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2015 NFL Combine preview: Tight ends

Breaking down the 2015 TE combine forecast and when/who the Seahawks can target.

Maxx Williams makes sideline catch
Maxx Williams makes sideline catch
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Scouting Combine officially begins tomorrow in Indianapolis. Most of the best players in college football this year will be there. Certainly, most of the 2015 draft class will come from this gathering of over 300 players (approximately 1 in 8 drafted players was NOT at the combine).

Here is the first in a series of posts on what I will be looking for from each position group, and in the order in which they will show up in Indy and begin their measures and testing.

Group 1: essentially TE and OL

I think TE will be the most interesting group to watch this year. Partially because people have written this class off as lame. Why is this class running a narrative of being lame? A) terrible 2014 college season production.  B) delayed reaction from the disappointing collective combine failure from the 2014 TE draft class.

In 2013, we had Jace Amaro finishing in the top 12 of all receivers in the country in YPG and 7th in total receptions. 2014 class also had Eric Ebron who recorded 62 receptions in 2013, and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins who had 69 catches in 2012. In 2014, the top TE producer doesn’t appear until #65 on the season-end stat sheet, and it was a sophomore that caught 61 passes. Casey Pierce also caught 60 passes, but other than those two, there were no TE in the top 100 pass-catchers.

Just for reference…the production of this year’s "highest ranked" TE coming into the draft:

Maxx Williams – 36 rec

Clive Walford – 44 rec

Jesse James – 38 rec

Nick O’Leary – 48 rec

Ben Koyack – 30 rec

Tyler Kroft – 24 rec

Jeff Heuerman – 17 rec

For whatever reason, the college game abandoned targeting TE en masse this year. Is this because college coaches think this group sucks? Or was it just a matter of the ebb and flow of play-calling trends? Is it possible the spike in quality RB play we saw this year resulted in lower usage of TE across the board?

Whatever the cause may have been, it has yielded draft media having much lower opinion on the 2015 class. (Anecdotally, this also suggests to me draft media "statsheet scout" more than they admit.)

Back to 2014. Draft media THOUGHT it was going to be a great group of TE. But then the 2014 combine…

Of the 21 TE invited to the 2014 combine, seven didn’t test in the 40. Of the remaining 14, only five managed to run under the requisite TE speed mark of 4.70 (Jace Amaro would be the sixth if you count his exact 4.70). Why is 4.70 relevant? It’s basically the lowend of 40-speed for most of the established, quality TE in the NFL (Gronk-4.68, Graham-4.53, Bennett-4.68, Olsen-4.51, Cameron-4.53, Thomas-4.64, etc). Sure, occasionally you get a Jason Witten type exception, but essentially it’s 4.70. Of the five TE to best 4.70 last year, two of them were noted crazy persons: Colt Lyerla and AC Leonard. This left Eric Ebron (4.56…drafted #10 overall), Larry Webster (4.58…a college DE that tested as a TE, drafted #136 overall as a DE), and Anthony Denham (4.69…a converted WR).

In terms of actual draft position, we saw one TE drafted in 1st, three in 2nd, three in 3rd, and three drafted the entirety of day three. 10 TE drafted. This was the lowest total in at least five years; down from 16 drafted in 2013, 11 in 2012, 12 in 2011, 20 in 2010 (average TE drafted 2010-2014: 13.8).

Then, after already a low TE volume draft class, we saw the rookie year production. In a year in which we saw eight rookie WR record at least 50 catches, and 13 unique rookie WR catch at least 35, we only managed ONE rookie TE to break the 35 catch mark (Amaro).

The good news is, the NFL drafted the right TE early. The top three TE rookie performers last year were drafted 2nd round, 1st round, 2nd round. But all of the above listed factors, in both the college and pro games, have resulted in the "crappy TE class narrative" this year.

My theory is that this narrative is crappier than the actual class itself. I'm actually quite excited at the potential here. The first step in disproving that narrative will be the combine. We’re looking for 8-10 TE to run under a 4.70. The next step will be seeing if this class provides more TE drafted than the 10 picked last year, and the final step will be seeing how this class eventually performs as pros.

In terms of specific players, if I had to guess the 8-10 guys that should be in that 4.70 group…I’m looking for Maxx Williams, Devin Funchess, Gerald Christian, Jesse James, Jeff Heuerman, Jean Sifrin, AJ Derby, EJ Bibbs, Wes Saxton, Busta Anderson, Mycole Pruitt, and Randall Telfer. And if they don’t get it at the combine, the remainders may knock out a 4.69 by pro day. Sifrin is going to put on a friggen clinic which will negate some of the downside of his age, but also watch for Saxton and potentially Telfer to be touching 4.5’s.

Notice that Walford isn’t on that list. I expect him to run slower than where his current high round projection would lend you to believe. The good news is, Walford is a solid blocker and blocking TE can run slower. If you get a 4.75-4.79 from Walford, Koyack, or Cameron Clear, you can still do some damage. In terms of weight-adjusted speed, Clear may end up being one of the stars of this combine if he can run a 4.79 at 273 lbs.

In addition to straight-line speed, in a TE the Seahawks also look for 6’3"-6’5", 239-259 lbs, 32" arms, and at least a 32" vertical. Exceptions are always a wonder, but not really.

Projecting for Seattle…I think it’s important to know where they value TE. In the PCJS tenure, the Seahawks have only drafted two TE (unless you count Jameson Konz as a TE). Those picks were: Anthony McCoy #6.185 in 2010, and Luke Willson #5.158 in 2013. Average TE draft capital: 171.5…which is right on the border between 5th and 6th, depending on comp picks in a given year.

Some of you will want to bring up Zach Miller (who was a 2nd round pick), but I cannot stress enough the differences between draft, free agency, and trade. They are ALL different animals and the Seahawks value a draft TE vs a known-entity free agent TE vs a known-entity trade TE very differently. In TE, it would seem the Seahawks value a degree of experience and will pay a decent price on the FA market. If the reports from last year were true, the Hawks would also pay a decent price for TE in trade (meaning: Percy for Jordan Cameron or Julius Thomas rumors). In unproven TE, they seem to prefer waiting until day 3 of the draft.

The good news is, as I diagrammed earlier, TE are projecting really poorly this year. As of Saturday, there are only three TE projecting to be picked in the first three rounds. Maybe this changes dramatically with a good group combine showing, maybe it holds regardless. The latter would mean beginning the 4th round of the draft, all of the names from Koyack, Kroft, Heuerman, Sifrin, Christian and down will ALL be available. If this draft plays out even remotely close to that, it works exactly to Seattle’s advantage.

Sign a TE in free agency to replace Miller, then draft a TE in the 4th or 5th to grow as eventual #1. Willson maintains status at TE2.