that regard, he’s getting plenty of questions about it.
“That has been what everyone said I was lacking,” Eifert said. “So I've spent a lot of time working on my blocking with coaches, working on the technique things, the little things, the footwork, hand placement.
“I think I'm better, I'm still not where I want to be. There is still a lot of room to improve. I've made a conscious effort to improve and I think I have.”
If Eifert has teams questioning his blocking, then Ertz is certainly facing more than his share of questions.
The Stanford product stepped into the void left by Coby Fleener, who was the second pick of the second round by Indianapolis last year, and posted 69 catches for 898 yards and six touchdowns as he established himself as one of the country’s best pass catching tight ends.
Ertz, who said he tries to model his game after some of the all around tight ends like Witten, said he is well aware he’s entering the NFL in something of a golden era for his position.
“I think seeing what all those tight ends do and all those things they've been doing, it is very neat,” Ertz said. “You see Jimmy Graham out there against corners all the time and just seeing what he does is very impressive. It's something that I just hope I can do at that same level.”
Unlike Witten, though, Ertz doesn’t come with much in the way of a track record of blocking. Playing more of a “move” tight end position for Stanford, Ertz wasn’t asked to block in line much during his time in Palo Alto.
While teams can certainly deploy him in a similar way in the NFL, to be the top tight end taken in the draft means having a bit more versatility than just catching the ball.
Ertz said it’s a fair question and, like Eifert, something he’s hoping to improve.
“I take a lot of pride in my run blocking,” Ertz said. “It's something that I've worked on the past four years specifically. It's something that I look forward to working on.”
Escobar is a bit more of an unknown after playing his college ball at San Diego State. But in some ways, he might be the most intriguing of the prospects because of his size and athleticism. He, too, is facing questions about whether he can block or not.
“The feedback I’ve been getting from most teams is they like my pass catching ability,” Escobar said. “They’re a little concerned with the run game. I’ve been trying to tell them I’m willing to do that and I’ve been working hard at that, and over time I can only improve.”
Beyond what Mayock thinks is a big three, this year’s tight end class includes some other intriguing prospects such as Cincinnati’s Jason Kelce, Florida’s Jordan Reed, Rice’s Vance McDonald and Michigan State’s Dion Sims.
By the time the draft rolls around, though, Mayock believes if you want an impact tight end cut from the cloth of some of those that have changed how the position is viewed, it’s best if you get in position to get one of the three E’s.
“I like the tight ends, but there is a dropoff after three, so you could see a little bit of a run,” Mayock said. “A team wants a tight end, but they might want to make sure they're in that top three.”