This year's NFL Draft tight end positional group is a strong one, in my opinion. As my colleague Jared Stanger said to me the other day, this is a good year to need a tight end, and in my opinion, Seattle is one team that could really look hard at the position, both in free agency and the Draft.
The free agent group has some interesting names in it and the Draft class is littered with strong prospects. More important, - and this is something that you hear John Schneider say all the time with regards to different positions - this group has a lot of really different and interesting players, when it comes to size, skill-set, style, and function.
First though, for a brief aside into the history of the position, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the use of the tight end as a receiving option is relatively new - it was one of Don "Air" Coryell's innovations, and the idea of the tight end as a dynamic pass catcher came into use in the 80's and 90's. But, it has really become a big part of the game in recent years, and teams are constantly looking for the edge and the next great dual-threat there.
Coryell - the architect of the Air Coryell offense and the legendary coach of the Chargers from 1978-1986, turned to future Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow to develop this idea, and Winslow was the first in what's become a growing group of insanely athletic and versatile players at that position. As Al Saunders recollects in Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell's book, The Games That Changed the Game:
"You have to understand how tight ends were being used in the early 1980s. Their primary function was as a blocker, then to move out to the back side as part of the route and run a drag route. Or they'd run hooks inside, or get open in the flat. That was it. They were all big guys, 'tackles' who could catch the football. Plus, outside linebackers could still grab a guy and smack him around trying to defend the run."
It pained offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs to see Winslow's talent being held back by the traditional limits of the position. "When we lined him up at the standard tight end spot and he went to release, he got pounded by the outside linebacker in a 4-3 or the inside linebacker in a 3-4," he recalled. "He had a tough time getting off clean, and we felt we had to do something. So Ernie, Don, our O-line coach, Jim Hanifan, and I said to ourselves, 'Maybe the thing to do is take him off that line of scrimmage and start moving him all over the place.'"
Most teams these days do feature a Y-tight end in their offense and that player will be asked to pass-block, run block and run routes. The best of the best can do it all, "a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body" as Al Saunders put it -- guys like Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates come to mind, and I happen to think that Zach Miller is super underrated as a complete package too, though I'd admit he's not the most explosive route runner.
And that's the thing - most "Y"-tight ends give up something in their explosive vertical route-running, catching, or ability to separate and aren't as dynamic as required, so teams can't ask them to be regular receivers on the outside too much. Only the elite players at the position can do everything. While most teams have one or two guys who can line up in-line and pass-block, run-block, and catch short-to-intermediate passes, i.e. move the chains, not all teams heavily feature a "U" or "move" tight end.
This is a different breed of athlete, less relied upon to pass- and run-block, though they should be at least close to competent in this, but more used as a movable chess piece around the formation to create mismatches in the passing game and confuse defenses. The most famous prototypes for that class of player are Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley, and, for a while, Kellen Winslow Jr. was that type of player as well.
The Seahawks brought in the younger Winslow briefly -- the son of the hall of famer that started it all -- this past offseason with the thought in mind that he could be that movable joker. Seahawks' offensive line and assistant head coach Tom Cable explained then why he was looking forward to the Seahawks' ability to use Kellen Winslow in conjunction with Zach Miller, similar to how New England has famously used Hernandez and Gronk.
I think you have to make a decision as a defense now - do you want to play these guys in base defense?
If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends. If you're going to go the other way, say, you're going to put nickel in the game, then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it.
For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up. If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more, if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more.
Anytime on offense you can kind of dictate a little bit, then you're ahead of the defense. When your'e the punching bag, and you're taking shots from the defense, you're really behind it.
As for Winslow's role in all this?
In terms of the "U" tight end, [Winslow] is certainly going to have some responsibility to block, but I think on a list of the top important things for him, on a list of five - fifth. He's going to be moving around, blocking on the move, but he's probably going to be more thought of as a playmaker/receiver type.
After Winslow was released, the Seahawks' quickly (that same day) replaced him on the roster with a cheaper, less injury prone (in theory), "U" tight end named Evan Moore. Moore, 6'6, 250 took some time to get up to speed with the offense and despite the Seahawks' coaching staff's apparent excitement for what he could do in the offense as a receiving tight end, he never really caught on. He dropped a few passes, his snaps tapered off to one or two a game, and eventually, he was released.
Replacing Moore on the roster was practice squad UDFA Sean McGrath, a 6'5, 247 pound tight end that I'd classify somewhere in between the "Y" and "U" varieties of that position. He's not especially proficient as a blocker and he's not particularly smooth or explosive as a route-runner and pass-catcher, but he can do both at a competent level, as a backup, anyway. Backing up him, also on the practice squad currently, is Cooper Helfet, who is more of a receiver than a tight end, placing him squarely in the "U" category. He's just not as explosive or athletic as you'd hope, though he's a solid receiver, and thus has yet to see the field of play.
As it relates to the draft, what do the Seahawks want?
The tight end position is one that I find particularly interesting, because of the way it's been evolving over the past few years. Within the tight end group, similar to the wide receiver position, there is a pretty broad spectrum of styles and responsibilities and players of different sizes and strengths can be employed.
Currently, Seattle has a prototypical "Y" tight end in Zach Miller - a guy that does it all, and sees nearly every offensive snap (83% of total snaps on the year - which is pretty insane) - and his backup is Anthony McCoy. McCoy has some burst to his game, but I wouldn't call him a dynamic receiver, and once he's caught a pass he often turns into a zoo running downfield -- instead of just picking up yards, he'll attempt to jump over guys, stiff arm guys trailing him, or take the wrong angle or path of most resistance.
I like McCoy a lot - don't get me wrong - and I think he's a great backup option to Miller because he's big, strong, and can feasibly fill in at the 'Y' spot -- a position that is literally used in probably 90% of the Seahawks' snaps, both in running plays and passing plays.
I think that McCoy gets undervalued by fans for his role as Miller's backup because of that very fact -- take the Seahawks' final game of the season, against Atlanta, where Zach Miller tore his plantar fasciitis -- had Miller not been able to go, and had McCoy not been there to back him up, a GIANT chunk of the Seahawks' playsheet would be unusable. Think that they're going to rely on Sean McGrath to seal a defensive end for Marshawn Lynch to run off of? Think they'll ask McGrath to pick up John Abraham one-on-one in pass protection? They might, but it might be pretty damn scary.
My point is this -- Miller and McCoy are integral to the Seahawks' offensive scheme - a scheme that relies on the Y tight end to do a little of everything. The notion of a U tight end is pretty ancillary to this. It's a luxury, and that's how the front office has treated it, to be honest. Bring in a veteran here or there; spend a seventh round conditional pick on a guy that might work out. Spend a million bucks to see if another guys will work out. Until now, it hasn't been a top priority for the front office, though many speculate that with ten picks this year, they'll target a playmaker who can take on that role that Tom Cable was talking about earlier.
Of course, when looking at the group of players in this year's Draft class, as I said above, there is a really large variety of player-types.
In the middle, there are two main categories - the "Y" and the "U" tight end. The "Y" tight end is a player that can block in-line, both in pass protection and in the run game, and can release into routes to catch the football downfield with aplomb. The "U" tight end is more of a hybrid WR and TE -- he moves around the formation, out on the wing, into the backfield, into the slot, in-line, and creates mismatch issues for defenses and looks to confuse defensive backs as to their matchup assignments. He's not especially powerful or stout in run or pass blocking, and he's more useful downfield while matched up (blocking wise) against DBs -- you can ask him to seal a cornerback/safety to the sideline or drive him toward the middle of the field, but you don't necessarily want him taking on a defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker.
Muddled on the fringes are the almost hybrid offensive tackle/tight ends, your glorified wide receivers, and/or fullbacks. When I'm talking about the hybrid OT/TE, I'm talking about the guys that weigh in at 275+ pounds and are mostly asked to block in-line. When I'm talking about the glorified receivers, I'm mostly referring to guys that have never put their hand in the dirt and rarely, if ever, play in-line. Even Aaron Hernandez gets into a three-point stance now and again so maybe I'm picturing a guy like Dallas Clark, for instance.
The H-back guys that Seattle have looked at are usually late-round prospects or UDFAs - too short to be a tight end, too slow to be a receiver, but just good 'football players' that are tough, know blocking assignments, will do a variety of jobs - lead blocking, slice blocking, special teams, etc., and then once in a while they'll catch an outlet pass or wheel route. Michael Robinson comes to mind - though technically he's designated as a fullback. The lines blur a lot when it comes to that position - fullback/h-back/tight end - to be honest.
As I've been scouting the 2013 NFL Draft class at tight end, I've been trying to place some of them into categories, because I honestly waffle a bit when it comes to what I think the Seahawks ultimately want.
Is a guy like Jordan Reed valuable to them? We know that this front office has sort of half-heartedly looked for that Joker TE but the way that they've approached it seems like they view it as a luxury. Meanwhile, they've used a draft pick on Anthony McCoy and they've made Zach Miller the highest paid TE in 2013 because he can do it all. So, does that mean they'd much rather invest in a guy that can block and catch passes? Wouldn't they rather spend capital on finding a backup and long-term replacement for Miller? Afterall, McCoy is in his contract year now and hasn't been the model of consistency and Miller tore his plantar fascia so his health this upcoming season is in question.
Zach Miller saw significantly more snaps than either Sidney Rice or Golden Tate in 2012, and played about twice as many as Doug Baldwin. Wouldn't we place depth at that prototypical "Y" tight end position higher on the priority list than another slot receiver or even an outside guy? I don't know - honestly, but with the way that Seattle uses their tight ends in their offense, it's a pretty damn crucial position. Zach Miller's injury just muddies the water.
Now, with all this in mind - let's take a look at the tight end group in the upcoming draft and how I'm beginning to picture 'priority' in my mind's eye.
The first group gets the highest priority in my mind - and that's the group of guys that can do it all. These are guys that can play the "Joker" or "U" role without looking like a goofball (McCoy - I'm looking at you, although I admit it's extremely fun to watch when you bounce around behind the line pre-snap and then run haphazardly when you catch a pass), but are good enough to back up Miller in that crucial blocking-first role.
Zach Ertz - 6'6, 252
Tyler Eifert - 6'5, 252
Travis Kelce - 6'5, 260
Justice Cunningham - 6'4, 264
Jack Doyle - 6'5, 254
Ertz and Eifert are the consensus top two, and as my colleagues Jared Stanger and Matt Erikson have illustrated, Travis Kelce is a darkhorse candidate to end up being even better than both of them. Honestly, they have convinced me that Kelce might be the number one tight end on this team's big board.
Behind that triumvirate of top "do everything" tight ends, are Justice Cunningham (South Carolina), another guy that Stanger and Erikson have both pointed out to me as an intriguing target, and Jack Doyle of Western Kentucky, who doesn't look as big or strong as the rest of the group, but did a lot of things in his offense.
The second tier of tight ends is the 'joker' group. This U tight end group is made up of:
Jordan Reed - 6'3, 243
Vance McDonald - 6'4, 262
Gavin Escobar - 6'5, 255
Mychal Rivera - 6'3, 237
Ryan Otten- 6'5, 235
Brandon Ford - 6'3, 235
D.C Jefferson - 6'6, 255
Jordan Reed is enticing as an athlete and playmaker, and Vance McDonald has risen on my imaginary board over the past few weeks with extraordinary scouting reports and the measureables you really covet at the position. Watching McDonald's tape is interesting -- at 6'4, 260+, he's really one of those glorified receivers I was talking about, used on downfield pass routes and actually utilized as the ball carrier on bubble screens and swing passes a lot -- as a big 6'4, 262 pound tight end! He's smooth and explosive, but has, from what I can tell, somewhat limited experience blocking.
Past that, Escobar is the size you'd like at the Y position, but too was used as a joker in San Diego State's offense, seeing time in-line and out on the wing. Brandon Ford is a guy that Jared Stanger has pointed out to me, and possesses the measurables in arm length and hand size that this front office really likes -- and as Stanger pointed out earlier, "listed at 6'3"/235, if he has a decent 40, he could be that more prototypical Joker player. Clemson would sometimes use Ford out of the backfield like the H-back [as well]. He certainly has great hands."
DC Jefferson is a former high school quarterback that made the switch to tight end, and is a late-round project type of player/athlete.
Finally, a group unto its own, in my opinion, the OT/TE hybrids.
When Tom Cable was hired, it was speculated by this writer that the Seahawks would perhaps move to using 6OL and 7OL packages a little more often, as Cable was becoming the Seahawks' run game coordinator and had a history with that.
In 2010, Cable, then head coach of the Raiders, utilized a 'jumbo' package on a whopping 12.1% of total offensive snaps -- and not only that, they were damn effective with it.
Football Outsiders compiled the stats for Oakland's 6OL+ snaps that season, and as you can see, the Raiders averaged over 6 yards per play. Hell, tackle-eligible Khalif Barnes caught a touchdown pass on a 6OL play at the goal-line. Clever.
Now, Seattle really hasn't moved to that very much. There have been indications that it's still on their radar and they do use a 6OL formation from time to time, but it hasn't been a notable part of the identity. Instead, they seem a little more apt to run 3TE sets, which, really, seems to be a little more versatile and 'modern'.
With a three tight end set, assuming two of them are good blockers and can set up blocks, you achieve the same goal of blocking up front that a 6OL grouping would accomplish, but you can also release your blockers (big tight ends, not offensive tackles) downfield where they can run real routes. Defense 'sees' run, but then you pass it over their heads. Khalif Barnes is not going to run real routes outside the 5 yard line. These guys will, though they're not going to be especially dynamic or explosive in doing it.
Now, with this final group, I'm not going to say they're de facto offensive tackles, but what you'd be getting from them, first and foremost, is size and strength in the blocking game, with the downfield ability as a receiver being a secondary skill. These guys, theoretically, may be of interest to Seattle because they can come in and do the necessary blocking in the run and passing game that Tom Cable needs. NEEDS. Needs.
Dion Sims - 6'5, 285
Michael Williams - 6'6, 269
Keavon Milton - 6'4, 290
Dion Sims might be the most attractive of this group, based purely on physical potential. He's an enormous man at 6'5, 285, but he moves around much more smoothly than you'd expect. Michael Williams is a recent Combine snub, but he too fits the mold as that big, nasty blocking tight end that can also be utilized in the passing game from time to time. He's not especially fast either - but he's a big target in the red zone.
Keavon Milton is a guy that I hadn't heard of - he's a blocking tight end out of small school Louisiana-Monroe that Russ Lande mentioned recently, and it caught my eye. Lande said:
Scouts have been telling us all season about Milton and now even more so because they were surprised that he was not invited to any All Star games. No one has been talking about him being a high draft pick or ever making big plays as a receiver, but numerous scouts felt that he has value in the NFL because of his dominant blocking ability. Interestingly, some NFL people believe he is best suited to be a backup tight end who contributes as a blocker and short area receiver. While others feel that he has the size, long arms, athleticism and blocking ability to slide inside and try and develop as an offensive tackle or guard. He may not get any publicity between now and the Draft because he is not going to the Combine and will not "wow" anyone with workout numbers at his pro day. However, I am confident he will be drafted by a team based on the number of scouts that believe so strongly in his potential.
The final player on my list doesn't really fit the mold of any of these groups - and that's Stanford's Levine Toilolo. At 6'7, 265, he's the size you absolutely covet in the position, but he comes off as underwhelming when you watch his tape. Dropped passes, not particularly mauling in the run game, and I honestly don't know where to project him, round-wise, or where to project him, role-wise. He's got a ton of potential, I think, as a Y tight end, down the road, but as I've seen in scouting reports, he needs developmental time to improve his blocking, clean up his fundamentals, and just polish his game in general.
Regardless - that's my birds-eye take on the tight end position, and I'll be following up more with analysis on some of the players I really like. In the meantime, now's a good time to revisit Jared's piece on the "Joker" tight end group -- aptly named, The Gangster of Love (waaaaaaah woooooooooh).