(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)
There is one No. 1. He’s an impressive one, but this year this class will offer the NFL only one.
He is quite the one, though, this tight end from North Carolina named Eric Ebron who broke Vernon Davis’ ACC record for receiving yards by a tight end with 973 on 62 catches. Ebron will be a 21-year-old rookie in the NFL, which indicates he still has a lot of upside, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest he’s going to grow into a matchup nightmare that should plague defensive coordinators for years to come. The area where Ebron (6-foot-4, 250) will have to improve is as an in-line blocker who’s asked to go one-on-one with defensive ends. But maybe the team drafting him isn’t interested in using him that way.
Once Ebron (pictured above) is picked, it’s impossible to imagine another tight end getting selected during the first round. After Ebron? Well, that’s anybody’s guess right now, and some of the names who figure to be called in some kind of order after Ebron are Jace Amaro, Troy Niklas, and C.J. Fiedorowicz.
After playing sparingly as a freshman in 2011, he started six games in 2012 and had 25 catches for 409 yards (16.4 average) and four touchdowns, but he missed the last six games after a hit against West Virginia caused a lacerated spleen, fractured rib and internal bleeding. Amaro (6-5, 265) bounced back in 2013 and set an FBS record for receiving yards by a tight end with 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. Essentially, Amaro was used in college as an over-sized wide receiver, and so there are questions about his ability to match up vs. defensive linemen in the NFL. Despite his size, he has to be considered a finesse tight end.
Niklas (6-7, 270) played outside linebacker as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2011, and after finishing with 20 tackles and no sacks he was converted to tight end the following season when he served as a No. 2 to Tyler Eifert, who became a first-round pick by the Bengals. Niklas assumed a more prominent role in 2013 and finished with 32 catches for 495 yards and five touchdowns. He had hernia surgery on March 11. Niklas is big and muscular, but he’s also a nice athlete with the ability to run the routes required of tight ends in the NFL. But because he is a converted OLB learning the nuances of tight end with only one real season of experience, Niklas could last into the third round. There, he could be a nice value pick.
Fiedorowicz (6-6, 265) played some as a freshman in 2010 but had no receiving statistics, and in five starts the following year he finished with 16 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He became a full-time starter in 2012 and had 45 catches for 433 yards and one touchdown, and then he started 12 of 13 games in 2013 and had 30 catches for 299 yards and six touchdowns. Fiedorowicz is a big and strong with decent flexibility, and he uses his size to his advantage. But a 4.76 in the 40-yard dash is going to limit him in the NFL.
THE 2013 NFL DRAFT, TE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 16
Picks by round: 1 in the first; 3 in the second; 2 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, Round 1, 21st overall, by the Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest impact: The rookie tight end who was the most productive receivers wasn’t even drafted. Timothy Wright (6-3, 220) played his college football at Rutgers, and after signing as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay he went on to start eight games and catch 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns.