With the NFL Draft still a couple months off, but the Combine only about a week and a half away, it is time for Falcons fans to start paying close attention to players at positions of need who could really make names for themselves in coming weeks. A couple weeks ago I highlighted the possible draftees for the Falcons at the defensive end position. The other position that I think the Falcons would address, at least early in the draft, is the Tight End position.
Let’s face the music here. Tony Gonzalez has been instrumental for the past three seasons for the Falcons, and nowhere is that more noticeable than in the development of Matt Ryan. He is one of the top two tight ends to ever play that position. But he is getting very old, and per reports, 2012 will be his final season. It is not a dire need for the Falcons, but it is important that the Falcons have a very talented tight end who can learn from Gonzalez for the year, and then take over as the pass catching/stretching the field player at the position. As you can see from an article by Jamie, Michael Palmer will be useful as a blocking TE, but he provides very little in the passing game.
So the only logical way to upgrade the position is to draft a tight end. I would love to see the Falcons take a tight end with their second round pick this year, or third round pick if the right player is available at that spot. Here at the top four prospects at tight end, and each of them could fall to the Falcons at their 2nd round spot.
1. Dwayne Allen, Clemson. Allen is everything you could want at the Tight End position. He is the 2011 John Mackey Award winner, the award given to the college football’s most outstanding tight end. Allen has it all, he boxes defenders out with his size, he catches the ball well away from his body and at its highest point, runs good routes, and on top of it all, he blocks very well. In fact, he was used at times as a fullback at Clemson. The only negative in his game is that at times he loses focus and drops easy passes, and that he does not have elite speed. Sounds like Tony Gonzalez 2.0. He would be a tremendous red zone target, and someone who would not have to be subbed out when the Falcons decide to run since he has above average blocking. He is projected by most sited to be picked in the late 1st or early 2nd round, but if he falls to the Falcons spot, they would be hard pressed to take someone else. It would be seriously remiss of the Falcons to pass on Allen were he still on the board.
2. Orson Charles, Georgia. Charles is a very good tight end, but is of a different mold than Allen. Whereas Allen is a good all round, Charles is lacking in only one respect. He is another excellent receiver, can catch the ball well away from his body, also catches the ball at its highest point, and would be a tremendous red zone target. He is faster than Allen, and can create more yards after the catch and more separation from linebackers in the passing game. Unfortunately, he is not quite an elite blocker, as that part of his game is very suspect. But he is along the lines of Jermichael Finley: he isn’t a great blocker, but is more of a jacked up receiver whose size advantage can be key in the red zone and over the middle of the field. He also played and excelled against elite competition in the SEC, and that is never a bad thing. He is projected to go in round 2 or early in round three, and that would be prime Falcons territory. Add to the fact that he is already comfortable in the state of Georgia, I think he could be a home run for the Falcons.
3. Coby Fleener, Stanford. You can never discount a Stanford education, and that is absolutely the case with Fleener. He is a true team player, and played in a pro-style offense at Stanford. Within that offense, the ‘team player’ excelled as a scoring option, can play the slot position as well as tight end, and his huge size (6’6 244) make him a size match up as well. He is smart, runs good routes, stretches the field vertically, finds the void in the defense well, and catches with his hands, not his body. While his size makes him elite as a pass catcher, it also makes him a liability in the run game. His build is a little light to be a great in-line blocker, but he can certainly improve in that aspect. Projected to be taken in the 2nd round, Fleener could be another option for the Falcons. Also, according to the Atlanta Falcons official site, Fleener is by far the most desired player with the No. 55 overall pick.
4. Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Lafayette. Green is a similar prospect to Charles. He is a tremendous pass catcher with great body control, soft hands, and can extend his hands away from his body to make tremendous catches. But by the same token, Green is not a good blocker, and the scheme that Louisiana-Lafayette runs does not lend itself to great blocking tight ends. He is not particularly explosive running routes off the line, but he can build up speed and eventually get the necessary speed to get down the field. He is probably the least talented blocking tight end of these that I have mentioned, but is a good character guy, and his great pass catching ability would make an immediate impact. His frame is such that he is capable of putting on further bulk, so his blocking and size can improve at the next level. He is projected by Walter Football to go in round 4-6, but he could creep into the late 3rd round given his great New Orleans Bowl performance (5 rec, 121 yds, 1TD). He would be a bargain in the 3rd round, but since the Falcons don’t have a 4th round pick, they may have to reach for him in the 3rd. However, I believe that would be a solid pick if none of the other targeted players above are available.
Like I said in the analysis of Charles, the tight ends today are faster and more athletic than in the past. Blocking is not essential; great size, strength, and speed are. Just look at what New Orleans has done with Jimmy Graham. He is excellent at going up to get the ball at its highest point, racing down the field toward the endzone, and boxing out defenders so only he can make the catch. It is the same thing with Jermichael Finley. Finding a pass catching tight end in the middle rounds of the draft who has these tools is what the NFL is moving towards today. Having someone like Dwayne Allen who can block well in addition to getting open in the passing game is a luxury, not a necessity. This is what makes this draft so interesting for the Falcons. There are positions that need to be addressed, but it is difficult to find elite difference making talent outside the first round. Tight end can obviously be addressed in the second, third, and sometimes further rounds. Atlanta didn’t do itself any favors for its 2012 draft process by trading up for Julio Jones, but with the picks they have, they can still draft talent who can produce immediately and for years to come.