Tyler Eifert #80 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is tackled by K'waun Williams #2 of the Pittsburgh Panthers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 3, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. / Getty Images
Top prospect: West Virginia’s Tavon Austin is rare as a small receiver (5-8˝, 174) who probably will be a top-15 or -20 pick.
Overall draft: The strength of this class is from the late first round to the third.
Packers outlook: The loss of WR Greg Jennings to free agency makes it a given the Packers will draft a receiver, though perhaps not in the early rounds.
Rising star: Rice TE Vance McDonald has a great size-speed combination that could push him into the later second round even though his college numbers were good but not great.
Falling star: Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce has starting-caliber talent but turned off teams in interviews.
Sleeper: Northern Iowa receiver Terrell Sinkfield didn’t get an invite to the scouting combine but at his pro day, reports of his 40 time ranged from 4.19 seconds to the low 4.3s.
Going into the 2008 draft, the Green Bay Packers hardly had a pressing need for a receiver because Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones were on board.
Yet, after general manager Ted Thompson traded back from pick No. 30 overall to No. 36, he selected a receiver, Jordy Nelson, with his first pick. Thompson was thinking ahead a year or two. Driver was getting old (33 at the time), and the Packers had every reason to think they’d need to replace him sooner rather than later.
Going into this year’s draft, the Packers have far more acute immediate needs than tight end, where Jermichael Finley has a year left on his contract and possibly a future with the team, depending on how this season goes. But looked at another way, Finley has only a year left on his contract, and his return to the Packers next season might be more unlikely than likely. So there’s a decent chance the Packers will need a tight end who’s a major threat in the passing game sooner rather than later.
Which means that if the near-consensus best receiving prospect at tight end in this draft, Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, is on the draft board when the Packers’ pick comes up at No. 26 overall, Thompson might be inclined to take him.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Ted took him at 26,” said a scout who has observed Thompson from afar. “(Eifert) could be the best player at 26. I know some people have talked about him earlier than that. If Ted took him, (the Packers) would say, ‘Here’s another weapon added.’ He can go downfield and make some plays, cold-weather guy, that’s important when you’re talking about guys in Green Bay.”
As draft day nears, the bigger question is whether Eifert will be on the board at No. 26. Early in the offseason it appeared likely, but with the draft two days away, the odds seem to be dropping. Five of the six scouts recently interviewed about this year’s tight ends class rated Eifert as the best in the draft, and his outstanding combine workout plus his strong 2012 season has made him a viable pick beginning shortly after the halfway point of the first round.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, might be targeting him as a possibility at No. 17 because their starting tight end, Heath Miller, is 30 and had his knee reconstructed late last season. One of ESPN’s two primary draft experts, Todd McShay, had Eifert going shockingly high, to Cleveland at No. 6 overall. And while it appears unlikely Eifert would go that high, it suggests the direction Eifert’s stock is going this week.
“(Eifert) would be a great pick at 26,” said a scout who rated him as the top tight end. “I think he goes about 17 to 21, somewhere in that area. Extremely smooth route runner. He’s not a blocker — he can wall off and position like most guys do this year. But his receiving skills are off the charts, unbelievable.
“Natural movement in space, soft hands. I haven’t seen a tight end like that come out in a long time. He’s more athletic than (New England’s) Rob Gronkowski and (Aaron) Hernandez, all those guys. Gronk is big and knows how to position his body well, and don’t get me wrong, he’s a good athlete, but this kid is a better athlete.”
And if Thompson drafted Eifert, it wouldn’t necessarily be a pick only for the future. Coach Mike McCarthy often uses multiple tight end sets in his offense and no doubt could find ways to incorporate two potential playmakers at that position, much like New England has in building its passing game around Gronkowski and Hernandez.
The Packers also can look back to 1996, the one full season that tight ends Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura played together. Former coach Mike Holmgren made the two-tight end grouping a staple of the offense, and the two combined for 58 catches — Antonio Freeman led the team with only 56 receptions — and 10 touchdowns for a Super Bowl-winning team that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points and No. 5 in yards.
Though Eifert is coming out a year early, after his redshirt junior season, he’s far more ready-made than Finley was coming out in 2008. Eifert is 22, caught 50 passes last season (for a 13.7-yard average), and his 4.68-second 40 at the scouting combine is faster than the 4.82 seconds Finley ran at the 2008 combine. Eifert’s was the fourth-fastest 40 among tight ends at this year’s combine.
When asked if Eifert looks like a difference maker, a third scout said: “I do. You wish he was a little faster, but sometimes guys play above all those (tests). He can jump and he has good timing. There aren’t many tight ends in this league that are making 50-, 60-yard plays. But he’s going to be really good in that (intermediate) area catching the ball, and he’s going to do something positive with it after he catches it. I think he’s going to be real good in the scoring zone, because he’s a basketball-type athlete. He has a high ceiling.”
Top tight end prospects
1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, 6-51/2, 250, Round 1
Redshirt junior entry was backup to Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph in ’10 and then starter the past two years. “I think he might be one of the better receiving tight ends to come out in the draft in the last six or seven years,” one scout said. “It’s been awhile. He’s not a finished blocker, but I think he’s a can’t-miss guy and a solid first-round pick.” Was a medical redshirt after a back injury ended his freshman season in ’09 after one game. Won the Mackey Award as the best tight end in college football last season, and in his final two years caught 113 passes for a 13.1-yard average and nine touchdowns. “He’s not anywhere near the blocker that you need,” another scout said. “He’s very similar to what they have in New England (with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez), can play wide receiver, can play slot, can play wing, can play in motion. Really good in the red zone, watch the national championship game, he makes red-zone catches. Notre Dame was pretty bad on offense, he was the one thing that was pretty good.” Had a fantastic combine and finished in the top four among tight ends in all seven tests. “He can go over the top of any defender and snag the ball,” a third scout said. “Doesn’t always compete like you’d want him to compete for the 50-50 ball, if it’s contested you don’t see him just rip the ball away and come down with it. That’s something I hope he can learn. He’s got all the traits: height-weight-speed, great catch radius. Does a nice job when he catches the ball, he turns north and south right away, doesn’t waste a lot of time going east and west. He’s a definite playmaker.”
2. Zach Ertz, Stanford, 6-5, 249, Rounds 1-2
Redshirt junior entry became Stanford’s primary tight end target last year after Coby Fleener went to Indianapolis early in the second round of the 2012 draft. “Zack’s got a complete game,” said a scout who rated him ahead of Eifert. “He can do everything you ask him to do as a tight end, both as an in-line guy and a movement guy.” Had 43 receptions for a 12.5-yard average in his first two seasons, then 69 for 13.0 yards and six touchdowns last year for a team that was deep at tight end. One scout said he gave Ertz more than 20 drops on the season. “He’s being compared to last year’s tight end (i.e., Fleener), I don’t think it’s even close,” the scout said. “I think this guy is strictly a one-dimensional player and it’s going to take him a long time to develop into a blocker you’d be happy with. I don’t see that grit to him, the effort, the finish. Then when you get to the drops, to me it’s alarming. We’re sitting there watching film, I’m going man, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Is it a vision a thing?’ Their quarterback doesn’t throw a great ball, to be sure, but these were all catchable balls he dropped.” Ran the 40 in 4.76 seconds, had the second-most bench reps (24) at the position. “(Eifert and Ertz) are so close to each other in all the measurables,” a third scout said. “Eifert jumps a little higher and further, but when you look at their 40s and 10s and 20s, they’re right in the same ballpark. Eifert is a year older and has played a little more football, longer arms, bigger hands, all those things. The grades would tell you Eifert is marginally ahead of Zach Ertz.”
3. Vance McDonald, Rice, 6-41/8, 267, Rounds 2-3
Played wide receiver and tight end in his four seasons in Rice’s pistol spread offense, and in his last two seasons combined caught 79 passes for a 12.5-yard average and nine touchdowns. “I think the guy from Rice is a sleeper,” one scout said. “You look at him, his height-weight-speed, he’s a 262-pound tight end, there haven’t been a lot of guys that big coming out of the draft for a long time. Most of them are former receivers or former quarterbacks who kind of get demoted to tight end. This guy in high school was on the relay team and played defensive end, that’s a very strange combination. He’s a big athlete, thick-bodied guy, tough guy.” Ran the 40 in 4.69 seconds, did the most bench reps (31) of the tight ends. “The issue coming out of Rice is it’s very incomplete tape to watch because there’s no inline blocking, there’s no lead blocking, you kind of have to imagine everything,” a second scout said. “But the guy tested so well at the combine. You know he’s strong enough, you know he’s fast enough, and he’s got great ball skills. He’s a good bet to be the third tight end taken.” Missed two games his junior season because of a shoulder injury and three games last year because of an injured foot. “He’s running over people and stiff arming people,” a third scout said. “He’ll put his hand down and catch his balance and keep going, pick up five or six or eight more yards, whereas the other guys in the draft, they get hit the same way and they’re down. I think the guy is going to be a very good player very soon.”
4. Gavin Escobar, San Diego State, 6-57/8, 254, Rounds 2-3
Redshirt junior entry was a three-year starter and caught 122 passes for a 13.5-yard average and 17 touchdowns. “He’s so damn long and lean, he’s got the frame to put the size on,” a scout said. “Escobar has better short area quickness (than most tall tight ends), he can run more sudden-type routes. But I don’t know that he has enough of that change of direction to block and sustain and finish as an in-line blocker. He’s shown enough of that ability as an athlete, give him two years and he’ll be a pretty solid starting tight end.” Ran the 40 in 4.84 seconds but did only 12 bench reps. “I’m not as high on him as other people,” another scout said. “He’s what you’re looking for size wise and a good guy and very good human being. I’m sure will work as hard as anybody in the building. But he’s got to start almost at ground zero, because their offense was run sideways running game.”
5. Travis Kelce, Cincinnati, 6-47/8, 255, Rounds 2-3
Has a brother, Jason, who is a center for the Philadelphia Eagles. Was suspended for the ’10 season because of a positive test for marijuana, then was a backup in ’11 and starter last year. “He can start for a lot of teams in this league, there’s worse guys starting out there than him right now,” a scout said. “But he might be the biggest (expletive) I’ve met in my life. He is just a total (expletive) in every sense of the word. Not a team player. Arrogant. He blames everybody in their program for him and whatever else. Had a positive drug test and was more upset with the fact that he got caught than that he was being selfish and doing it. That’s a big-time red flag.” In ’12 caught 45 passes for a 16.0-yard average and eight touchdowns. Played most of the season with a sports hernia, had surgery in the offseason and didn’t work out for scouts until early April, when reports of his 40 ranged from 4.64 seconds to 4.69 seconds. “There’s a giant banner, not a (red) flag, a banner that’s flying over this kid’s head,” another scout said. “He keeps doing things to get himself in trouble. If you just watch the tape, I think he’s really a good player. He plays hard, he’s physical, he’s got good ball skills. But man, he’s out there.”
Top wide receiver prospects
1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia, 5-81/2, 174, Round 1
Put up huge numbers in his four years as a receiver, running back and return man. “One of my favorite players in the draft,” a scout said. “He’s an explosive player, he’s a slot player, a lot of things you can do with him to get him the football. He plays in cold weather there in West Virginia, has a lot of toughness.” Last year had 1,932 yards and 15 touchdowns from scrimmage, plus 978 yards as a kickoff and punt returner. In his career, caught 288 passes for an 11.8-yard average, and had 109 carries for a 9.5-yard average. As a returner, averaged 24.8 yards and scored four touchdowns on 97 kickoffs, and 12.7 yards on 34 returns with one touchdown on punts. Last year had a game for the ages in a loss to Oklahoma when he had 572 all-purpose yards (344 yards rushing on 21 carries, 82 yards on four receptions and 146 yards on kickoff returns). “Might be the most dynamic offensive player in the draft,” a second scout said. “Speed, ability to make people miss. An impressive player. Lacks size, that’s the only negative.” Tied for the second-fast 40 (4.34 seconds) at the combine. “I think (Philadelphia’s) DeSean Jackson is actually a little bit smaller, a little more gangly. This guy is a little bit tougher, a little bit stronger, and has that same quickness. I think he can be just as good a playmaker. I don’t see DeSean having the ability to be a slot receiver – you like him outside the numbers where his game is all vertical. This guy is going to be dangerous as a slot receiver, will run some of those under routes and crossing routes and drag routes. A guy like this in the same role as Wes Welker and (Danny) Amendola, he’ll be scary.”
2. Cordarrelle Patterson, Tennessee, 6-17/8, 217, Round 1
Junior college transfer played only one season of BCS football. “Everybody’s worried about a little bit of a learning curve,” one scout said. “You have to figure out how he learns and get it right. Two years at a junior college and only one year at an FBS (school), a lot of people are worried, and some people are like, “I don’t give a (crap), this guy can play.’ He’s No. 1 (among the receivers) for me.” Averaged 16.9 yards on 46 receptions and caught five touchdown passes, also ran for three touchdowns and averaged 12.3 yards on 25 carries. As a return man, averaged 28.0 yards and scored one touchdown on kickoffs and 25.3 yards and one touchdown on four punt returns. “With the ball in his hands, they run him on reverses, he’s pretty dynamic in the open field,” a second scout said. “The problem is you don’t see him consistently catching the football. He’s kind of a hit and miss guy, and he only played one year at Tennessee. People are pumping a lot of air into him. He scares me the most.” Ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds and had a 37-inch vertical. “He is not the finished product — I’d have some concerns about the mental part,” a scout said. “But as far as running routes, catching the ball, running screens, running reverses and returning kicks, you’ll get your money’s worth with that guy. He’ll win some games for you.He reminds me of a bigger, more physical Randall Cobb.”
3. Robert Woods, USC, 6-03/8, 201, Rounds 1-2
True junior entry caught 250 passes in three seasons for an 11.7-yard average and 32 touchdowns. “Great route runner, soft hands, can make spectacular catches, but I don’t think he has the overall speed,” a scout said. “He’s going to have to be an Ike Hilliard-type technician, Tim Brown. Doesn’t have the 4.3 speed.” Ran the 40 in 4.51 seconds. “I don’t have him as high as some people do, I like him more as a second, third rounder,” another scout said. Averaged 24.8 yards and scored one touchdown on 55 kickoff returns. “If you’re (scouting) Matt Barkley and you’re watching, (Woods) is catching a lot of balls underneath and he’s explosive across the field,” a scout said. “He runs a lot of different routes, catches the ball well. Whoever drafts him, I think they’re going to get a pretty special player.”
4. Justin Hunter, Tennessee, 6-4, 196, Rounds 1-2
True junior entry averaged 17.1 yards on 106 receptions in his three seasons, including 14.8 yards on 73 receptions and nine touchdowns last season. “He’s a thinner Michael Irvin-type,” a scout said. “Not as flamboyant or any of that, but route running skills are fresh. He creates separation, he can high point balls, catches outside his frame. Has better speed than people give him credit for. He’ll have to learn how to defeat bump and press, but I like both those (Tennessee) guys.” Had knee reconstruction surgery early in the ’11 season. Ran the 40 in 4.44 seconds, had the best broad jump (11-4) and tied for best vertical (391/2 inches) of the receivers at the combine. “Physically he’s as good looking a wide receiver as you’ll see, tall, rangy,” a second scout said. “He makes some really nice snatch catches, but he’ll drop some balls, too. He’s more of a second-round guy. Some people like him in the first, I’m not one of those people. But you talk about a tall, big-bodied guy that can run legitimately in the 4.4s, and he plays like he runs. So if you can get him with some consistency to catch the football, you could have a pretty special player.”
5. Keenan Allen, California, 6-2, 206, Round 2
True junior caught 205 passes in his three seasons, including 159 for a 13.1-yard average the last two seasons combined. “Interesting guy just for the fact that he plays as a slot receiver but he’s a bigger guy,” a scout said, “and he plays with a terrible quarterback. A lot of his routes are underneath, he has to adjust to a lot of balls because the quarterback is throwin ’em all over the place. Hands looked really dependable. Not a great burner, a steady running guy, not a lot of burst, but the hands are very good.” Sprained his knee late last season, didn’t work out for scouts until April and reportedly ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds. Averaged 14.1 yards on 15 punt returns last season. “You like the size, and he’s physical, he’ll block as well,” another scout said. “I don’t see him as an elite guy. I know he’s big and fast and can catch, but I see him as a good receiver.”
6. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson, 6-1, 214, Round 2
True junior entry caught 206 passes and averaged 14.7 yards in his three seasons, including career highs of 82 and 17.1 last season. Also set an ACC record with 18 touchdown receptions in ’12. “I think the kid is a hell of player,” one scout said. “Hopkins will run across the middle of the field, he’ll catch it, he’ll make the tough catch, he’ll block. Hopkins plays (hard) every snap. I like the kid’s personality. I really like the kid.” Ran the 40 in 4.57 seconds. Played in seven Clemson basketball games as a freshman. “In the LSU game he caught nine balls, but if you look at him throughout the season he was wildly inconsistent catching the football,” a second scout said. “He has games where he’s really good. He’s a 4.58, 4.59 guy. I don’t see a big, dynamic guy. When Anquan Boldin came out of Florida State, you saw a big-bodied guy catching the football. This is not one of those guys.”
7. Terrance Williams, Baylor, 6-2, 208, Rounds 2-3
Caught 104 passes his first three seasons, then last year exploded for 97 receptions, an 18.9-yard average and 12 touchdowns even though former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III had moved on to the NFL. “He’s maybe the best route runner in the draft,” one scout said. “He has some smoothness to him in and out of cuts, the breaks, all that stuff. No wasted motion with him. He has some sideline awareness, he has things about him that are really positive with the way he runs the routes and the sharpness to his routes. Biggest problem is he’ll body catch the football.” Ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds.“That’s a kid I love,” a second scout said. “A good route runner, and this guy has separation speed. When he had the football in his hand he pulled away from guys. Has big-play ability inside for sure.”
8. Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech, 6-0, 204, Rounds 2-3
Junior college transfer played two seasons in Louisiana Tech’s no-huddle offense and had 183 receptions, a 14.2-yard average and 24 touchdowns. “This guy reminded me route running-wise and body movement of Torry Holt, a young Torry Holt coming out of N.C. State, not a polished Torry Holt,” a scout said. “This guy does have that bop and movement like Holt did. I like his route running skills, I like his production. I liked him better at the Senior Bowl than I did on tape, movement wise.” Ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds. “A vertical player, caught the ball down the field,” another scout said. “Louisiana Tech threw the ball a ton, he had big numbers. Watching him at the Senior Bowl run routes against some of the better corners, he seems to get it. He’s more of a third-round guy. Good size, hands are outstanding, and you see separation in the routes.”
9. Markus Wheaton, Oregon State, 5-11, 189, Rounds 2-3
In his final three years, caught 219 passes for a 13.3-yard average, including 91 for 13.7 and 11 touchdowns last season. Averaged 7.6 yards rushing on 83 carries in his career. “Plays all three positions, that’s really inviting about him, and he makes plays down the field,” a scout said. “He catches the ball on the move, he can make things happen with the ball in his hands. I really like the guy, I think he has a lot of toughness.” Also ran track at Oregon State and showed explosiveness at the combine (4.45-second 40, 371/2-inch vertical, 20 bench press reps). “As fast as he wants to be,” a second scout said. “You’re drafting him to stretch the field.”
10. Steadman Bailey, West Virginia, 5-101/4, 193, Rounds 2-3
Redshirt junior was a teammate with quarterback Geno Smith in high school in Florida and then college. A pass-catching machine the past two years in an offense that also featured Smith and receiver Tavon Austin. Ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds. “A little bit of a body catcher,” a scout said. “But when the ball goes down the field, he goes and gets it. Really good with the ball in his hands. Makes contorted catches, really good catching the ball with people on his back. He can fight for the contested ball and make plays. I like Steadman Bailey a lot.”
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