(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, set for April 26-28.)
Even though Tom Brady and the New England Patriots offense have done a terrific job of putting their tight ends in the forefront over the past couple of seasons, other teams looking to duplicate their success will be hard-pressed to find players in this draft who are capable of re-creating that same level of production.
In 2011, Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 169 catches for 2,479 yards and 24 touchdowns, plus another 36 catches for 446 yards and five touchdowns in the playoffs, and most of that can be traced to the matchup nightmares they created against just about every opponent they faced.
Neither Hernandez nor Gronkowski entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick, but both of them are better than the best this class has to offer, and depending upon preference, the best this class has to offer either is Stanford's Coby Fleener (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) or Clemson's Dwayne Allen (6-3, 255).
Fleener is a fifth-year senior who appeared in 38 games with 11 starts over his career, and he caught 62 passes for 876 yards and eight touchdowns during that time. His combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism makes him attractive to an NFL team interested in utilizing the tight end as a primary weapon in its passing attack. He led the Cardinal with a 20.2 average per catch in 2011, and in the previous season's Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech he caught touchdown passes of 41, 58 and 38 yards.
Allen was an excellent basketball player at Terry Sanford High School in North Carolina, and he has the body control and the big, reliable hands that come along with being accomplished in that sport. But basketball does not demand the same level of violence that takes place on a regular basis along the line of scrimmage in the NFL, and so Allen will need to work on embracing that. The 2011 John Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in the country, Allen caught 50 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns after a 2010 season in which he grabbed 33 for 373 yards and one touchdown.
After these two come a trio of players who have a chance to get picked by the time the third round is over: Georgia's Orson Charles (6-2, 250), Louisiana-Lafayette's Ladarius Green (6-6, 240), and Missouri's Michael Egnew (6-5, 250).
Charles finished his college career as the top receiving tight end in school history with 1,370 yards, including 574 on 45 catches in 2011. Also a competitive and willing blocker, Charles was best among all tight ends at the combine with 35 repetitions in the bench press. On March 9, Charles was charged with driving under the influence after blowing a .095 on a breathalyzer.
Green was nicknamed pee-wee in high school because he was short, but nobody is calling him that now. He was his team's offensive most valuable player in 2009 when he caught 51 passes for 606 yards and eight touchdowns. Green might not be short anymore, but he is relatively slight for the blocking demands of this position at the professional level, but he is praised for being mature and humble, which should allow him to accept the kind of coaching he'll need to succeed as a professional.
To know what kind of skills Egnew will bring to whatever team picks him, take a look at his background as a high school athlete. Egnew was a wide receiver at Plainview High School in Texas, and he also played basketball and track, where he placed 2nd in the state championships in the long jump. Egnew will be able to handle the finesse aspects of tight end, but he is not good enough as a blocker right now to get onto the field for a team interested in getting that from the position.
THE 2011 NFL DRAFT, TE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 13
Picks by round: 0 in the first; 2 in the second; 1 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 2 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame, Round 2, 43rd overall, by Minnesota
Biggest impact: Kyle Rudolph started eight games and finished with 26 catches that included three for touchdowns