Top tight ends tough to find in draft

Ryan Wood
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Stanford tight end Austin Hooper, right, leaps over Maryland defensive back Sean Davis.

His first position was on the defensive line. Hand in the dirt, Austin Hooper lived in the trenches. He loved the contact. Loved dishing out punishment.

So tight end wasn’t an obvious home when he arrived at Stanford. Not for this blue-chip pass rusher. Tight end has become a glamorous position in football’s modern, pass-happy age. It has changed with the game’s evolution, morphing from tough and mean brawlers like Mike Ditka to former power forwards like Jimmy Graham.

Toughness is now a premium. Complete tight ends are increasingly rare. Can Hooper fit that description? He points to his past. His football pedigree. From the trenches, Hooper carried his hard-nosed style to offense.

“I believe I can,” Hooper said last month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I have a good combination of speed and strength. I’m very physical. I grew up playing defensive line my whole life, until I came to college. So the physical side of the game of football isn’t something that scares me in the slightest. I feel confident with my abilities, and hopefully a team does too.”

It’s become harder for teams to be confident with how college tight ends will transition to the NFL. The two levels of football may be the same sport, but they play different games. In college, spread offenses use tight ends more like receivers. They line up in the slot, rarely in-line beside offensive tackles. Their job is to run routes, stretch the field and catch passes – not necessarily block defensive linemen and linebackers.

Blocking isn’t sexy. In the NFL, it’s necessary. Teams are always looking for complete tight ends, even as they go the way of dinosaurs. At the combine, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said college spread schemes have made evaluating offensive personnel increasingly difficult.

“It really affects everything,” Colbert said. “The offensive line plays different, the receivers are different. The tight ends, instead of being attached to a formation, they could be flexed in the slot and they’re used for the block on the perimeter. The running backs have different reads, they have different run lanes.”

Colbert, more than any GM, found himself in desperate need of a tight end this offseason. The Green Bay Packers may require an upgrade at the position, but at least they have a young starter returning in Richard Rodgers, a former third-round pick who will enter his third season this fall. The Steelers lost one of the true, complete tight ends left in the league when Heath Miller retired after 11 seasons. Behind Miller, the Steelers' tight end depth chart was bare.

Like Packers GM Ted Thompson, Colbert has a reputation for building his roster through the draft. So it was significant when the general manager who needed a tight end more than anybody, a GM who leans more draft-and-develop than most, signed a free-agent tight end last week. The Steelers added Ladarius Green for an affordable price of four years and $20 million, with just under $5 million guaranteed.

Colbert’s decision to dip into free agency for a tight end made sense. Even the best need time to adjust to not just the speed of professional football, but how the NFL game is played.

“You’ve got to factor in the development (time),” San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. “It’s going to take them a little longer to develop. Especially in the run game, because they’re not asked to do it as much. There’s some things you have to look at different now than you had to 10 years ago, because the college game is quite a bit different than the game we play. Especially at the line of scrimmage.”

The requisite developmental period is why it’s a good idea for Thompson to also dip into free agency and sign a tight end, something he has yet to do.

Thompson’s hesitancy to sign a tight end on the open market shouldn’t be surprising. Because complete tight ends are rare, their demand is high. Where there’s high demand in the NFL, there are expensive contracts. Some silly money has been spent on tight ends this offseason, none more out of whack than the Indianapolis Colts handing Dwayne Allen a four-year, $29.4 million deal with $16 million guaranteed.

Allen got more guaranteed money this offseason than New England’s Rob Gronkowski ($12.92 million) got in a six-year deal he signed two years ago. Gronkowski is the best tight end in the league, on his way to potentially becoming the best ever. After a stellar rookie season in 2012, Allen has missed 21 games with injuries in the past three seasons. In the 27 games he has played since 2013, Allen has combined to catch 46 passes for 504 yards.

For comparison, Rodgers caught 58 passes for 510 yards last season.

It’s a sign of how inflated tight end price tags have become. The reason? Expecting immediate production from a rookie tight end isn’t ideal. The first tight end drafted last year was Baltimore’s Maxx Williams, the 55th overall pick in the second round. Williams had a fine rookie season, but the Packers will be looking for more production than his 32 catches for 268 yards.

Even Jermichael Finley had a slow start to his career. Finley, a third-round pick in 2008, had just six catches for 74 yards in his rookie season. In his three full seasons before a neck injury ended his career, Finley never caught fewer than 55 passes and 650 yards.

Thompson never was going to break the bank for a tight end, or any free agent. He’s a bargain shopper. So it was no surprise when Jared Cook reportedly visited Green Bay. Cook, released from the Los Angeles Rams last month, fits the Thompson mold because he won’t cost the team that signs him in the compensatory draft pick formula. Even better, along with field-stretching speed, Cook’s plus-2.4 run blocking grade last season was among the league’s best from the tight end position.

It’s a rare combination, a fast tight end who can block.

“Anymore, you don’t talk about tight ends,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “You’re looking at either a ‘Y’ or an ‘F.” You’re either an in-line guy who usually lacks the skill set to be a pass catcher, but is usually a tougher, overachiever that is physical at the point of attack. Then you have the guy who can flex, who is essentially a big wide receiver.”

Hooper thinks he can be both. He is still young and raw, just a third-year sophomore. But there were glimpses in his two college seasons, catching 74 passes for 937 yards and showing an ability to block.

There is room to grow, but Hooper comes from a program renowned for producing NFL-quality tight ends. Before him, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz and New Orlean’s Coby Fleener left Stanford to establish themselves as NFL tight ends. Fleener, formerly with Indianapolis, got a five-year, $36 million contract from the Saints last week. Ertz’s five-year, $42.5 million payday came in January.

Maybe Hooper is next. Maybe there’s something about a Stanford tight end that’s easier to project to the NFL, removing the guesswork for NFL talent evaluators. Hooper, among the top-rated tight end prospects in next month’s draft, hopes he can make a similarly successful jump to the NFL.

“The offense is tailored,” Hooper said. “If you play tight end, you have to do a great job of blocking, you have to do a great job of running your routes, and you know the way our offense works. That’s part of why we’ve had so many guys get to this point in their careers, because we play multiple guys on the field at once. So it allows a lot more people than just your own immediate self to get some recognition.”

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