(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, set for April 25-27.)
It is being said that tight end Zach Ertz is better than his former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener, who was the 34th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. It is being said that Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert may end up being the first player drafted at this position because he led his team with 50 receptions last season despite the handicap of playing with a freshman quarterback. It is being said that Michigan State's Dion Sims could carve out an NFL career for himself because of his rare size and body mass for the position.
What isn't being said about any of these tight ends is that they are the kind of receiver/blocker the Steelers have in Heath Miller. But then again, there aren't too many teams that utilize their tight end the way the Steelers do with Miller.
Anyway, it seems as though Eifert (6-foot-5, 250) will be the first at this position to be drafted, and that figures to happen before the end of the first round. Over his final two college seasons, Eifert caught 113 passes for 1,488 yards and nine touchdowns, and he also brought home the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end in 2012. But despite Eifert's height and weight, he looks awfully lean, and his frame is somewhat narrow. By all accounts, he is a work-in-progress as a blocker.
Ertz (6-5, 249) caught 69 passes for 898 yards and six touchdowns in his only season as the No. 1 tight end once Fleener was off to the NFL. Maybe Ertz ends up following Fleener into the NFL the same way – as a second-round draft pick – but his contributions early will be as a receiver because he was a sometimes blocker in college, and the defensive players he'll be facing as a pro are much stronger and more physical than the guys he faced in the Pac-12 Conference.
After Eifert and Ertz, the next tier of players here includes Sims (6-5, 262), San Diego State's Gavin Escobar (6-6, 254), Florida's Jordan Reed (6-3, 236) and Stanford's Levine Toilolo (6-8, 260).
Toilolo split playing time with Ertz, and his likely role in the NFL figures to be as a team's No. 2 tight end because his height makes him viable as a red zone option, he has decent in-line blocking capability, and hands are dependable enough to allow him to be a reliable safety valve.
Reed is a poor man's Aaron Hernandez, a guy who is built like an over-sized wideout and ended up leading the Gators in receiving in 2012. Reed is going to have to develop in just about every area of his game, however, if he hopes to become as good a pro as Hernandez already is.
Escobar caught 122 passes over three college seasons, and the fact he recorded the best 20-yard shuttle time of any tight end at the Combine attests to his athletic ability. According to reports, he has 17 percent body fat, and so there is work to be done on his frame, but while he's doing that he could be contributing to a team with his receiving skills.
THE 2012 NFL DRAFT, TE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 12
Picks by round: 0 in the first; 1 in the second; 2 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 1 in the fifth; 1 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Coby Fleener, Stanford, Round 2, 34th overall, by Indianapolis
Biggest impact: It wasn't Fleener, but instead it was teammate Dwayne Allen, who was a third-round pick, 64th overall, by the Colts. Allen started all 16 games, and he finished his rookie season with 45 catches and three touchdowns.