NFL scouting combine: Athletic, fast TEs are hard to find
Saturday, February 25, 2012
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette photo illustration
Will the Steelers find the next Rob Gronkowski?
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tight ends are having a dramatic impact on the NFL, but they are getting hard to find in college football because of the spread offense. They are harder to find at the NFL scouting combine.
Only 14 tight ends are working out for the six days of the combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, the smallest group other than centers (6). But they are being evaluated very closely by coaches and general managers who are hoping to unearth the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham -- athletic tight ends that have changed the landscape in the NFL.
"There's going to be a deficit in that talent," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "There are great tight ends in this league. They are just few and far between coming into the league, so we have to dig a little deeper and make sure we don't miss guys who aren't playing in a pro-style offense but have the ability to do so from a size and athleticism standpoint.
"We have to make sure we try to unearth all those guys and give them their due, even though you're not seeing them do the same thing you're going to ask them to do."
The Steelers think they have one of the best tight ends in the league in Heath Miller, who already has set a franchise record for career receptions (337) and receiving yards (3,864) by a tight end. But it would not be a surprise if they added a pass-catching tight end to their stable, especially with a four-game suspension to start the 2012 season facing No. 3 tight end Weslye Saunders.
Colbert said he could not discuss the situation surrounding Saunders, who was suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Saunders will be allowed to attend training camp and participate in preseason games before his suspension begins Sept. 1.
But, it remains to be seen if the team will hold a roster spot for four games for a player who is their No. 3 tight end.
"We won't talk about the individual player, only to acknowledge that he will be suspended once the regular season starts," Colbert said.
Most of the attention at the combine will be focused on three tight ends -- Clemson's Dwayne Allen, Stanford's Coby Fleener and Georgia's Orson Charles -- each of whom needs a good performance at the combine to elevate their status to a first-round selection.
Fleener might be the most intriguing prospect of the three because he is a former basketball player who caught 34 passes for 667 yards (19.6-yard average) and 10 touchdowns last season.
But he will not run or participate in agility drills at the combine because of an ankle he injured in the Fiesta Bowl. He will, however, take part in the bench press and interview sessions, and then run for NFL coaches and general managers at his pro day March 22.
"The Jimmy Grahams, Rob Gronkowskis and Aaron Hernandezes of the world have really done our class of tight ends a favor this year," Fleener said. "I can't say enough about the guys who have already played, and I hope to one day play like that."
Graham was a basketball player at the University of Miami who played only one season of college football. But he caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns last season for the New Orleans Saints.
Gronkowski, a second-round pick in 2010, had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns -- a league record for tight ends -- for the New England Patriots. Hernandez, who was taken two rounds later in the same draft, had 79 receptions, 910 yards and seven touchdowns for the Patriots.
Along with players such as Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers and Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers, they have changed the body shape and the nature of the tight end position.
"It looks nothing like when I played," said new Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey, a former Steelers tight end. "It's different. It's taken a step back a little bit with the weight and the speed. When I was in the last couple years, the Eric Greens, the bigger tight ends, those kind of guys, the blocking tight ends, started to come about.
"Now, you've got the guys who can do it all, run and pass. There are some great ones out there, which puts a lot of stress on defenses these days. It's amazing how it's come back to the tight end and what he can do for you in a number of ways."
The impact of Gronkowski, Graham and Hernandez was one of the reasons Charles, a redshirt junior, elected to enter the NFL draft and forgo his senior season at Georgia.
"Just the impact a tight end has on a ballclub," said Charles, who caught 45 passes for 574 yards and five touchdowns last season. "I feel like I can contribute like that.
"A whole bunch of tight ends were catching a whole bunch of balls [in the postseason]. It just gave us a good outcome to come out and contribute to any ballclub that picks us up."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org
and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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