(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Maybe the most telling thing about this 2011 crop of tight ends is the consensus No. 1 prospect carries the one qualifier that raises a red flag with every NFL team. "When healthy."
One year after the draft yielded Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Andrew Quarless and Aaron Hernandez, rookie contributors all, this draft will present a medical question mark in Kyle Rudolph at the top of the class to be followed by a bunch of guys who can do some of the things demanded of the position but not others.
Rudolph (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) started 13 games as a freshman for Charlie Weis and finished that 2008 season with 29 catches and two touchdowns, but that was followed by two seasons ruined to different degrees by injuries. In 2009 it was a separated shoulder that eventually required surgery in December, and last year he tore two tendons off the bone in his right hamstring and had season-ending surgery on Oct. 15. Provided that all of Rudolph's pre-draft medical evaluations checked out, he could become the only tight end drafted in the first round.
If Rudolph isn't that guy, there doesn't figure to be another prospect at this position to come off the board on Thursday, April 28.
After Rudolph, the top prospects here are being identified as Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Tennessee's Luke Stocker, Arkansas' D.J. Williams and Nevada's Virgil Green.
Kendricks (6-3, 245) is considered a solid receiver, but this fifth-year senior can present an interesting dilemma to teams investigating his background. He was cited twice for underage drinking within a span of a couple of months in 2008, but he bounced back from that to earn his degree and become a team captain.
Stocker (6-5, 260) has the same body type and attended the same college as Dallas tight end Jason Witten, and so the comparisons already have been made. Stocker ran a 4.74 at the Combine, so he uses skills other than speed to get open. Another fifth-year senior, he started 38 of the 52 games in which he appeared for the Volunteers.
Williams (6-2, 245) has the most impressive package of statistics of all the top prospects here, but his size is not ideal for the NFL. Still, Williams was a three-time All-SEC selection who averaged 47 catches over the previous three seasons. He was the 2010 winner of the Mackey Award, given annually to college football's top tight end.
Green (6-3, 250) benefited from playing with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, himself a legitimate NFL prospect, during his time at Nevada. Another fifth-year senior who was recruited originally as a wide receiver, Green improved over the course of his college career and then helped himself at the Combine where he ran a 4.56.
THE 2010 NFL DRAFT, TE STATISTICS
Number drafted: 20
Picks by round: 1 in the first; 1 in the second; three in the third; 4 in the fourth; 3 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma, Round 1, 21st overall, by Cincinnati
Biggest impact: Rob Gronkowski, Arizona, Round 2, 42nd overall, started 11 games and finished with 42 catches for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns for New England.