Tony Gonzalez will be retiring after the 2012 NFL season. That much is clear. He is one of the top two or three tight ends of all time, and one could make a very solid argument that he is the greatest TE of all time. But he is on his curtain call in the NFL, and the Falcons need a player who can replace his production.
In all honesty, there is no way that any player can be expected to live up to what Gonzalez is and has been. Short of Rob Gronkowski or maybe Jimmy Graham, no player is capable of surpassing his greatness. But the Falcons must try to find someone who can help offset their loss. Whoever the Falcons draft or use as their main TE in 2012 will have to learn quickly and try to match Gonzalez’ production. The Falcons would not want the player to try too hard, however, as trying to live up to a legend or a large billing from draft day can be a huge burden to play with. So essentially the message from the Falcons to the new receiving tight end will be “We need you to be great and replace a living legend, but go out on the field and be yourself.” Yikes. I don’t envy the individual who is the future for the Falcons at the TE position.
That brings us to the players who we think could be drafted in 2012 to be groomed under Gonzalez, and then take over as a starter in 2013. In the past we’ve looked at Ladarius Green, and highlighted others in our 7-round Mock Drafts that can be found here, here, and here. The Falcons are without a first round pick, so my thought was that perhaps the Falcons use their 2nd round pick on Coby Fleener or Orson Charles, or take Charles or Ladarius Green in the third round if they were available there. It seemed like a good plan for grooming a strong pass-catching tight end in an NFL where the tight end is a crucial weapon and the Falcons would be falling behind without one.
However, the likelyhood of any of those players lasting until the third round, or the Falcons pick at No. 55 in the 2nd Round is looking even less likely these days. In one of his fine articles on draft prospects entering the 2012 NFL Draft, Coach Brian Billick broke down his thoughts on tight ends entering the Draft. In his article he states that the talent at the position in this years draft is not overwhelmingly elite, so the top three (Fleener, Charles, and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen) would fall to teams in the late 1st-early 2nd round. But while they would be gone, the draft doesn’t have enough depth (number of quality players at the position) for teams to be able to wait and pick up a tight end in the late rounds like teams have in the past. Jermichael Finley was drafted by the Packers in the late 3rd Round. Jimmy Graham was drafted even later. Many of the finest tight ends in the league today were drafted in the late 2nd round of the draft or far later.
But here is the problem. With massive season that tight ends had in 2011, teams will be even more desperate this season to find that next ‘it’ TE. Teams will want to find that great talent in the third round, but will it be there that late? Would you be better served using a higher pick on a player you really want to have, or try to take him later for better value but risk losing him to another team? This is the situation that the Falcons will find themselves in.
The way that I realize that the value on the tight end position in the NFL has eclipsed the value of gold, is the final prospect that Billick discusses. That prospect is Michael Egnew of Missouri. In my third 7-Rd. Mock Draft, I have the Falcons taking Egnew in the 6th round. He would have fallen at that spot, but Brian Billick says that his true value in last year’s draft or in previous seasons would probably be in the 5th Round. However he says that three of the teams that could target Egnew as a pure, vertical threat, receiving tight end are the Giants, the Bills, and the Broncos. He says that Egnew will be targeted with each teams 2nd round pick. Second round! The thought of a player like Egnew getting drafted in the 2nd round is mind-boggling, but it truly highlights the desperation throughout the league for a good pass-catching tight end, who can stretch the field down the middle of the defense.
I don’t know how Billick regards Ladarius Green, but I would not be surprised if he views him in the same way that he views Egnew; a bulked up receiver playing TE. If the Falcons could get Green in the 3rd round, it would be a blessing and eliminate the Falcons need to reach for him or another TE with their No. 55 pick. The greater value they can get at the TE position, the better, but if Atlanta waits too long there may not be one of these players worthy of a draft pick. Matt Ryan needs someone who will keep catching passes over the middle of the field, and it should be done sooner rather than later.