Scouting the Combine: Tight ends

With the rise of dominant tight ends like New England's Rob Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham last season, and teams starting to see the position in a new (and very old) light, it was unfortunate to see that the TE pickings remain very limited this year. Yet, there's a chance one or two will surprise people down the road. The main reason is that the advent of the spread offenses in college have diminished the value of the position on that level, and fewer colleges are turning out legitimate TE candidates for the draft. There’s a disconnect there that will have to be worked out eventually, but for right now, all that matters is the options that are going to be available.

Georgia's Orson Charles and Clemson's Dwayne Allen were clearly the class of their group, with Coby Fleener of Stanford not participating. Both are extremely well put together - Allen looks a bit bigger, but Charles is by far the most defined in terms of his musculature. One thing that I look for is the level of muscular development - do they look more like a college kid or an NFL player? Are they at least slightly ripped? Do they have strong calves? Those are essential to anchor and cut well - Charles was the most impressive in that area, and in several others. If they block in line, do they have the bubble for it? How do they hold their hands in the rapid-fire drills? Are they natural receivers, or do they struggle to have their hands in position?

Interestingly, Charles was also teasing other players, winking at the guy across from him, slapping butts and having fun - showing a good locker room/on field presence, someone who’s going to be good to have out on the field day after day. It’s part of leadership, and I thought that as an all-around TE that he stepped up. I wish I could have seen Fleener - who has been talked up as a better blocker - next to him, but Charles impressed me.

Allen seemed a bit lost at times - I’m sure he was just trying to handle the experience, but he made some drill mistakes (all of them made at least one) and didn’t seem as dialed in as I’d like to see. Even so - he was the Mackey Award winner this year (Charles was a finalist) and he did show why. Some people handle pressure well the first time - some need to learn differently. Still - they prepped for these drills for months. They should be getting it down, and I wasn’t that impressed with him. He didn’t have a look of focused concentration and he didn’t seem to be fired up - just a little lost and perhaps overwhelmed. How he did in the interview might show the exact opposite, but on the field I wondered about him.

Ladarius Green out of Louisiana-Lafayette showed very good speed and hip flexibility. He’s purely a move or receiving (in the modern parlance, H-back) TE, and he showed that he can really cut and get downfield. He’s not likely to be a lot of help in the run game, but at 238 lb he should be working hard to get that aspect of his play up to par. A 34.5 vertical leap is in his favor in terms of jump balls, but he’s not that tall so it’s minor.

Allen had a 32-inch vertical - not bad, not good, and probably not important. It’s not his forte, but that’s not an important skill for his game. I know that Mike Mayock felt Fleener was the only TE who was a serious candidate for an in-line/move combination TE, but Allen, Charles, or Fleener should be able to be coached up to block well over 2-3 years. All are powerful. Charles seemed to uncoil from his stance with the most pop - again, Allen just didn’t have a good day. The one thing that would stop me on Allen was that he just seemed kind of lost. Charles put me more in mind of Shannon Sharpe, although less verbal. Most humans are, but Charles had the conditioning and the physique. He also was the sharpest player in terms of his cuts and showed good hands. If I were looking for a TE player this year, Fleener or Charles would be higher on my list.

Oklahoma Sooner James Hanna made a lot of waves with his measurables and speed, but he looked lost on receiving drills. Not that he made a lot of mistakes - it was that his hand position was frequently inappropriate and he dropped several balls as a result. He’s not a natural receiver, and at 6’4” and 252, he is a good, but not a great blocker. Hanna had two very good games last year - a four-reception, 90-yard performance in a loss to Iowa State and a three-catch, 59-yard day against Kansas State. Other than that, he didn’t break 50 yards in a game last season. He did have a total of 27 receptions for 381 yards for the year. He might make a decent developmental pick, but it’s a weak year for the position and I’d have to see a strong reason to take him on. Still - it only takes one team.

Drake Dunsmore out of Northwestern was really exuding effort in his drills; although he was not the most natural guy out there, he certainly showed himself to be a big effort guy. That was part of his calling card at NWU, too - my father graduated from Northwestern, and I still watch their games out of a sense of nostalgia, so I got to see him play. Dunsmore had a skill at gaining separation on his shorter routes that was very intriguing. I don’t know if he can do that in the NFL - he’s only 6’2” and 241 lb. Some of his techniques won’t survive the move to the faster coverage guys in the NFL, but Dunsmore ran his 40 in an unexpected 4.61 average - he’s faster than some folks expected, and he showed considerable athletic ability in his testing.

The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective finds no particular correlations with the tests other than the 40 and the bench press for TE candidates. Dunsmore’s 40 indicates that he’s fast for a TE; his 21 reps on the bench, not quite so much. Realistically, all of the tests are of limited concern to me other than to confirm or question what already shows up on film, and occasionally, to convince teams to give someone’s film a second look. Does that mean that consistently good athletic ability doesn’t matter? No. It’s always beneficial - it’s just not the primary issue. Dunsmore’s athletic ability surprised me a little, but looking back at his ability to get open on shorter routes, it shouldn’t have. There have been times when athleticism was one of the primary issues that teams looked at, but so many quality players over the years did certain things very well - Jerry Rice’s ability to change directions without a noticeable drop in speed comes to mind - that you take in all information and see how it fits together, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. Dunsmore has a problem getting yards after the catch.

There was one other candidate who’s gotten some buzz, and that’s Deangelo Peterson out of LSU. At 6’3” and 245, he’s got a decent frame but doesn’t generate much power with it. His skill in college was getting yards after the catch, and it remains his biggest selling point. His weakness is that even at the college level, he really couldn’t block well, and I wouldn’t see that changing at the next level. He’s a one-trick pony as a move TE and may have more value simply as a receiver. He’s got some skill on jump balls that he demonstrated in college - 6’3” isn’t taller than a lot of linebackers, but he jumps well. Timing it is a bigger issue.

Missouri's Michael Egnew is going to get a lot more interest in the draft than he did in Combine.  He’s a 6’5” converted receiver who’s a mismatch in shorter areas, and whose 4.62-second 40 is matched by substantial athletic skills and by how fast he looks (for a big receiver) on the field. He can’t block to save his skin, but as an off-the-line receiver, he’s a mismatch for safeties and most LBs with his height and good hands. His biggest weakness other than his blocking is that he struggles to get into his route at the snap and will need that to come into the scheme he’s used in, but he’s got that height and a skill at receiving that will probably make him valuable to the right team. He showed considerable athletic skill in the receiving drills and might be a sleeper in this class. 

Conclusion

The change from college to NFL football is at a point where a lot of top TE candidates aren’t coming down the pipe and into the Combine. Looking for certain skills that you can use, whether it’s height, YAC, blocking, unusually good hands and/or route running is going to be essential in finding the diamonds in the rough patch that this is creating.

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