2014 NFL draft position rankings: Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro headline tight end class
The available tight end prospects for this year's draft are a mix of old and new. Need an athletic option to split out in the slot as a consistent receiving threat? We've got a few of those. Rather have a sturdy blocker who can catch a pass here or there? Sure, no problem.
The league -- and likely, this draft -- is trending toward the fresh breed of guys, those who offer mismatch potential comparable to Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and others of that ilk. There should be upwards of a dozen tight ends selected, perhaps as early as the top 10 with a later run somewhere near Round 3 or 4.
The top 10 at the position:
1. Eric Ebron, North Carolina: In the 2014 NFL draft class, Ebron is Exhibit A for why life is so difficult on defenses these days (the Super Bowl champion Seahawks excluded). How exactly does a coordinator go about dialing up a coverage on a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end with 4.6 speed and an innate ability to find the football in the air?
Few solved that mystery last season, when Ebron fell just shy of the 1,000-yard receiving mark.
"I'm not going to sell myself but I'm very fast, I'm very different," said Ebron at the combine. "I play the tight end role like no one else."
Over the course of the 2013 season and the pre-draft process, Ebron seemingly has lapped Jace Amaro and Austin Seferian-Jenkins to stake his claim as a potential top-10 pick. Scouts will continue to question his blocking ability until he proves he's capable of holding his own there at the NFL level. Of course, that role may be secondary to his pass-catching abilities -- doubly so if he lands on a team that already employs a solid blocking TE.
Draft projection: Top 15
2. Jace Amaro, Texas Tech: "I like to see myself as both a tight end and as a receiver," Amaro said, his opinion perhaps pushed forward by the fact that Texas Tech essentially used him as the latter.
The 6-5, 265-pound Amaro sports a larger frame than Ebron, yet still pulled off a very respectable 4.74 40 at the combine. Thanks to the Red Raiders' wide-open attack, Amaro piled up 1,352 yards and seven TDs last season. Those numbers may not be attainable as an NFL rookie (or, perhaps, ever for him at the TE spot). The expectations will be fairly high, though, given what Amaro has shown as a smooth option in the passing game.
Like Ebron, the blocking aspect of Amaro's game is worrisome. If Texas Tech's coaching staff deserves some credit for taking advantage of Amaro through the air, it probably should take some blame for rarely asking him to put his body on someone. He may have to work out of the slot in the NFL, but he has the potential to be a menace there.
Draft projection: Round 1
3. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington: After starting his junior season with a stranglehold on the top TE rung, Seferian-Jenkins stumbled. His stats plummeted from 69 catches and 852 yards in 2012 to 36 grabs for 450 yards in '13. He did find the end zone a career-high eight times last year, emphasizing how dangerous he could be as a red-zone option at a sturdy 6-5.
Seferian-Jenkins is not a perfect specimen as a blocker, but he's further along in that regard than either Ebron or Amaro. On the flip side, he's not quite as smooth working as a receiver. All put together, though, the Washington product has the look of a long-time NFLer -- if he can stay healthy and motivated.
Draft projection: Late Round 1-early Round 2
4. Troy Niklas, Notre Dame: The Blake Bortles of the tight end class. What I mean there is that any team drafting Niklas would be doing so with one eye on the future, since he has the size (6-7, 270) and potential, but remains a work in progress.
Niklas caught 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns last season, respectable numbers, though hardly eye-popping. He's only just begun to scratch the surface of what he can be as a receiver. And NFL teams will covet him on draft weekend because he definitely can be a three-down guy, given his advanced blocking ability in comparison to the rest of the TE class.
Draft projection: Mid-Round 2
5. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa: If you've seen one Iowa tight end ... OK, maybe Fiedorowicz is not exactly the same player as the Scott Chandlers and Tony Moeakis before him, but tight ends who play in the Iowa system often head to the NFL with a very similar skillset. Namely, that they can in-line block efficiently and have enough athleticism to release on play-action or up the seam. Fiedorowicz fits the bill in both areas, having caught 91 passes for just shy of 900 yards in his career while serving as a key cog up front for the run game.
Another big body (6-7, 265), Fiedorowicz was underused by the passing-challenged Hawkeyes. He definitely is capable of a 50-plus-catch season.
Draft projection: Round 3
6. Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State: Gillmore chopped his 40 time down, from the 4.89 he ran at the combine to 4.78 at Colorado State's pro day. The latter number puts him smack-dab in the middle of his fellow tight ends, which ought to ease some concerns about his speed. With that out of the way, Gillmore should cement himself as a solid mid-round pick. The 6-6, 255-pounder was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl, catching five passes and scoring a TD.
Draft projection: Round 4-5
7. Arthur Lynch, Georgia: Lynch, 6'5 and 254, may never be a Jimmy Graham-type star at the NFL level. But he could be on the verge of a long and productive career, thanks in no small part to his exceptional abilities as a blocker. NFL Films' Greg Cosell recently compared Lynch to Heath Miller of the Steelers -- high praise considering how much Miller has accomplished. At least in his prime, Miller would have been a welcome addition to any roster.
Draft projection: Round 4-5
8. Richard Rodgers, California: Rodgers fits more into the Ebron/Amaro role as a threat out of the slot or even an H-back at the next level. He bounced around from TE to WR at Cal, spanning two coaching staffs, with his weight fluctuating between 240 and 275. He was at 257 at the combine, which should be pretty close to where he will play in the NFL. A 4.87 40 time did him no favors, but that versatility he put on display during his college career gives him a shot. He averaged 15.6 yards per catch last season.
Draft projection: Round 5
9. Jake Murphy, Utah: Nothing real flashy here, but Murphy (6-4, 249) looks the part of a solid, complementary piece at the TE spot. He hauled in 25 catches for 417 yards and five TDs last season, despite missing four games after breaking his wrist. Murphy's blocking will not blow anyone away -- or any defenders off their spots -- but he has some of the best hands for this positional group. So long as the expectations are not too high, Murphy could contribute a great deal as a No. 2 or No. 3 option.
Draft projection: Round 6
10. Colt Lyerla, Oregon: Where Lyerla actually lands will be one of the more intriguing draft storylines to follow. From a pure talent perspective, he is up there with the top three guys in this class; his off-field issues, including a cocaine-related arrest, make him a walking red flag.
Only a team with a strong locker room should tinker with the idea of drafting Lyerla. Should he land in the right spot, the upside is enormous. Draft projection: Round 3, if someone wants to gamble; Rounds 6-7 if not