Draft Notes: TE superlatives and rankings

Happy Wednesday, friends.  Today, we pick up where we left off in our Draft Superlatives series with the tight end position.  In the modern NFL, most of the best innovations in the passing game are coming from teams finding creative ways to employ tight ends.  Do you remember how Peyton Manning said last year that much of the Broncos' game plan revolved around how teams play Jacob Tamme?

What he meant was that when a team has a TE who can flex out and run routes the way Tamme can, a defense is given an impossible choice; if they play base defense, and try to cover the TE with a LB, they’ll struggle with that coverage.  If they play nickel defense, and try to cover the TE with a safety, they may have better success in coverage, but it will tend to come at the expense of their success in stopping the run.

Defenses tend not to have many players who can both cover a TE and hold up in the run game.  That’s why a team like San Francisco, which has two such players in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, can look so dominant on defense.

Throughout most of the NFL, though, offenses with good tight ends have the advantage.  That has made the tight end position somewhat more highly valued than it used to be, but I’d say that it’s still not valued highly enough.  You always see the best TEs going in the second half of the first round, and into the second round.  Good teams can really get a bargain on them, in other words.

For today’s discussion, I want to quickly define three terms that I’m going to use.  They’re not necessarily terms that every football guy uses, but they’re the ones I favor.

Inline TE – An inline TE is a guy who tends to almost always line up with his hand on the ground, tight to an offensive tackle.  These players tend to be tall and big, and they tend to have good blocking prowess.  The best ones are every-down players who catch the ball well too, and can run routes coming from a three-point stance.  You’ll often hear these guys referred to as the “Y.”  The best one in the NFL is New England’s Rob Gronkowski, and for the current Broncos roster, think Joel Dreessen.

Move TE – These guys are usually called H-backs, which is a bastardization of what the term “H-back” originally meant.  (The position was invented in order to get a big guy in position to block Lawrence Taylor, wherever he lined up in the defensive alignment.  Early H-backs weren’t really good receivers.)  I like Move TE better, because in the modern NFL, these tend to be shorter, shiftier guys, who are thicker than WRs.  They get used in the blocking schemes too, but they tend to be best coming in motion laterally, where they can build up some momentum to make up for their smaller size.  The best one is New England’s Aaron Hernandez, and the Broncos don’t really have one at this point.

Flex TE – These are players with normal TE size, but with unusual fluidity and route-running ability for that size.  They can line up as a Y, tight to the line, but you tend not to get the greatest value from them as blockers.  Their best value, though, is flexed out from the line, in a slot or wing alignment.  If a defense is playing base, and has a man-to-man call on, a lot of times, that forces the Sam LB to walk out away from the box to man them up.  That reduces the box count for the run game, and also provides a good matchup in the passing game.  The best of these players in today’s NFL is Jimmy Graham of the Saints.  Historically, I consider Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, and Antonio Gates to all be Flex TEs, and for the current Broncos, Jacob Tamme is a good example of one.

Now that we have that covered, here are some superlatives for a pretty strong incoming 2013 TE class.

Best Blocking TE

Michael Williams, Alabama – Williams is a big guy, at 6-5, 270 pounds, and he’s really noticeable as a run blocker for the Tide, who consistently blew teams off the ball for his entire college career.  There’s not much there as a receiver, but he can really help a run-first team.

Best Catcher of the Football

Zach Ertz, Stanford – Ertz really makes catching the ball look easy, and his gracefulness for a guy who is 6-5, 250 pounds is impressive.  I think that Ertz is going to be one of the leading NFL receivers at the TE position for a decade.

Best Runner After the Catch

Jordan Reed, Florida – Reed really only played regularly at TE for the Gators for one year, as he often played QB in his first two seasons.  He’s from New London, CT, which is the town in which I was born, so he’s got that going for him.  Reed is a little raw at this point, but he’ll remind you of fellow Gator (and Connecticut native) Aaron Hernandez when he gets up to speed in the NFL.  He’ll be a steal as a second-rounder.

Best Vertical Threat

Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame – I don’t think Eifert’s route tree was all that extensive or impressive at Notre Dame, but he can sure get up the seam, and keep those safeties close to the hashmarks.  Eifert is nearly as good a hands-catcher as Ertz, and I like his ability to catch the ball in traffic the best of any TE in this class.

Most Versatile Skill Set

Travis Kelce, Cincinnati – Kelce is an underrated name, but I think he’s going to be an excellent player in the NFL.  He’s the brother of Eagles center Jason Kelce, and he has very good blocking skills, which must run in the family.  In addition, he’s just below the level of Eifert and Ertz as a downfield receiver.  A team is going to take Kelce in the second round, and they’ll get an above-average 10-year starter.

Most Tamme-like

Gavin Escobar, San Diego State – Escobar gives you little in the running game (like Tamme), but also like Tamme, he can flex all over the formation, and go downfield and catch the ball.  Escobar ran a little slower than expected at the Combine (4.84) but he looks faster than that on film.

Best Scoring Area Threat

Dion Sims, Michigan State – I don’t view Sims as being a real consistent downfield target between the 20s, because I don’t love his movement skills.  In short areas, though, he’s good at using his excellent size to shield off defenders and make catches in traffic.  For a 265-pound guy, he’s more of a good blocker than a great one, but I can definitely see him being a starting inline player in the NFL.

Most Intriguing Athlete

Matt Furstenburg, Maryland – I like Furstenburg’s tape better than draftniks seem to, and he had a really impressive showing at the Combine.  He was among the leaders at the TE position in 40 time (4.62), vertical jump (35.5 inches), and both shuttle runs.  He has the kind of agility and explosiveness that’s going to get him drafted earlier than most expect, and which will give him a shot to be a really useful player in the NFL.

My Rankings

Inline TEs

  1. Travis Kelce
  2. Dion Sims
  3. Michael Williams
  4. Vance McDonald, Rice

Move TEs

  1. Jordan Reed
  2. Matt Furstenburg
  3. Chris Gragg, Arkansas

Flex TEs

  1. Zach Ertz
  2. Tyler Eifert
  3. Gavin Escobar

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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