When you stop and think what NFL teams ask a tight end to do, you have to wonder why there aren't three to four drafted in the first round every year. They have to block like linemen, run routes like wide receivers and play on just about every special team. The truth is, very few of the young men coming out of college can do it all, and very few are drafted in the first round.
We all saw the immediate impact 2003 first-round tight end Jeremy Shockey had on the Giants. Is there another Shockey this year? After studying the tight end population in this class, I really don't think we'll see a guy have that kind of impact. The Saints were the most likely to draft a tight end in the first round but they instead elected to sign former Rams tight end Ernie Conwell. Thus, we may not see a tight end go in the first round.
Last year, three tight ends were selected in Round 1. That won't happen this year, but I would give strong consideration to two tight ends in the second half of the first round. Jason Witten of Tennessee and Dallas Clark of Iowa have emerged as the best in the class of 2003. Witten is the leader on most draft boards, but I think Clark has more to offer the pro game right now, especially the West Coast style of play.
Witten is a 265-pound guy who runs fairly well and should be able to get open against linebacker coverage and create a physical mismatch with some strong safeties. He has the size to block at the point of attack in the running game but needs some work to be consistent. I favor Clark because at 257 pounds, he is much faster and will be a real threat when he is "opened up" in a wide receiver alignment. I watched Clark up close from the sidelines at the Orange Bowl last January and he's a cross between Frank Wycheck of the Titans and Todd Heap of the Ravens.
Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago could use either one of these guys to upgrade their offense, but probably would love to wait until the second round to pick one. The Bears will get a shot at a quality tight end in the second because they draft so high, but the Eagles may need a few more names on their list by the time they pick late in the second. The Eagles count heavily on the tight end position and Chad Lewis has been a Pro Bowl player for them, but age is catching up with Lewis and it may be time to add a young talent to the mix.
Last year, three first-rounders were followed by just one second-round tight end and just two in the third round to complete the first day. I could see six tight ends going again on the first day, but lower selections than in 2002. Look for Bennie Joppru (Michigan), L.J. Smith (Rutgers) and possibly Aaron Walker (Florida) and Mike Seidman (UCLA) sneaking into Saturday's selections. Joppru plays better than his measurables but can't really be considered a vertical receiving threat with a 4.8 40 time. Smith has moved up on a number of draft boards and is a fine athlete but may need some time to block for the run game the way a top tight end should. I met and spent time with LJ this past year and he is an impressive young man. Walker has a world of potential, but has slipped a bit in recent weeks, and right now is seen as a very good No. 2 tight end on an NFL roster. A two-tight end team will look closely at this Florida player.
Seidman had a very good week at the Senior Bowl and a few teams I talked with really like him. Other teams think of him more as a second-day guy. I think he could be one of the pleasant surprises in this draft.
Eighteen tight ends went on the second day last year and none were better than Miami's fourth-round selection, Randy McMichael. There isn't a team in the league who wouldn't love to find this year's McMichael. Even though the Cowboys signed Dan Campbell during the offseason and the Bills traded for Mark Campbell, I wouldn't be surprised to see either team select a tight end in the fourth or fifth round. Parcells uses a tight end as well as any coach in the league, and Bledsoe has always fed the ball to more than one tight end on his team. One of the above mentioned players will fall to one of these teams but look for Trent Smith (Oklahoma), Robert Johnson (Auburn) or Spencer Nead (BYU) to get consideration.
Small-college tight ends are not uncommon as sixth- and seventh-round picks, and this year will be no exception. Teams need four or five tight ends for camp and special teams coaches can have a great influence on those late-round selections, especially if a guy can long-snap or has a college history of special teams coverage skills. Dan Curley (Eastern Washington), Matt Huebner (St. Cloud State), Michael Gaines (Central Florida) and Vishante Shiancoe (Morgan State) could be late-round picks or priority free agents.
Finally, Todd Heap made a late surge about two weeks before the draft two years ago to become a first-round selection. He's now a Pro Bowler along with Shockey. When a team is staring at its draft board moments before it picks, a tight end could be the best value and the team would be wise to take that player, especially with all the ways modern offenses have figured out how to use them. As one offensive coordinator said to me, "A good tight end helps a young quarterback more than a wide receiver; a good tight end makes the red-zone offense much more potent, and without a few quality tight ends on your team, your special teams aren't worth a darn." I agree.
Kirwan's Hot Topics
Some key points to keep in mind as we watch the draft unfold:
- After the mediocre seasons Daniel Graham (New England) and Jerramy Stevens (Seattle) had as first-round picks last year, will teams shy away from early tight end selections this year?
- Have the modern West Coast offenses made the big run-blocking tight end obsolete, especially as a guy you could take in the first three rounds?
- With Shannon Sharpe's career coming to a close, Ken Dilger (Tampa Bay) not getting any younger and Marcus Pollard (Indianapolis) now over 30, could their teams grab one of the quality tight ends this year?