|Dwayne Allen is considered one of the top three tight ends in this year's NFL Draft by scouts. (US Presswire)|
INDIANAPOLIS -- They are trendy like that hot new toy your kids always seem to want, and, much like that, they're damn hard to find.
The demand is much greater than the supply, which makes for edginess and tension in trying to find one.
That's the NFL tight end position these days. We seem to be in the golden age of the tight end, coming off a season of amazing catch numbers by tight ends, yet the colleges aren't producing them anymore.
The spread offense in the college game has killed the tight end production line.
What's the NFL to do?
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"The tight ends are the smallest group here next to the centers," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "I think there are 13 or 14 tight ends. Well, there are 32 teams. So obviously there's going to be a deficit. We have to dig a little deeper and make sure we don't miss those guys who are playing in a pro-style offense day in and day out, but have the ability to do so from a size and athleticism standpoint. We have to make sure we unearth those guys."
"That's surprising to see that number down so much," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.
The NFL is a copycat league. It's been that way for a long time. So after the year of the emerging star tight ends, guys like New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham, teams are looking for that type of player.
The description is simple: Athletic and capable of creating mismatches in the passing game. Blocking is optional.
The top three tight ends in this year's draft are Stanford's Coby Fleener, Clemson's Dwayne Allen and Orson Charles of Georgia. Of the three, Fleener has the star look to me, but others prefer Allen. Fleener is big (6-5), fast, strong and averaged over 19 yards per catch at Stanford. Allen is smaller at 6-3, 255 pounds.
"It's exciting to be at the tight end position with guys like Gronkowski, Graham and Hernandez," Fleener said here at the combine. "The list goes on and on of the impressive guys and how they've played in the past few years. So it's exciting to be even considered part of that position."
It's a position that is becoming glamorous again with the emergence of those young tight ends. Those three are pass-catchers first. It's all about creating mismatches.
Take Gronkowski. He is too big for a defensive back, but too fast for a linebacker. Who covers him?
"You have a lot of people switching the focus from the 'Y' type of tight end [blocker] to the 'F' type of tight end [the receiver] who are athletic and can create mismatches," Dimitroff said. "If you can work in a serious tight end to the offense, you can create some mismatches. Everyone has been focused on the will-style linebacker who can run with those tight ends. It's difficult to find them."
But as the spread offenses take over the college game, it's going to be tougher to find those tight ends. Do you add 15-20 pounds to a slower receiver and make him the move tight end? Or do you look elsewhere? And if so, where?
How about the basketball courts?
Graham played college basketball at Miami. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez played at Cal and San Diego's Antonio Gates played college basketball at Kent State.
"I honestly believe people are looking into the basketball realm to see if they can project somebody who was an all-star high school player and got away from it for a little bit," Dimitroff said. "Most teams are keeping an eagle eye outside our sport to see if they can snap up somebody like Graham. That's a legit focus."
The basketball-turned-tight end players aren't known for their physical blocking styles. But Graham seemed offended last year when I asked him about it.
"I can block," he said. "Watch the tape."
He can block some, but he's not a mauler. His value comes in the Saints passing game, where he is a top down-the-field target.
And in a league of copycats, most teams are looking for one just like him, even if it means spending time scouting the NCAA basketball tournament.
"With the way the colleges are playing now, it does make it challenging to find those guys," Dimitroff said. "But with the value they give an offense, you have to do everything you can to find one."