The tight end class in the 2015 NFL Draft is relatively weak, talent- and depth-wise, and the clear top-two at the position by consensus are Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Miami's Clive Walford.
After that, there's a cliff of sorts, and you have a group of players like Florida State's Nick O'Leary, Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Notre Dame's Ben Koyak, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman, Penn State's Jesse James, and Massachusetts' Jean Sifrin, in some order. There are a few others in there (Nick Boyle, E.J. Bibbs, Rory Anderson, Blake Bell, Mycoyle Pruitt), but overall, as far as position groups go, it's not the most exciting athletically. The Combine group this year was less than sexy when it came to eye-popping numbers and/or surprise freaks of nature.
In fact, the standouts of the group were Southern Illinois' MyCoyle Pruitt, followed closely, probably, by Southern Alabama's Wes Saxon. Both are short and from small schools and you've probably never heard of them. Both will probably be H-back types and later round picks.
Now, depending on who you're talking to, wide receivers Devin Funchess (Michigan) and Darren Waller (Georgia Tech) also figure into the tight ends group, as does Norfolk State defensive end Lynden Trail. Which, I suppose, makes things a little more interesting, though at the end of the day, teams will probably choose Funchess and Waller and call them receivers, and Trail will probably just become a developmental pass rusher or five-technique. Regardless, it's interesting to consider them here, because with the specialized nature of the tight end position these days, one doesn't necessarily have to have a complete skillset (i.e., you can be a tight end even if you suck at blocking, in theory) to succeed.
Think of Jimmy Graham as the platonic ideal, and maybe throw in, say, Jermichael Finley, Jordan Cameron, Jordan Reed, Mychal Rivera, or even Julius Thomas as other examples.
So, without further ado, here's how the tight ends performed in Indy. Click HERE to embiggen.
(some data is still missing -- I've been gathering it all from Mike Lyoko's excellent resource here, and apparently it's not completely up to date just yet.)
If we're counting the receivers in this group, they're by far the most exciting athletically. There have been reports that the Broncos asked Waller if he'd play tight end (ostensibly to replace Julius Thomas in that offense), and no one seems to know empirically what position Funchess is so let's just put him here for sh*ts and giggles.
6'4, 232 pounds -- 4.7 forty, 38.5" vert, 10'2 broad jump,
If we're counting him in this group, that 38.5" vert is tops, the broad jump is second, and the forty time is 4th. I don't really care, honestly, whether you label him a receiver or a tight end -- he's not going to be asked to block much. So, how does he move? Well, he moves well. And, he jumps out of the building. There's explosiveness to his athleticism. He has a huge ass wingspan too. The 4.7 was obviously disappointing.
6'6, 238 pounds -- 4.46 forty, 37" vert, 7.07 three-cone, and 4.25 short shuttle.
Uh, holy sh*t. Measureables. Again, whether you call him a tight end or a receiver, he's going to be a matchup nightmare for anyone, assuming he can catch and run routes (which, well, the Combine doesn't really tell us with much accuracy). Waller was in a run-first offense but these numbers obviously draw the Calvin Johnson comparison (though they're not as good as Johnson's).
6'7, 261 pounds -- 4.83 forty, 37.5" vert, 10'1 broad jump, 4.5 short shuttle
James tested better than I think a lot of people thought he would. He wasn't super fast in the forty, obviously, but his vertical and broad jump numbers show he's pretty powerful in the lower half, and he's enormous at 6'7 and 261 pounds. He also put up 26 reps on bench, which shows he hits the weight room hard.
Jesse James will go down as one of the most productive tight ends in Penn State history. Yet, it doesn't feel that way, and probably won't for a long time, thanks to all that he didn't do. At his height, James was a dominant pass catcher unlike any other. Tight ends who stand at 6'7", can bench press 225 pounds 22 times and run 4.6 40-yard dashes don't just grow on trees. He was built to be a weapon on the football field, and showed many flashes of being that guy. From high pointing passes in the red zone for easy scores, to breaking tackles and outrunning the defense, James did it all when he was on his game.
Arguably his most important moment as a Nittany Lion came in this year's Pinstripe Bowl, when James used his speed and his power to bowl over a defender en route to a first down on a 3rd and 15 in overtime (the video link wouldn't embed for some reason, so just click that last link to see the play).
For all of the upside though, James left a lot of Penn State fans disappointed. It wasn't entirely his fault, as new offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, John Donovan, seemed to go away from the biggest strength of the team and his own positional focus in many big moments. James did a lot to earn the reputation as an occasional underachiever on his own, too. The biggest thing that stood out to me, was that he was never one of those players who gave 100% of his effort on every down.
He would commonly take plays off and run uninspired routes or be slow off the line of scrimmage. That's not to say that he would only show interest in plays where he would get the ball, but consistency is definitely not one of the words I would use to describe him. The other aspect of James' game that left Penn State fans begging for injured but supremely talented tight end Adam Breneman to heal quicker, was his blocking.
With his size, you would imagine James to be a guy who could very easily handle an extra guy off the edge. A lot of times, he was able to fulfill that projection. The problem was that the majority of the time, he looked more like a running back trying to block a pass rushing linebacker. In my perspective, this goes back to the lack of energy on every play. James showed during his Penn State career that he could effectively block when he wanted to block. It was pretty apparent that it was not something he wanted to, or liked doing, however.
All in all, James has a lot of holes in his game, but also has a lot of strengths. If a team thinks they can maximize his receiving abilities, make it clear that he won't play if he doesn't leave it all on the field and minimize the amount of actual blocking he'll have to do at the next level, he could be a really nice player in the NFL. I personally wouldn't take him before the early fourth round due to his inconsistent track record, but he's likely going to have an impressive combine performance that will place him in the third round.
6'5, 245 pounds -- 4.86 forty, 33" vert, 9'5 broad jump, 4.5 short shuttle
Massachusett's Jean Sifrin is 27 years old but people are/were really excited about his raw athleticism. The hype train maybe blew up before leaving the station, though, as his Combine numbers were pretty boring. He may still be an intriguing specimen and may be field-fast on tape, but in terms of people freaking out about this sleeper tight end with crazy athleticism... probably not going to happen now unless he destroys his pro day.
6'6, 252 pounds -- 4.80 forty, 33" vert, 9'8 broad jump, 4.32 short shuttle
The former quarterback put up respectable numbers at the Combine but again, nothing really to freak out about. The "tape" obviously remains the important thing here.
6'6, 269 pounds -- 4.91 40, 32.5" vert, 9'9 broad jump, 7.32 3-cone, 4.48 short shuttle
The former Florida transfer is primarily a defensive end prospect but he played a little tight end at the Senior Bowl and looked good there (apparently). Teams are/were considering him there as well, and he has enormous hands and absurd length. However, for a guy that had been hyped as a freak athlete prior to the Combine, he didn't really deliver. He'll have a pro day to improve that forty time and possibly his vert, but again, like Sifrin, the hype train won't start quite yet.