Michigan State’s Dion Sims is a big, physical tight end who might be the best blocker among the NFL draft prospects at his position.
It’s his tough luck that NFL teams are moving away from tight ends like him at the same time he seeks to become a professional.
“Sims, his biggest attribute is his in-line blocking, and I think that’s going to help him,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “But in today’s NFL, the ability to get down the field and catch the ball and get vertical is a big deal. He’s not one of those guys.”
There’s plenty of those kind of guys starring at tight end in college football. That’s one reason why Sims is expected to be drafted in the middle rounds, while tight ends who can make big plays catching the ball will be selected during the first two rounds of the draft, which starts Thursday.
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is considered to be a deficient blocker and has a long, lean frame more suggestive of a wide receiver than a tight end. But he’s a smooth athlete with excellent pass-catching skills, attributes that make him the top-rated tight end prospect in the draft and likely a first-round selection.
Tight ends such as Eifert are an asset in the NFL as coordinators increasingly use them in hybrid roles instead of the traditional function of lining up tight in the formation in a three-point stance.
“I’m lucky to be coming in at a time where the type of tight end that I am is being used quite a bit in the passing game,” Eifert said. “But (I’m) also a guy that can stay in the game on every down throughout the game and can also block (and) create mismatch problems in the passing game.”
The spread formations that are prevalent in college have changed the traditional role of tight ends as equal parts blockers and short-route receivers. That trend has trickled up to the NFL, where tight ends often line up in the slot between tackles and wide receivers or split wide.
“It goes back to what’s being played in college, and that’s a position that’s not primarily playing a traditional, on-the-line-of-scrimmage, hand-in-the-dirt ‘Y’ tight end as we would call it,” Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. “You’ve got a lot of detached receiver types that fit a tight end body type, and then when you play a system that uses a traditional tight end, you’re sometimes trying to project that player, and the projection business is difficult.”
The Falcons are among the teams that moved the tight end around in the formation in an effort to find a mismatch. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did so with Tony Gonzalez last season to great effect.
Gonzalez, one of the better tight ends in NFL history, decided to play in 2013 after considering retirement, but the Falcons may draft a tight end because there’s no clear successor to Gonzalez on the roster.
Also, teams such as the Patriots and 49ers have had success using two athletic tight ends on the field simultaneously, and the Falcons could do the same if they add another pass-catcher. Such a strategy can create matchup problems for the defense, which might be forced to cover one or the other tight ends with a linebacker who’s not fast enough or a defensive back who’s not big enough to do it.
Eifert isn’t likely to be on the board if the Falcons don’t trade up from the No. 30 overall pick, but there are several other hybrid-type ends who will be available at No. 30, with Stanford’s Zach Ertz the highest-rated among those behind Eifert.
Ertz had a strong senior season for the Cardinal, with 69 catches for 898 yards and six touchdowns. As the featured tight end in 2012, Ertz normally lined up in the slot or split wide rather than next to the tackle.
That’s just the kind of versatility NFL teams covet from tight ends.
“I think seeing what all those tight ends (in the NFL) do and all those things they’ve been doing, it is very neat,” Ertz said. “You see Jimmy Graham (of the Saints) out there against corners all the time, and just seeing what he does is very impressive. It’s something that I just hope I can do at that same level.”