This year's crop of tight end prospects lack the star power that previous drafts have had at this position. Since 2000, there have been a total of 18 first round picks used on a tight end. In fact, on average 14 tight ends are selected during the draft, the majority coming in rounds 5-7 (116 tight ends were selected in these rounds since 2000).
The New Orleans Saints just traded away their star tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first round pick. That first round pick might be the only first round pick associated with a tight end this year.
For the most part, tight ends selected in the first round have had limited success. A few have reached and even exceeded their potential (Greg Olsen, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Heath Miller) and a few have yet to meet their expectations (Tyler Eifert, Eric Ebron, Jermaine Gresham).
Below are the rankings for this year's tight end group and the projections don't suggest any long term stars in the mold of a Rob Gronkowski or a Jason Witten. This class has a number of solid in-line blocking tight ends and a few who can stretch the field and be a viable target in the middle of the field.
1) Maxx Williams (Minnesota):
With the best hands amongst the tight end groups this year, Maxx Williams didn't have a recorded drop this past year. At 6'4” and 249 pounds, Williams has the frame to be a big target in an NFL offensive system.
Williams played in a run-centered offense these past few seasons and in 2013, Minnesota had 600 rush attempts to only 254 passing attempts. Williams led the Gophers in receptions (36), receiving yards (569), and touchdown receptions (8). In 25 career games, Williams recorded 61 receptions, 986 yards, a 16.2 YPC average, 13 TD's, and 44 first downs. His first down rate of 72 percent is tied for the highest rate amongst all tight ends in this draft class.
Showcasing great body control, he is able to go up and snatch the ball at the moment of truth between him and his defender. With the ball in his hands, Williams does a good job at picking up additional yards-after-the-catch.
Williams is a well-rounded prospect who might not excel in one area, but is a good athlete who is a dependable target in the red zone and on third downs. Williams had 11 receptions of 25 or more yards, giving him a big play rate of 41 percent, fourth highest in this tight end group.
There is some talk about Williams being a late first round pick. While he has the makings of a quality tight end, he still has a ways to go in terms of his development, route-running and blocking abilities. A team would be wise to consider waiting until at least the second round before deciding to go with Williams.
2) Clive Walford (Miami)
: Early last season Miami made the trek up to Lincoln, Nebraska to play the Cornhuskers. While Nebraska held control over the match for most of the game, Walford was one of the few bright spots for the Hurricanes' offense. He was able to shake and move past the Nebraska linebackers and his size proved to be too much against the safeties and corners.
Walford has great speed and quickness for a player of his size and once he gets the ball in his hands, he has no problem accelerating upfield. He led the Hurricanes in receptions (44) this past season. In 49 career games, Walford recorded 121 receptions for 1,753 yards, a 14.5 YPC average, 14 TD's, and 72 first downs. His career receptions and first downs led all the tight ends in this year's class. Not a deep-downfield threat, Walford had a big play rate of just 38 percent.
Reliability as a pass catcher is his biggest issue; he had 10 total drops during his first couple of seasons along with a handful more last year. An improved blocker throughout his career, Walford showed his progress this past year as Miami became a running-based team with limited play from the quarterback position.
While drops seem to be a minor issue, once he is able to secure the football Walford has shown good progress at not letting go. With only two career fumbles on his resume, he is a sure-handed runner with the football.
Walford will make a valuable special teams player to start out his career and a good backup in the short term. Similar to Seattle Seahawks Luke Willson in terms of measurables and statistical production, Walford might need a few seasons of development before becoming a front line starter.
3) Nick O'Leary (Florida State)
: A trusted receiving option during the past few seasons, especially in critical situations such as third down and in the red zone, O'Leary had 21 percent of his career receptions on third down, one the highest totals in this draft class for tight ends.
In 54 career games, O'Leary recorded 114 receptions, 1,591 receiving yards, a 14 YPC average, 17 TD's, and 73 first downs. At 6'3” and 252 pounds, he has the strength to hold his edge in blocking and showed on a number of occasions this past season of driving his defender into the second level. Technically he is a sound blocker; he keeps his hands inside and keeps a good base.
Once considered a marginal athlete because he didn't record a lot of a deep passes, O'Leary answered a few of those question in 2014. For his career he had 21 receptions of 20 yards or more, giving him a big play rate of 39 percent. A dependable target and capable of picking up a key first down, O'Leary had a first down conversion rate (number of catches which result in a first down) of 64 percent, tied for fifth amongst all tight ends in this draft.
While not the big target that is usually seen from a modern-day tight end, O'Leary is still capable of winning the contested throws. He has great hands and the ability to do all the little things that don't always end up in the box score, but they help his team win games. Look for O'Leary to make an instant impact next season and if taken in the middle rounds, he could be the steal of the draft.
4) Ben Koyack (Notre Dame):
Similar to Williams, Koyack is a versatile tight end who can play with his hand on the ground or split out wide as a receiver. As a big target at 6'5” and 255 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare against linebackers who dare to follow him deep down the field.
Primarily used as a blocking tight end for the past couple of seasons, Koyack didn't have a ton of opportunities to showcase his full skill set. With inconsistent play at the quarterback position this past season, Koyack had to spend an inordinate amount of time as a blocker.
He has shown flashes of being a consistent playmaker and a reliable target out in the open field. With a drop rate of just 2.9 percent last season, Koyack is one of the most sure-handed tight ends in this draft class. In 49 career games, Koyack recorded 44 receptions, 532 receiving yards, a 12.1 YPC average, five TD's, and 29 first downs.
Koyack will need to continue his development as a receiver, work on getting in and out of his cuts and doing less dancing at the line of scrimmage. He brings instant value as a blocker. Adding a few more pounds to his frame would help him hold up to the rigors of a full NFL season.
Koyack is not a splashy prospect and is still a bit raw in some areas of his game, but fewer and fewer tight ends come into the NFL capable of being a dominant blocker. Koyack has the ability to lock his edge and handle a defender in one-on-one situations. He might be an early day-three pick, but is a player who can add instant value.
5) Darren Waller (Georgia Tech):
Darren Waller is a former wide receiver, but I believe he could develop into a top tier tight end in the NFL. He stands 6'6” and 238 pounds, which puts him amongst the taller tight ends in this draft. His body would benefit from the addition of 10 to 12 pounds, which would put him in the 250 pound range, similar height and weight numbers to Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas.
While a typical wide receiver might not be adept at blocking and pass protection, Waller played at Georgia Tech where they rarely threw the ball. He was a lead blocker on the outside for the most part of his career. In 38 career games, Waller recorded 51 receptions for 971 yards, a 19.0 YPC average, nine TD's, and 38 first downs.
Waller doesn't have the speed to be a deep ball threat in the NFL as a wide receiver, but his short area quickness makes him a top target in the short to intermediate areas of the field. He did some of his best work against zone and off-man coverage last season.
As with most big bodied wideouts, even when it seems that he is covered, Waller he can still come away with a tough catch in traffic.
He is an instant target in the red zone due to his size, and should have a role in special teams to start his career.
It will take a few seasons to develop his abilities; Waller is a raw route runner coming out of college after playing in the triple-option offense. With some time and development, Waller could be a solid tight end prospect and dynamic playmaker for an NFL team in the next several years.
The Best of the Rest:
6) MyCole Pruitt (Southern Illinois)
7) Tyler Kroft (Rutgers)
8) Jesse James (Penn State)
9) Blake Bell (Oklahoma)
10) E.J. Bibbs (Iowa State)
11) C.J. Uzomah (Auburn)
12) Jean Sifrin (Massachusetts)
13) Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State)
14) Nick Boyle (Delaware)
15) Casey Pierce (Kent State)