- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
The emergence of difference-makers like New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham and New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski has NFL teams looking for tight ends in the same mold, and the good news is that the 2013 draft class could have plenty of talent to choose from.
Four of the top five tight ends on our board are underclassmen, though, so much will depend on how those four develop over the course of the season. Here's what I've seen from them to this point, and how I view their potential going forward.
I've also included a breakdown of a senior prospect who jumped out at me during film study this week and could add some depth to the overall tight end class.
Stanford's Zach Ertz (Scouts Inc. grade: 83)
Ertz is poised to step out of the shadow of 2012 second-round pick Coby Fleener, thanks in part to savvy route-running and the ability to set up defenders with footwork and tempo.
In terms of big-play ability, Ertz (6-foot-6, 249 pounds) showed last week against Duke that he has the speed to work the seam, and the body control and quickness to produce after the catch. As a blocker, Ertz isn't a mauler but he does get into sound initial position and fight to sustain.
Ertz hasn't really been challenged at this point, but that will change this week against USC's fast and athletic defense. He hurt his knee and failed to catch a pass against the Trojans last year, so a strong performance this time around would give his stock an early boost from its current standing in the mid-second round.
Michigan State's Dion Sims (82)
Sims might have the best hands of the players on this list, and he is also poised for a breakout season. He caught just 23 passes over the past two seasons, but Sims (6-5, 276) already has 10 catches this season, and all four of his third-down receptions have resulted in first downs.
Sims' ability to box out defenders, catch the ball in traffic and power ahead for extra yards is impressive. He has room to improve as a route-runner but he's fast and big enough to stretch the field on vertical routes.
In terms of run blocking, he has the foot speed, power and toughness to seal the edge and cover up linebackers up at the second level. In fact Michigan State has enough faith in him to decide to run behind him on fourth-and-short against Central Michigan last week. Overall, he stands in the mid-to-late second round right now but could move up if he continues to show a solid overall skill set.
Stanford's Levine Toilolo (80)
Toilolo isn't as crisp a route-runner at his teammate Ertz, but he makes up for average burst with fluid routes and good receiving skills. Stanford takes advantage of Toilolo's considerable frame (6-8, 263) by lining him up wide in certain situations, like on his touchdown catch against Duke last week.
He's not as much of a big-play threat as some of the other players on this list, but Toilolo's frame and tenacity make him one of the best blocking tight ends in the country. He does a good job of staying low for such a tall player, and he has the power base to move defenders off the ball. Like Ertz, he faces his toughest test of the year against USC, and a good game could raise Toilolo's profile and late-second round grade.
Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert (74)
Eifert has just one touchdown catch so far this season, but his ability to line up wide and come down with 50-50 balls against defensive backs both in the red zone and between the 20s stands out. Last week against Purdue, only a pass-interference penalty prevented his second touchdown of the season.
Eifert's size (6-6, 250) is a key advantage in those situations, but it's not the only thing that makes him dangerous. His savvy and ability to high-point the ball have played roles, as well. Eifert deftly uses his hands to keep corners off-balance and create space without drawing a flag. He also times his jumps well, extending his arms and snatching the ball out of the air.
The biggest knock on Eifert is his blocking. He does an adequate job of getting into position and walling off defenders, but he doesn't roll his hips on contact and often slips off blocks because he leans into defenders too much. If he can improve in that area Eifert could get into the second-round mix.
Arkansas' Chris Gragg (57)
Gragg is the lone senior on this list and a tight end who could deepen the 2013 class if he continues to flash on tape. His ability to hold up as a blocker is a concern because of his frame (6-3, 235), and Gregg will get pushed around at the next level unless he adds some bulk.
He could also be more crisp at the top of his stem as a route-runner, but Gregg still has intriguing upside as a receiver. He has the burst to separate from coverage even when his footwork isn't sound, plus the smarts and savvy to make plays over the middle working against zone looks. And while Gregg's ball skills aren't elite, he can create after the catch, shows good acceleration and has the ability to pick up yards after contact on occasion.
Steve Muench breaks down four underclass tight end prospects who could move up the board and strengthen the 2013 class if they continue to improve.