NFL combine: On the trail of tight ends

College systems are developing fewer of these multi-taskers

February 26, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

INDIANAPOLIS — - Tight end has never been an easy position for NFL scouts to evaluate. The skills required to play it at a high level simply don't mesh that often in one body.

There are scores of big, tall guys with soft hands who can't block, and plenty of lumbering, rhinoceros-size blockers who simply can't run or catch. And finding one with the right blend of the two strengths has become that much harder in recent years because fewer and fewer high school and college teams are using tight ends in their spread offenses.

"Everyone is looking for a guy who can block like an offensive tackle and catch the ball like Tony Gonzalez," Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "They don't really exist. Or if they do, I haven't seen one yet. And it's tough to evaluate because of the systems that [college] teams run. It's always been one of the hardest positions to evaluate."

That's one of the reasons Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham was so busy with team doctors at the NFL combine Thursday. So busy, in fact, that he never even made it to his media session inside Lucas Oil Stadium. Gresham - who missed nearly all of the 2009 college season with a knee injury but is still rated as the top tight end in the 2010 draft - possesses that rare blend of speed, athleticism, soft hands and blocking prowess rarely seen in college players. He's 6 feet 6, 260 pounds and will probably run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Teams are desperate to figure out whether he's healthy enough to be worthy of a first-round pick.

The Ravens - though somewhat unwilling to show their hand - certainly seem to be one of those teams interested in the answer.

Although the Ravens might have more pressing needs at wide receiver and cornerback, there is a good chance they are going to look long and hard at tight ends this week. Veteran Todd Heap had a decent season in 2009, rebounding from two straight injury-riddled years to catch 53 passes for 593 yards and six touchdowns. But he no longer has much, if any, explosiveness and is a constant injury concern.

Even if the Ravens don't want Gresham, or don't get a chance to draft him because he's already gone by the time the 25th selection rolls around, there are still plenty of quality tight ends to consider, including Arizona's Rob Gronkowski and Miami's Jimmy Graham, who might be potential picks in the second or third round. The Ravens met with both of them Thursday, as well as Florida's Aaron Hernandez, Iowa's Tony Moeaki and presumably several others.

Gronkowski is probably the highest-rated tight end behind Gresham and might be right there with him if he didn't have injury concerns of his own. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski had what's called a microdisectomy, in which doctors shave off the disk that is protruding into the spinal cord in his lower back. He, too, missed the 2009 season but believes he's nearly at full strength and can be a force in the passing game.

"I've been cleared by many doctors," said Gronkowski, whose older brother Dan played tight end at Maryland and is now with the Detroit Lions. "There really are no issues about my back anymore."

What would a team interested in drafting him expect to get?

"They're going to get a tough, physical player who likes to do the dirty work and likes to make big plays down the field," Gronkowski said.

He said Jeremy Shockey and Gonzalez are the two tight ends he grew up admiring, but that he would be thrilled to be the understudy of a player like Heap.

"That would be great," Gronkowski said. "Veterans like [Heap], they know what it takes. They've been there. He's one of the best at the position, so it would be great to go in under his wing and learn a lot."

Graham might not have the polish of Gresham or Gronkowski, but he also might have the most potential. A basketball player for most of his college career at the University of Miami, the 6-6, 260-pound Graham only played one season of college football. But he's an exceptional athlete who can go up and get the ball. He concedes that he needs work on his route running and his blocking, but his potential is unlimited.

Graham also represents one of the best stories in the NFL draft. Abandoned by both father at birth, and his mother when he was a teenager, Graham was adopted at age 15 by a woman he met in church - Becky Vinson - who helped guide him to college. He graduated from Miami with a double major in business management and marketing, and spent a year in graduate school studying liberal arts. He turned down opportunities to play basketball overseas because he wanted to give football a real shot.

"I think I have the ability to stretch the field," Graham said. "I'm very fast, and very big, I think my strength is catching the ball and scoring touchdowns. I think my weakness is my technique on blocking. But I'm getting better and better, each snap, each practice."

The Ravens might also consider Denis Pitta of Brigham Young and Anthony McCoy of Southern California, both of whom aren't as big or as fast as the others but are still players who could give Joe Flacco another big target to help develop his game. But their talents are less rare than those possessed by Gresham and Gronkowski.

"There are less and less tight end and fullback types because of the emphasis in college and even high school on the spread offense," Pittsburgh Steelers director football operations Kevin Colbert said. "We don't really see that. What you are seeing are bigger receivers that may have in the past grown into tight ends, now you're seeing 6-3, 220-pound receivers who would have gone inside are staying outside in the spread."

NFL scouting combine
When: Through Tuesday

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

TV: NFL Network. Today, 2:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. player interviews; Saturday-Tuesday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. player workouts and interviews

Ravens' 1st-round pick: No. 25

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