Pass-catching tight ends plentiful, but can they block?

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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The Packers' Jimmy Graham exemplifies the modern tight end who is a gifted receiver but not much of a blocker.

GREEN BAY – Tight ends who come out of college ready to block on an NFL level have become so scarce that personnel people often must convince themselves that the guy they are drafting isn’t that bad.

It’s not exactly a great way to go about scouting tight ends, and the advantage might go to the personnel executive who is completely honest with himself and his coaching staff.

If we draft this guy, we’re going to have to teach him to block.

“Colleges are running a ton of open-tight end offenses now and don't have time to teach O-linemen how to block, let alone tight ends with time constraints in the fall,” said a longtime NFL assistant who has been a head coach. “I do, however, think it is still very cyclical.

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“There are good years and bad years for positions and no rhyme or reason for it other than it's based off what the football gods want.”

So, what about 2018?

Based on one personnel executive’s assessment, there are some quality pass catchers to be had, but not many guys who can block. Asked to assess their blocking ability, here’s how the executive rated some of the top tight ends in the ’18 class:

» Dallas Goedert, South Dakota State: “Big body. Big enough. It’s not like he can’t learn to block.

» Hayden Hurst, South Carolina: “No. He’s a receiving tight end. He tries. He gives effort. He has great hands.”

» Mike Gesicki, Penn State: “Just a receiver.”

» Ian Thomas, Indiana: “Has a chance. He can do it. He’s not going to be (Bears tight end) Dion Sims.”

» Mark Andrews, Oklahoma: “He’s a receiver.”

» Will Dissly, Washington: “He’s a blocker.”

» Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin: “No. Can’t block.”

Granted, it’s just one man’s opinion, but other coaches and personnel people acknowledge that you’re not going to get a complete tight end out of this class.

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The Green Bay Packers had what they thought was the most complete tight end in the NFL when they signed Martellus Bennett to a three-year, $21 million free-agent deal last year. Bennett had a definite impact on the running game, but he looked slow and was on pace for double-digit drops when he declared he needed shoulder surgery and was summarily released.

The odds of the Packers getting someone to fill a traditional tight end spot for them this season are long and they might have to do what a lot of other teams do when they want to run the ball with two tight ends.

“You put in a seventh offensive lineman,” the executive said. “You make a guy a swing tackle and tight end. That’s what you do nowadays.”

The Packers signed tight end Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million deal in March, but they did it with the knowledge that Graham can’t block. Even though at 6-7 and 265 pounds, he’s only slightly smaller than Bennett, he’s built like a small forward and he’s proved over the years that he’s just a receiver.

The problem with not having a dual-purpose tight end is that you pretty much telegraph what you’re doing when you bring in an extra lineman or two. Everyone knows the ball is going to be run and that doesn’t provide for any deception.

There are so many spread offenses being in run in college now that it’s harder and harder to find tight ends who can block. And often, the ones who have the best potential are moved to defense because they can have more of an impact there.

The good news is that some of the tight ends that do come out can be developed into good blockers. Last year, O.J. Howard (Tampa Bay), Adam Shaheen (Chicago), Jeremy Sprinkle (Washington) and Michael Roberts (Detroit) were all drafted with the thought that they could be taught to block.

They at least had the physical makeup to do so.

But due to the shortened offseason programs and reduced practice time, coaches don’t have as much time to develop blocking skills. They can teach the fundamentals of blocking, but until you do it in pads, it’s a different experience.

And teams can only practice in pads once a week during the regular season.

“It puts a lot of stress on a coaching staff in the NFL because the spring is such a challenge,” the coach said. “With the layoff between OTAs and training camp, you have to start slow in camp and build players up to reduce injuries.

“The number of repetitions you got in 2010 compared to 2018 in training camp are staggering. When you’re drafting players who have to block for a living, you have to place a premium on fundamentals seen on tape.”

Last year, three tight ends — Howard, Evan Engram (New York Giants) and David Njoku (Cleveland)  — were selected in the first round. All three showed great promise in their rookie seasons, but blocking remains a big challenge for Engram and Njoku.

This year, it’s unlikely more than one tight end will go in the first round and it’s possible none are selected that high. But there are a lot to choose from and the tight ends in this class can catch, if nothing else.

Goedert (6-4 ½, 256), Hurst (6-4 ½, 250), Gesicki (6-5 1/2, 247) and Andrews (6-5, 256) can line up in-line or in the slot and get open and will probably all be gone before the second round concludes. It’s likely at least a dozen tight ends will be selected before the draft concludes.

If the Packers, or anyone else, are looking for a complete tight end out of that group, they may have to take one with blocking potential and turn him into a multi-dimensional talent themselves. It’s just the way it is nowadays.

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