The Return of the Tight End
Despite the high demand, a tight end hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2014. However, a stacked 2017 class, featuring Michigan’s Jake Butt, is poised to break that trend
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Early in the second quarter last Saturday, with No. 2 Michigan struggling in a 7-7 tie with underdog rival Michigan State, the Wolverines called an end-around for wideout Eddie McDoom. As McDoom curled around the right side of the line and gained steam, tight end Jake Butt turned back and erased a would-be tackler, paving a lane for McDoom to jet off for 33 yards. On the next play Butt shook free on a corner route, hauling in a 26-yard catch on the one-yard line.
“If you’re a tight end, I really can’t think of anywhere in the country where you’d rather be than playing for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh,” Butt says. “He sets you up for success here in college but also showcases exactly what NFL teams are looking for.”
For recency bias, Butt is correct. The college game’s crop of NFL-ready tight ends has been thin over the past few seasons. Only a few programs—including Stanford (Harbaugh’s program from 2007 to ’10), Notre Dame and now Michigan—utilize tight ends in ways similar to the pros. Scouts say evaluation of tight ends is perhaps more difficult than any other position, especially since the college tight end has undergone a massive makeover. In some spread offenses, tight ends are nearly obsolete as teams try to push four or five receivers on the field.
“This is another result of the spread offense taking over the college game,” says Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager and executive director of the Senior Bowl. “Everyone is talking about how the spread offense has affected quarterbacks. Well, it impacts tight ends too.”
NFL offenses are using tight ends as often—and as creatively—as ever. Yet since 2011 only two tight ends have been drafted in the first round, and none since Eric Ebron went 10th overall to the Lions in 2014. The last time multiple tight ends came off the board in the first round was 2006, with Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis.
The 2017 draft class might buck that trend. Not only is Butt receiving first-round attention, but so too is Alabama’s O.J. Howard, whose size (6'6", 242 pounds) and speed make him a prototypical modern tight end. Arkansas’ Jeremy Sprinkle, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges, Ole Miss’s Evan Engram and Clemson’s Jordan Leggett are all potential top-50 picks. Savage is high on a small school prospect as well: Gerald Everett of South Alabama.
A year ago Savage says he had trouble filling the Senior Bowl rosters with six tight ends who would likely be drafted. This year, he says, there are at least 10 to 12 players he will have to choose from. “And that’s not even getting into some of the underclassmen talent.”
“No doubt this class of tight ends is bloated,” Savage says. “The question everyone is going to ask is, ‘Why?’”
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There are two groups of tight ends: the classic Y tight end, a bigger body often attached to the offensive line, and the H-back type, hybrid wide receivers. In many college offenses, these tight ends are deployed as wideouts in space, and rarely ever get in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage.
NFL teams want tight ends who can do everything. Of course, even if these skills aren’t showcased in college, they could develop in the NFL. One element scouts note, for example, is a tight end’s willingness to block—they are not necessarily downgraded for how often they are asked to do so in college. When Davis was selected No. 6 in 2006, his run-blocking experience at Maryland was practically non-existent. Said 49ers GM Trent Baalke, a scout with the Niners in ’06, at last year’s combine: “You’ve got to factor in the development time. It’s going to take them a little longer to develop, especially in the run game, because they’re not asked to do it as much. There are some things you have to look at differently now than you had to 10 years ago, because the college game is quite a bit different than the game we play. Especially at the line of scrimmage.”
Demand for tight ends is high, and the supply can’t keep up. Consider some of the middling veteran talents that have recently cashed in as free agents: Charles Clay ($24.5 million guaranteed from Buffalo) and Coby Fleener ($14.6 million guaranteed from New Orleans). Julius Thomas got $21 million guaranteed from Jacksonville despite his weakness as a blocker. Philadelphia locked up Zach Ertz with a deal that pays $8.5 million annually. And Indy did the same with Dwayne Allen, inking him to a four-year, $30 million deal with $11.5 million in guarantees despite Allen’s 2015 stat line: 16 receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown.
The Colts took a different route to a tight end the previous offseason: In 2015, the team signed former Miami basketball player Erik Swoope to a contract. The scouting department had put out a directive to go find a basketball player they could turn into a tight end.
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Teams are happy that the pendulum seems to be swinging in 2017. To explain the resurgence of riches, Savage offers two contributing factors. The first is much easier to prove: Some players in 2017 (including Butt and Howard) did not declare early, therefore bolstering this year’s class. But there’s a larger trend Savage sees. The average size of professional basketball players is growing. Therefore, a high school star who’s deciding between basketball and football and is 6'7" or shorter might realize he has a better chance at a professional sports career in the NFL.
“Sure, he can make some money in Europe,” Savage says. “But he realizes his best shot at being a professional here and making the most money is in the NFL. So they’re switching to football full-time.” (Savage says this trend is affecting offensive linemen, as well).
After Saturday’s game (Michigan won 33-23), Butt reflected on what he has to offer to NFL teams. He is similar to many of the successful tight ends from pro-style programs like Stanford and Notre Dame that tend to recruit bigger-bodied receivers and then teach them how to block. Butt says he was always bigger than his peers, and always wanted to be a pass-catcher. In Pop Warner he had to cut down five pounds, to 123, just so officials would let him on the field.
“I like to block, I like to get involved in the run game, I like to move the chains whether it’s on third down or in the red zone,” Butt says. “I guess I’m kind of just like a throwback tight end.”
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Falcons safety Keanu Neal hyping his former Florida teammate, cornerback Jalen Tabor.
“He’s a baller. He loves to compete, he loves to play the game, you can tell he has a passion for it. His instincts are his biggest asset. He has a great football IQ and he knows the game, but he just has this sense where he can anticipate what receivers are going to do to him. Some guys just have that instinctual asset, that’s what they’re blessed with, and Jeez has it. He can get rowdy, but I call him a confident player. He knows his ability. If you can back it up, which he does, you can be like that. Anybody on that defense can play at this level, but being in the league a few months now, I know what elite receivers look like, and I know that Jeez can take them on.”
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU: Missed all of last season [and part of 2014] but big workload this year. Good vision, picks his spots well. Makes a lot of guys miss. Thick, powerful lower body, squeezes yards after contact.
Caleb Peterson, G, North Carolina: Caught my eye when watching Landon Turner last year. More athletic than Turner. Has desire, size and power to be a starting guard in this league.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Yes, we’ve covered Fournette in this column, but it’s around the time of year where we should take stock of preseason headliners. From a scout who recently attended an LSU game: “Still a superstar.”
• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run
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SCOUTING ODDITY OF THE WEEK
I’ve heard of teams measuring a player’s wrists—the thinking is to gauge how much weight a player could put on. Last year we were introduced to the hand-size debate. But here’s a completely new one for me: According to UCLA coach Jim Mora, teams have been measuring, and judging players, based on knee circumference. Here’s Mora, via the Southern California News Group: “One of the reasons [offensive lineman] Caleb Benenoch dropped with a team, and I'm not going to mention the team, is because the circumference of his knee did not meet their standards. So they’re measuring his knee’s circumference, and found that his knee—this is one team, not all 32—they said Caleb’s knee is not thick enough. He’s off our draft board. It’s that particular in the NFL.”
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
For the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, Banks helped design a “House Divided” collection, limited-edition Wolverine and Spartan satin jackets, in select stores. If only the Spartys were as cool with a 7-0 home lead as these jackets are trendy. (I’ll see myself out..)
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…
Texas at Texas Tech (noon): Did Charlie Strong save his job? Is Kliff Kingsbury’s latest pupil (with Air Raid-fortified statistics) a legitimate NFL draft prospect? Ample storylines are brewing in Texas. The Red Raiders lead the nation in passing, with quarterback Pat Mahomes averaging more than 440 yards per game. However, they need two wins over their final four to become bowl-eligible. Meanwhile, I think Strong earned good will in Austin by knocking off Baylor last week, but the Longhorns may need a big finish for Strong to be completely secure. Need extra juice? Texas defensive end Breckyn Hager provided just that with some questionable comments regarding Mahomes, who has been nursing a shoulder injury. From Hager: “Injure that quarterback… We know he’s banged up and we’ve just got to get after him.” Yeeesh.
No. 1 Alabama at No. 15 LSU (8 p.m.): The matchup we’ve eyed since preseason is finally here, and despite LSU’s early woes, this game actually means something—and should be competitive. Under perennially under appreciated Ed Orgeron, interim coach extraordinaire, LSU has vaulted into the top 15. Moreover, its two losses (on the road vs. Wisconsin and Auburn) don’t look so bad anymore. Those teams have proven to be good. If the Tigers have any shot at upending Nick Saban’s juggernaut, Leonard Fournette is going to need to be Superman. O.K., let’s not put too much pressure on the running back, but Fournette will need to turn in a performance more like the 284-yarder he had against Ole Miss two weeks ago, and not the 31-yard dud he put up against Alabama last season. It’s tricky when the Tide have at least three players in their front seven (Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams) regarded as potential first-round picks.
No. 9 Nebraska at No. 6 Ohio State (8 p.m.): Sure, the College Football Playoff committee had it easy this week, releasing its first rankings when there are only five undefeated teams remaining, and four of them coming from power conferences. (Sorry, P.J. Fleck!) But don’t pen in Alabama, Michigan, Clemson and Washington as the definitive final four. A few teams could crash the party, and here’s two of them in a must-win Big Ten battle. I’m especially interested in how Ohio State plays, considering how shaky the Buckeyes looked last week against Northwestern after losing to Penn State.
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior matchups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Syracuse WR Amba Etta-Tawo vs. Clemson CB Cordrea Tankersley: This will feature two NFL-sized perimeter athletes. Etta-Tawo (6'2", 202 pounds) is a graduate transfer from Maryland who has found a home in Dino Babers’ high-powered passing attack. Currently tied for fifth nationally in receptions, with 66 catches, and fourth in yardage (1,074), he averages 16.3 per with seven touchdowns. Tankersley (6'1", 195 pounds) is a two-year starter who intercepted five passes a season ago. In 2016 he has 27 total tackles and seven passes defensed. A true game-within-the-game; the pro scouts will love evaluating this one-on-one battle.
Best of the Rest:
South Carolina State OT Javarius Leamon vs. North Carolina A&T RB Tarik Cohen
Louisville TE Cole Hikutini vs. Boston College FS John Johnson
Charlotte DT Larry Ogunjobi vs. Southern Miss OC Cameron Tom
Alabama DT Dalvin Tomlinson vs. LSU OC Ethan Pocic
• FROM WESTERN MICHIGAN TO ROUND 1: He nearly missed out on college altogeher, but now record-setting wideout Corey Davis could join Randy Moss as the only MAC receivers ever taken in the NFL draft’s first round.
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Wish I got to spend more time in East Lansing this week, but thanks to my new Chicago friend Ron Cooper, a former athletic trainer for MSU, I made the most of my free time there. Ron gave me two options: Go where the kids go, or where the adults go. I chose the latter, bypassing student favorite Rick’s (next time, maybe…). But I did have a beer at TinCan, and stopped by Beer Grotto, and I have to say, East Lansing has quality craft beer options. TinCan only serves beer in cans, most of them are local, and I’m pretty sure none cost more than $5.25. Apparently there is a debate whether the bar should be allowed to have darts and Jenga, which is one of the more ridiculous town-and-gown college tussles I have heard of. Stories like that make me miss living in a college town. Anyway, TinCan still has a lot going for it: decent-looking food (tater tots on the menu always a plus) and frozen pudding shots. Had to pass on those, but like I said, next time…
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