Scouting the Broncos: Tight ends

As we covered last week, the Broncos are well-stocked at wide receiver; meanwhile, the tight end position is somewhat more of a cipher. This is the position that many fans consider the least important on the field. On the other hand, the legendary Sid Gillman said that with two good TEs you could control the entire middle of the field. The comment may be a little dated, but it’s still fair to note that you can use TEs mainly as blockers, send them underneath when you need three or so yards, throw them up the seam against Cover 2, or employ them primarily as receivers with a wide spectrum of routes - and, you can still use them as blockers. You can set them out in a three-TE set that’s sometimes called a ‘Magic 3’, with a good blocking/receiving WR and a RB/FB who can block, run or receive to drive the other defense nuts and who can run or receive a pass in multiple ways out of that formation. However - that’s not how new Broncos coach John Fox tends to like to use them, and whatever happens will take that into account. The point here is, though, the TE position has long been underestimated and has a world of approaches and uses.

Fox tends to like blocking TEs, historically, although he isn’t opposed to using one as a receiver at times. The fact that Fox understands what he likes makes the position easier to fill. Bill Walsh once commented, “Requirements for a tight end depend heavily on the system being deployed. It's almost a necessity to find the athlete who best fits your system of football.” I think that covers it.

# Name Ht Wt Age Exp School 2011 Salary Signed Through
85 Daniel Coats 6-3 264 26 4 Brigham Young $640,000 2011
82 Dan Gronkowski 6-5 255 26 2 Maryland $405,000 2011
81 Richard Quinn 6-4 255 24 2 North Carolina $480,000 2012

Richard Quinn is starting to look talented there, while Dan Gronkowski was coming on nicely before being hurt (after replacing receiving TE Marquez Branson, who was injured last summer and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Tough year for injuries, from Day 1). Daniel Coats is a solid blocker who caught a total of 30 passes in four years with the Bengals. He’s not for everyone, but he could do well under Fox’s system, depending on whether the coach keeps to his traditional approach to TEs or not. Coats will be 27 next week, so Denver has a group of very young TEs who are mainly blockers (Gronkowski can also catch;  we’ll wait and see on Quinn). Gronkowski is expected to be an RFA following the 2011 season, while Coats would be unrestricted.

Gronkowski isn’t an Antonio Gates, but it’s too early to tell how good he can be; he was visibly turning into a very good TE when he was injured in 2010. He’s expected back and should continue to grow into his role. He was a good value trade, especially considering that Alphonso Smith wouldn’t have played for Denver, and the Broncos needed a TE more than an overly-sensitive and inconsistent young CB. 

One of the more pleasant surprises of the 2010 season was that Richard Quinn has clearly learned the playbook and is now contributing on both offense and special teams - the change in him later in the year was very noticeable and equally welcome. Quinn is a player who simply needed the time to develop and to learn the NFL game, which is as different from college as one can imagine. Player development is one of the keys to a successful organization, and Quinn is becoming a good example of why. Coats was probably just a fill-in pickup, but time will tell.  Would one more TE fill the roster? Maybe so, but I only see that as an option if they let one go.

Generally, teams don’t carry more than three true TEs (the long-snapper is often listed as a TE rather than a center, for reasons that I just don’t know: The backup longsnapper next year may be a fullback). Given the needs that Denver has, unless they plan to throw to the TEs more, they’re probably good for this year.

They shouldn’t mortgage the farm on one and I’m not sure there’s a hurry, but Denver does need to be planning for the future. Gronkowski may never make a Pro Bowl, but he looks like he can do his job. Quinn was drafted as a blocking TE who can learn (relearn, really, since he functioned as a receiving TE in high school) the receiving aspect of his job, but since Fox usually likes blocking TEs and blocking TEs rarely make the Pro Bowl (much less All-Pro), he may be fine. The hard-blocking TE's teammates know what they do, and that’s usually enough. As to Coats, though, I just don’t know if he’s going to stick or if he’s camp fodder. If they lean towards the second, I could see them pulling the trigger on a later-round TE. I’ve seen mocks (including Ted's) with Denver taking Kyle Rudolph out of Notre Dame (who’s coming back from a hamstring surgery) in the second round. His pro day is scheduled for this Thursday, and he should be healthy for it. He’s probably the best in this year’s group, but I think that’s too early for Denver. The defensive or right offensive tackle, with a chance at RB depending on who’s left, seems more likely with that pick.

Fox has traditionally liked to have a TE who can play split out at ‘H back’, and Gronkowski can handle that. Coats spent most of four years with Cincy: he appeared in at least 15 games in each of his first three full NFL seasons, including 16 games in both 2008 and 2009 and came to Denver on Dec 7, 2010. The next Daniel Graham, a player who blocks and receives in more or less equal parts but who can challenge the defenses, would be great in the not too distant future IF - and it’s a big if - Fox even wants that kind of player at this position. The free agency option right now is a luxury that I doubt Denver can afford, but that depends on the CBA and the demand in the market. If they decide that Coats doesn’t cut it, what if they did find a TE in the draft? It’s not a great year, but for what Fox seems to want, there should be some left in the draft besides Rudolph (who’s even being talked of as a late 1st-round pick). Here are some considerations (Lance Kendricks out of Wisconsin might be a good 3rd-round choice for Denver):

Draft Options

Luke Stocker is a 6-5, 258 lb TE from Tennessee. As Doug Farrar notes, Stocker "has good second-level burst for his size, which allows him to angle past defensive backs in the open field, though he's more conversant with just running people over. Sits well in zones and turns upfield with a good blast. Consistent route-runner with the slants, crosses, and seam routes tight ends see most of the time. Played for three different coaches in his last three seasons, going through different offenses with toughness and consistency. A willing and physical blocker. Fits all the traditional tight-end models." He finished his collegiate career with 80 catches in 51 games for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. Managed a tie for the position top with Michigan State’s Charles Gantt, each with 27 reps on the bench press, too.  He won’t last long.

Nevada’s Virgil Green put himself on the national radar with an outstanding Combine. At 6’3” and 249, Mike Mayock has him at fifth in the position, but Green posted the second-best combine numbers among tight ends since 2000 in both the vertical jump (42.5 inches) and the broad jump (10 feet, 10 inches). He also posted the third-best 40-yard dash time (4.54 seconds) among tight ends who ran this year and put up 23 reps on the bench press. He had 35 receptions for 515 yards (14.7 YPC) and 5 TDs in 2010 - not bad for a potential late-round pick. The problems come in when you recognize that he’s got tight hips, has trouble changing direction and is mostly limited to a vertical game. Green was selected All-WAC First Team for the 2010 college football season as selected by the WAC’s nine head coaches. He knocked good scouts and coaches alike dead at Combine; problem is, that’s not tape. He consistently has trouble changing direction, like many who have great 40 times - they may be fast, but can they open their hips?  If you want a TE that solely runs the seam, though, he could be your guy. That can be a nice Cover-2 beater, too.

Another D.J. Williams is 6’2 and 245 lb, plays TE despite being a bit small for that position in the pros and has an incredible personal history. His father suffered depression, drank, did drugs and beat his wife: he’s now in jail on two felony charges. D.J.’s mother fled her husband in 1999, letting her son put a finger on a map to decide what state to run to. He put it on Arkansas, where he thrived. D.J.’s also a very good TE - good enough to win the John Mackey Award for the year’s top TE in the nation. He also left Arkansas as the NCAA's active leader in catches and receiving yards among tight ends and was his school’s first Mackey Award semifinalist back in 2008.  Williams is closer to a receiver who plays some TE than a TE who plays receiver - what they usually call an H-back now. More on Williams at Walter Football.

Marshall’s Lee Smith is one of the biggest TEs of this year at 6’6” and 266 lb, and he’s got surprising skills for such a big guy. No one will like his Combine numbers, but that’s not the kind of TE he is. He loves to block and is fearless going over the middle for short yardage. How good is he at at receiving? He had 38 catches (for only 358 yards, showing that he’s used in shorter yardage situations) and 3 TDs in 2010. He can’t go up the seam to beat Cover 2, but he is what he is. The only question will be - how long does he last? Do I like him for Denver? Love him, really, but I doubt that they could get him without moving up or sacrificing a position of greater importance in Fox’s game. If they can find a way, though, he’s a good thought. More on him below.

Rob Housler of Florida Atlantic weighs only 248 lb, but he’s 6’5” with arms to match. He had the fastest 40 at his position, has great hands, nice technique, and very good routes. He put up great numbers at Combine that relate to his position. He’s a fast, non-blocking (well, minimal) TE who can get down the seam in a hurry and get vertical into the end zone. He had 39 catches for 629 yards and 4 TDs in 2010. With a 4.46 40-yard dash and a 37-inch vertical jump, some team is going to love him as an offensive threat. Denver isn’t a likely home, but he also had a nice 6.90 3-cone drill.

Traditional running team Wisconsin produced Lance Kendricks, a 6’4, 241 lb tight end who is a well-balanced player and is often listed as a WR. He has developed his run blocking in his time with the Badgers, and has good speed and route-running ability. Although he tends to cradle his catches far too often, he’s got the body control to get away with it - at the college level. He’s going to have to improve there in the NFL. He improved his speed on his pro day, running the 40 in 4.5 range and upped his vertical leap to 38.5 inches.

A last word on Marshall’s Lee Smith, from ESPN.com (Insider access required):

Marshall’s Lee Smith - After a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, Marshall TE Lee Smith displayed a lack of top-end speed and athleticism at the combine. Smith showed off good inline blocking skills, savvy as an underneath route runner and strong hands in traffic during the Senior Bowl, but it's apparent on film that Smith’s upside is limited by below-average top-end speed and athleticism. He helped confirm those during his underwhelming showing at the combine. His unofficial 40 time of 5.07 seconds is actually worse than anticipated and three-tenths slower than the three-year average for tight ends, and it will undoubtedly hurt his value come draft weekend.

Unless, of course, what you’re looking for is exactly what he has - skill as an extra OT on the edge, with the ability to consistently get you short yardage as a TE. If so, he’s golden.  In fact, Bill Walsh noted, “This (type of) tight end does not need to possess great speed. The 5.0 time in the 40 will get the job done. The shortcoming to that is that he is not going to be able to clear defenders on certain pass patterns to help other people. But that is not that much to give up if you have the blocking.” I hope that he drops to Denver with a later pick, but I’m not betting on it.

Conclusion

While I don’t know that much about Coats, so far I like Gronkowski a lot. Will he fit Fox’s scheme? That’s a different question, but his ‘H-back’ ability should garner him points there. He was making a lot of progress quickly, too, and that’s not a minor issue either. Coats is of good size, and while he hasn’t had many catches, that wasn’t his function in Cincinnati either. He played in six games for Cincinnati and four games for Denver in 2010 but didn’t start any, although he was mostly a blocking TE prior to that, hence his 30 career catches. The Broncos can get by with the three they have this year if they have to. They could do a lot of things - drop Coats, draft one, find one in FA - but if they need to conserve funds, they’re good for blocking TEs and Gronkowski can swing out to H-back. It may not be perfect, but in a year when so many other priorities stand out, it’s an option if it’s needed.

Go Broncos

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