the new england patriots and new orleans saints are two of the best teams in the nfl right now, thanks in part to impressive second-year tight ends rob gronkowski (patriots) and jimmy graham (saints).
Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) and graham (6-6, 260) are matchup nightmares with the size and ball skills to be effective targets over the middle, and the foot speed and quickness to split wide and line up at receiver. Plenty of other teams are in the market for just such a weapon, and the 2012 class provides some options.
The top five tight ends on the board are (in order) clemson's dwayne allen*, stanford's coby fleener, georgia's orson charles*, notre dame's tyler eifert* and missouri's michael egnew. All of the top four could come off the board before the second round is over, while egnew projects as a third-rounder.
What makes them valuable to nfl teams? Here's how they compare in the five position-specific categories we at scouts inc. Use to evaluate tight end prospects.
charles masks his lack of prototypical size (6-32, 245) by using his quick hands and feet to get off the line. He could make sharper cuts in his routes, but charles uses his upper body to set up his breaks and is quick enough to separate from most linebackers/safeties. He'd be an excellent fit in a place like indianapolis, where dallas clark is 32 years old and jacob tamme is an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Fleener doesn't appear as quick as charles on film, but he's a fluid route-runner who can separate from man coverage and he excels at locating seams in zone looks.
fleener (6-6, 252) makes the most of his long arms and big hands. He plucks the ball out of the air instead of letting it get to his frame and can easily make one-handed grabs. His ability to adjust to back-shoulder passes and make plays in traffic is also impressive. Carolina is an interesting possibility for fleener.
Current panthers tes greg olsen and jeremy shockey have played well, but shockey is 31 years old and he'll be an unrestricted free agent. Drafting fleener would give qb cam newton another big target over the middle, and fleener has the frame to develop into an effective blocker in the panthers' run-heavy scheme.
all five of these tight ends can make plays. Even eifert, who is not much of a threat after the catch, is fast enough to work the seam and has the size (6-5, 250) to give defensive backs problems down the field. He would be a good fit for teams like the giants and bears, which have the ground games to set up the play-action package.
As for charles, his ability after the catch is what separates him. He's not quite as explosive as aaron hernandez, new england's other solid young tight end, but charles compares favorably. Both can make the first defender miss and show above-average top-end speed in space.
this is by far the toughest trait to evaluate, and none of these prospects can be considered "soft." allen stands out, though, because of his willingness to go over the middle, ability to drag defenders for extra yards and impressive blocking ability.
Denver could be in the market for a tight end, and allen would be a good fit. He's an effective-enough blocker to open up seams in the ground game, and the broncos could use more production out of their tight ends to provide qb tim tebow (assuming he holds on to the job next season) a security blanket in the passing game.
this is an area of weakness for most of these tight ends, and especially egnew. At 6-5 and 237 pounds, he is lean with a relatively high center of gravity, raising concerns about his ability to get under defenders and drive them off the ball. He also hasn't gotten much experience as an in-line blocker in missouri's spread scheme, so the best scenario for him is landing on a team looking for a situational receiver to give the passing game a boost, such as arizona or kansas city.
Allen's blocking prowess is about more than simple determination. He gets sound hand placement, can use his size (6-44, 255) to help seal the edge, knows how to get into position at the second level and can hold up in pass protection.