2013 NFL Combine observations: Looks like a 'Gronk' draft at tight end

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When you attend the NFL Combine, there's more than staggering 40 times and bench press weights to take in. Here are a few observations:

1: It's a Gronk year at TE

Everyone who loves NFL offense realized that Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots has had a big impact. The formula: Get a big, athletic tight end, occasionally ask him to block a defensive end or block down on a defensive tackle; but also make sure he can get vertical on a safety and dominate as a receiver -- especially from a flexed alignment. This draft class is starting to look like a gold mine when it comes to that concept.

Sound too good to be true? Think again. This draft is shaping up as a "Gronk" draft for tight ends. Gronkowski came out of college at 6-foot-6, 258 pounds, ran 4.63-second 40 and did 23 reps on the bench. On Saturday at the combine, I felt like I was looking at some Gronk clones. There were five guys who averaged 6-5¼, close to 257 pounds, ran close to his 40 time and could throw the weight around.

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If your team needs a versatile tight end, this is the year to grab one -- probably in the second round -- from among Zach Ertz (Stanford), Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame), Gavin Escobar (San Diego State), Vance McDonald (Rice), and long shot Dion Sims (Michigan State). To say I was impressed with the tight ends might be an understatement.

2: Silver lining to Manti Te'o

I made myself attend Manti Te'o's news conference. Not because I wanted to hear the story all over again, but how he would handle himself under the pressure of the moment.

After attending the combine for 23 straight years, I got used to players deciding not to discuss issues, making excuses or leaving me with more questions than answers. I was impressed with Te'o, when he stood in front of hundreds of media people and cameras and discussed what went on with the Internet girlfriend relationship.

He helped himself because he was relaxed, at peace with himself and able to convince me that the issue will not affect his NFL career. One GM I respect said, "He answered my question about being able to leave the life stress issues in the locker room and go out to practice or a game with his mind focused on football."

Some people believe the poor performance in the national championship game was because of off-field issues. I don't think that was the case. But one thing I know happened in Indianapolis on Saturday -- teams feel like they can focus on the football evaluation of Manti Te'o. I watched two of his games closely: Stanford and Alabama. His spot in the NFL is dependent on fitting his aggressive run-and-hit mentality into the right scheme. He should play "covered up." A Will linebacker in a 4-3 defense would keep linemen from getting a clean blocking angle on him and let a club take advantage of his aggressive style of play.

3: Looks like hybrid heaven

The Jaguars are talking about being a hybrid defense -- something between a 4-3 and a 3-4. One head coach said: "Offenses are full of hybrid players able to morph into all kinds of sets. The defense needs to be able to handle all the offensive hybrid stuff or they will get torched."

Keep a close eye on the Saints, Eagles, Browns and Jaguars, as they all embark on a structural defensive changes. On Saturday I sat down with Alec Ogeltree (Georgia), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Alex Okafor (Texas), and Barkevious Mingo (LSU) and Denard Robinson (Michigan).

I felt like I was in "hybrid heaven," after discussing all the positions these guys told me teams were discussing with them. How did Denard Robinson, the former Michigan QB turned receiver, make my defensive hybrid list? Because he said one team he met with discussed playing cornerback.

4: Is Fluker only a right tackle?

There is great buzz about the three left tackles at the top of this draft.

Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M) may be the early favorite to go first, but the combine clearly helped Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson. According to some observers, we shouldn't be surprised if a tackle not named Joeckel goes first.

After the top three left tackles -- and they're all expected to be gone in the top 10 picks -- where does a team go for that position? Don't discount Alabama's D.J. Fluker. He's labeled and looks like a right tackle, but one coach said: "Not so fast on D.J. being a right tackle."

Fluker could come out of the combine as another left tackle candidate, and if that happens, he will challenge the top three for a top spot.

5: Questions from Saturday

Everyone is talking about how fast offensive tackle Terron Armstead (Arkansas Pine Bluff) ran.

Rarely do we see a 4.7 40 from a 6-5, 306-pound offensive tackle. My questions were: Why Arkansas Pine Bluff? And why not defensive end in college with those physical attributes?

I found out he was at Pine Bluff because of a miscommunication with his high school grades and the NCAA clearninghouse. Turns out he was eligible to attend bigger schools that recruited him but didn't find out until after school started, so he stayed. As for why he is not on defense, I'm still tracking that one down, but surely will ask him when I see him. Guys who run that fast, bench 225 31 times and have a 34½-inch vertical usually rush the passer.

Armstead ran as fast or faster than Bjoern Werner, Damontre Moore and Datrone Jones -- three of the top DEs in the draft.

6: Questions about USC QB Barkley

Matt is not participating in drills but is here to answer questions.

A number of NFL people asked him the same question I ask every player: What is your best game tape from this season? Barkley said check out the Oregon game. I did just that on Saturday night when I returned to my hotel room. He threw for more than 400 yards and three TDs, but decision-making and occasional accuracy issues would lead me to sitting down with Matt and watching the whole game if I were looking for a franchise QB.

The Oregon tape is a perfect way to find out what went right and wrong this past season for the Trojans and what kind of QB a team would be getting in Barkley.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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