March 03, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) College football's spread offenses continue to produce pro players who aren't quite ready for the NFL: quarterbacks who lack the foundational footwork, tackles who need remedial training on blocking basics.

Tight ends are another story. They're primed for an immediate impact. They're the fruit of the spread. And this year features a bumper crop.

"This is the 1983 quarterback class of tight ends," said Cecil Lammey, NFL draft analyst at 104.3 The Fan in Denver.

An abundance of big, talented tight ends attending the NFL's annual scouting combine this week is led by Alabama's O.J. Howard, a traditional combo tight end who's benefited from the Crimson Tide's ground game, and Miami's David Njoku, the vanguard of the pass-catching tight ends with wide receiver roots.

They're both expected to hear their names called in the first round, but 30 other teams won't fret if they miss out on the top two.

"I think the beauty of the tight end class this year is it doesn't have to be" a first-rounder who significantly upgrades a team's tight end room, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "It can be in the second or third round or maybe in the fourth round."

Options include Mississippi's Evan Engram, South Alabama's Everett Gerald, Clemson's Jordan Leggett, and Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech. There's also Michigan's Jake Butt, who insists he's breaking records in his recovery from a torn ACL he suffered in the Orange Bowl, and 277-pound Adam Shaheen of Ashland (Ohio), a freakish athlete and the latest tight end who transitioned from the hardwood to the gridiron, among others.

"I am not testing here," said Butt, who had surgery on Jan. 10 and resumes running next month. "But it has still been special. I am so far ahead in my rehab. I know where an average man would be at this time, and I am so far ahead of that. But still to be out here and recognized as one of the best players in the country is really special."

Njoku said many people implored him to stay in school as more and more of these elite tight ends declared for the draft, which only served to motivate him.

"I love competition," Njoku said. "I was the national high jump champion in high school at like 220 pounds. So, that next jumper was just like 30 pounds lighter. But once I was told that and people told me to stay, that made me (want to) declare even more because I want to go against the greats."

The competition is impressive this week. Many of the others are former basketball players who transitioned from the hardwood to the gridiron, where they flash some of the same moves they used to showcase in the gym.

Tight ends with power forward in their DNAs are matchup nightmares because they're faster than linebackers and bigger than safeties, said long-time NFL assistant coach Clancy Barone, who tutored an alpha hoopster-turned-gridiron great, Antonio Gates.

Shaheen is the latest gym rat turned tight end.

"The more we dig, the more we like him," said Duke Tobin, the Bengals' player personnel director. "When you go back to his college basketball highlight tapes, you can see a real natural athlete. You can see a guy who shoots a three-point shot and dunking. We do a lot of things like that: 'Let me see him as an athlete, not just as a football player.'

Like many of these promising tight ends, Shaheen was a late bloomer.

"Coming out of high school I was 6-4½ and 195 pounds, and Ohio State wasn't knocking on my door to come play football for them," said Shaheen, who started out studying at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown before getting the football bug while attending a game that fall.

"No matter what I've got to do, if it's walking on at a Division II school, that's what I've got to do," Shaheen said. "So, I got in contact with a couple of small schools and the rest is history, as they say."

Actually, his story is still being written. He played two years ago at 260 and added 17 pounds last year; he credits lots of burritos.

"The biggest knock on me is Division II and am I able to translate my game to the next level?" Shaheen said. "I think that I have the size, speed and athleticism and with the right coaching, it's going to be a good opportunity for me."

Despite his second-tier football background, some scouts compare Shaheen to a raw Rob Gronkowski.

"I have similar traits to some of the best tight ends in the NFL," Shaheen boasted. "I am just very happy to have this opportunity."

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