There has been at least one tight end selected in the first round of the draft, and 16 chosen in all, in each of the past 11 lotteries. But that streak definitely could come to a screeching halt this year, many scouts agree.
"The kid at Notre Dame [Kyle Rudolph] has a chance, and there could be some other guys [emerge] in the next month. There are probably some people who could deserve first-round grades ... but, yeah, I'd agree that the position is thin overall," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "It looks like the thinnest group in the past few years."
|Jeremy Shockey, a first-rounder in 2002, was released but found a job in Carolina. (Getty Images)|
Still, despite the preponderance of three- and four-wide receiver formations in the NFL, especially in third-down situations, the tight end position has re-emerged of late as crucial to many franchises' passing attacks. In the 2010 season, there were 13 tight ends with 50 or more receptions and a dozen with at least 600 receiving yards. The first round of next month's draft, though, doesn't figure to produce any players to supplement that kind of output.
At least not immediately.
Said one NFC college personnel director: "There are still (seven) weeks to go, so we'll see. But right now, the way we've got our board, I can't see any (tight ends) in the first round."
The position hasn't been shut out of the first round since the 1999 draft.
Rudolph is generally regarded as the best of a pedestrian class, and is the No. 37-rated overall prospect by NFLDraftScout.com. But the former Fighting Irish star is still rehabilitating from hamstring surgery that prematurely ended his '10 season and he didn't participate in combine drills. He has scheduled to participate in Notre Dame's April 7 pro day, which figures to play a critical role in whether he can crack the top 32 selections.
Virgil Green of Nevada was a combine standout, with a time of 4.64 and a 42 1/2-inch vertical jump, but most clubs don't regard him as a first-rounder; NFLDraftScout.com has him as the No. 4 tight end in this class and projects him as a third-round prospect.
It's tough to project any of the other top tight ends -- Luke Stocker (Tennessee, No. 2 tight end by NDS), D.J. Williams (Arkansas, No. 3 and an H-Back prospect), Rob Housler (Florida Atlantic, No. 5), Jordan Cameron (USC, No. 6) or Lance Kendricks (Wisconsin, No. 7) -- sneaking into the first round. Julius Thomas of Portland State, a former hoops player with only one season of college football experience, has created some buzz among NFL scouts. But Thomas is a middle-round pick at best.
Of the 13 tight ends with 50 or more catches in 2010, nine were former No. 1 picks. Seven of the tight ends who notched 600 yards last season entered the NFL as first-round selections. But notable is that when former first-round pick Dallas Clark was lost for the season to a wrist injury, undrafted free agent Jacob Tamme assumed the starting spot in Indianapolis and registered 67 catches.
Certainly the position is one not given to fast results. Not counting Kellen Winslow and Benjamin Watson -- former first-round picks whose rookie seasons were all but wiped out by injuries -- first-round tight ends since 2000 averaged 32.2 receptions, 351.6 yards and 2.3 touchdowns as rookies. Only three of the players -- Jermaine Gresham, Dustin Keller and Shockey -- had more than 40 receptions as rookies. Shockey was the only one with more than 600 yards in his first season.
The history of the position is that it usually takes a while even for first-rounders to develop. Or teams are usually better off using a later pick on a tight end. The top two tight ends in receptions in 2010, Jason Witten and Chris Cooley, were both third-round choices. The same two ranked among the top three tight ends in 2010 in receiving yards.
Bill Belichick used first-round picks on Graham (2002) and Watson (2004) in New England and neither proved worthy. On the flipside, he invested just second- and fourth-round picks on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, respectively, in 2010, and the pair combined for 87 receptions, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"You'd like to get a guy in the first round if he's got that kind of grade, but the history is that you can still get good tight ends a little later," said Miami tight end coach Dan Campbell, who played the position in the league for 11 seasons, despite entering the NFL as a third-round selection.
That, indeed, might be the case this year.