Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 2: Middle rounds plentiful in hybrid tight ends for Patriots

One of the most fascinating parts of the NFL offseason team building process is watching the ebbs and flows of the various positions in regard to strength of class.

A perfect example of this for Patriots' fans has to be the tight end position, which started out the process viewed by many as the undisputed top need for the team, but has disintegrated into a second or third priority, mostly due to the hype surrounding the prospects leveling off and - in some cases - going into a free fall.
Colorado State's Crockett Gillmore is an interesting hybrid tight end

There is also the fact that the decisions Bill Belichick has made in free agency suggests that perhaps the idea of trying to maintain a tight end-centric attack is too limiting for the offense and that he's going a different direction with the team.

Of course, the idea of the modern two tight end attack - though not his original idea - was innovative and caused the other teams in the AFC East to build their defenses accordingly, but neither Rob Gronkowski nor Aaron Hernandez could stay healthy and it was rare to have them in the lineup together... the idea last season was to sign a hybrid tight end that had the bulk to line up aligned with the tackle to support the running game, and also had the athleticism to around the lineup to create mismatches in the passing game - but it never materialized.

Instead, Gronkowski ended up on the operating table multiple times, and Hernandez changed his address to the Iron Bar Motel just before training camp, leaving the tight end cupboard relatively bare - and since the draft had already passed and all the good players in free agency were long gone, the Patriots started the season with an offense in flux and scrambling.

Gronkowski is still around but probably not going to be ready to start the season on the gameday roster, leaving Michael Hoomanawanui and D. J. Williams on the depth chart - and, with no offense to those players intended, they are just going to make the nut.

Belichick didn't target reinforcements in free agency, slim as the pickings were, so it appears imperative that something be done in the draft - perhaps not a big name like an Eric Ebron or a Jace Amaro, and maybe not even a "second tier" selection, because while this draft class may be devoid of a Gronkowski or a Hernandez, it is full of players who are a little bit of both.

At the beginning of the process, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro was the trendy pick for the Patriots amongst the national and local media and, subsequently, the fan base - his combination of size and speed having both entities drooling over the prospect of watching the athletic Amaro stretching the seam.

But once his limitations - light blocker and stiff in his routes - emerged, he began to be viewed as a one dimensional slot target who could be easily chipped by pro defensive ends and offered little after the catch, essentially a one-year wonder in college after his first two seasons were marred by off field issues and a string of minor injuries.

That is not to say that Amaro wouldn't be a fantastic pick up who could take a bit of heat off of Rob Gronkowski - except for the fact that what Amaro does best, stretch the seam, is also one of Gronkowski's top attributes, and that he offers very little as a blocker in-line makes his skill set a mid-round value to the Patriots, and they may not being willing to spend top draft currency on a limited talent.

North Carolina's Ebron will not be around when the Patriots' pick at 29, if they pick there at all, so he can be taken off the Patriots' big board all together.  Some will argue that his pro day performance brought his draft stock down a bit - what with a plethora of dropped passes and still nursing a hamstring injury suffered at the combine, but some tight end-needy team will see enough to ensure he's taken in the top 20.

Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a more balanced product than either Ebron or Amaro, and his so-called "Character issues" are way overblown, but the concern is how the better defenses in the Pac-12 were able to neutralize him for periods in games last season and is a bit of a project as an in-line blocker, but could still present the appropriate value at the end of the second round.

Troy Niklas emerged as a legitimate tight end prospect in the past couple of years after converting from defensive end and outside linebacker - a value coveted by deep-thinking position coaches, due to the ingrained defensive mind-set which presents a quick twitch advantage as he is fundamentally familiar with how defensive coordinators work to build game plans to contain athletic tight ends.

Conversions are not without growing pains, however, so Niklas is still a work in progress.  Coming out of high school, Niklas was ranked in the top 25 of high school recruits at offensive tackle, and his bloodlines suggest such - Hall of Fame tackle Bruce Matthews an uncle and mentor, so the inline blocking genetics are at work in his favor.  Of the prospects in the top two rounds, Niklas has the greatest upside.

A more polished prospect, however, could be Iowa's C. J. Fiedorowicz , already a better blocker than any of the talent ahead of him on the big board, he is also a reliable receiver - though his work ethic is in question as he routinely relied on his size alone to manhandle Big 10 defenses, he is still the most balanced of the prospects in the class and could be taken higher than his third round grade.

These four athletes represent the upper tier of tight end prospects in the draft, but by no means are they only players that present value to the Patriots.

While many are clamoring for the Patriots to take a flyer on troubled Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla as a mid to late round gem, the baggage that come with him has "locker room cancer" written all over it. 

Tales abound of his frequent outbursts when presented with authoritative figures and their tasking.  Many are blaming this on his dysfunctional childhood, but that doesn't matter.  The problems exist no matter where they came from and he apparently has a narcissistic streak that rivals that of Kellen Winslow, Jr., whom the Patriots cut after one game two seasons ago rather than deal with his behavior.

That issue aside, the middle rounds of the draft are probably where the Patriots will be focused when seeking a tight end, and there are many intriguing prospects - both developmental and NFL-ready - awaiting their names to be called, particularly for those teams looking for a prospect with a more balanced game.

Colorado State's Crockett Gillmore is pretty much exactly what the present-day Patriots should be looking for in a tight end - a willing, chippy blocker with tremendous size and a nasty streak in dealing with blocking defensive ends and outside linebackers, regularly playing through the whistle and taking pride in knocking the opposing player on his can.

Combine that with his soft hands and football intelligence, perhaps the best hand/eye coordination in the class on top of timing and release to create separation, he could - at least on paper - handle all of the inline responsibilities as well as line up in multiple locations in the formation, making him a true "move" tight end in New England's system.

Fresno State's Marcel Jensen is a virtual clone of Gillmore in terms of skill set, yet this skill set was woefully
Fresno State's Marcel Jensen
under-used in Fresno's spread offense, making him a bit of a wildcard.  His history as a basketball player fits him in with the growing trend in tight ends toward the athletic pass catching type, but is also a load in the running game as an inline blocker - at least, that's what he showed in limited reps in college.

The rest of the prospects are of the developmental variety and should be available on the third day of the draft - led by Florida's Trey Burton, who is small for the position and is more of an H-back, logging snaps at Florida as a "wildcat" type quarterback, fullback, half back, wide receiver and, of course, tight end.  His smallish frame may render him to that of a slot receiver, but otherwise he is a man without a true position...

...and the same goes for Missouri Western product Reggie Jordan.  At 6' 3" and 240 pounds and running a 4.77, Jordan easily managed to dominate his small school opposition, but at the big school and pro levels, he is a developmental H-Back with tremendous upside if he ever refines his route running and blocking techniques.

Local product Rob Blanchflower may get a look-see from the Patriots but it's hard to imagine that he could be much more than an inline blocker and occasional red zone threat, as he has reliable hands and is a willing pass catcher, but with limited athleticism - same with Dixie State's Joe Don Duncan.

But for those who think far outside the box, a name to remember could be Bloomsburg College defensive end Larry Webster.  At 6' 5", 260 pounds, Webster has 4.58 speed and an offensive mindset, which saw him as a red zone target in High School and College.  Though he prefers to play on defense (solely due to familiarity with that side of the ball), his slight frame and little room to add bulk may dictate a switch to Tight End - very much like a former Patriots player named Mike Vrabel - A very intriguing prospect.

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