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Stanford-Notre Dame was a TE bonanza

10/16/2012

Three of the top four tight ends on Scouts Inc.'s draft board played in last week's Stanford-Notre Dame game, and not much separates the group at this point in the process.

Here's a look at how all three fared over the weekend and current NFL tight ends with whom these top prospects share certain traits. None is an exact clone of his next-level comparison, but this offers a reference point in terms of what these players could do at the next level if they reach their potential.

Stanford's Zach Ertz
(Grade: 83; 6-foot-6, 249 pounds)

Ertz caught four passes for 55 yards against the Fighting Irish, showcasing his route-running ability and above-average ball skills.

He is a zone buster who used his burst to get behind linebackers and settle in front of the safeties when working the middle of the field. He did a nice job exploiting the window between the corner and the safety when working outside the hashes.

While Ertz dropped a third-down pass on the opening drive of the game, he caught the ball well for the most part and showed he can keep his hands under it when he is forced to scoop lower passes.

In terms of blocking, Ertz showed good initial surge on the Cardinal's goal-line runs in overtime, but he didn't keep his feet under him and sustain. The fact that Stanford doesn't ask much of him as an in-line blocker is reason for concern.

Ertz's ability to make an immediate impact in the passing game makes him an intriguing Day 2 prospect, and he shares some qualities with 2008 third-round pick Jermichael Finley (Green Bay). Ertz is taller and has better ball skills than Finley did, but Finley has much better top-end speed. Both have the athletic ability, versatility and suddenness to line up in the slot and create matchup problems for defenses.

Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert (80; 6-6, 250)

Eifert caught four passes for 57 yards and a touchdown against Stanford, and the touchdown is an excellent example of his greatest strength, which is his ability to win 50-50 balls.

With the safety closing in over the top and the corner dropping in front of him, Eifert located the ball, adjusted to its track, extended his arms and snatched it out of the air. Eifert also did a nice job getting inside leverage and using his frame to shield Stanford's corners from the ball when he lined up on the outside.

Like Ertz, Eifert is an average-at-best blocker who would benefit from getting stronger at the point. As far as pass protection goes, OLB Chase Thomas beat him cleanly on one play and Eifert lunged too often, but his effort and technique improved as the game progressed.

Eifert did more than enough to stay in the race for the top tight end on our board, and he compares favorably with former Notre Dame TE Kyle Rudolph, who went to Minnesota in the second round in 2011. Though Rudolph was a better blocker coming out, both catch the ball well, run hard after the catch and flash the ability to make plays downfield.

Stanford's Levine Toilolo (79; 6-8, 263)

Toilolo didn't catch a pass in South Bend, and inconsistent ball skills have been an issue. He struggled to sink and get under lower passes and failed to control the ball and complete the catch on a would-be reception that was overturned after video review. His ability to separate from coverage isn't on the same level as Ertz or Eifert.

That doesn't mean Toilolo didn't make an impact, though. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wasn't about to let Toilolo find room in the red zone, bracketing Toilolo with a linebacker and safety when he lined up at the traditional tight end spot and with a corner and safety when he lined up wide.

In addition, Toilolo drew far tougher blocking assignments than the other two. While Ertz and Eifert frequently lined up at H-back, in the slot or out wide, Toilolo often mixed it up with Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt and OLB Prince Shembo.

Tuitt's power gave Toilolo some problems, but he held his own for the most part and showed teams he can be an effective in-line blocker early in his career.

Toilolo didn't stand out enough to give his stock a boost, however, and he is unlikely to leapfrog the other two because he is not as much of a big-play threat in the passing game. He still has an excellent chance to come off the board on Day 2, though, and if you are looking for an NFL comparison, think Buffalo TE Scott Chandler, who was selected by San Diego in the fourth round in 2007. Both have the long strides to get downfield and the big frames to make plays in the red zone.