Perhaps no offensive position, with the exception of quarterback, has seen more a boom in the modern pass-first NFL than tight end. Once a position reserved for stodgy, in-line blocker neanderthals, tight end is now home to some of the league's most athletic (Vernon Davis, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham) and versatile (Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Kyle Rudolph) players.
The appeal of adding premier athleticism and height at the tight end position is likely what convinced Jeff Ireland and Miami Dolphins to pull the trigger on Mizzou's Michael Egnew last spring. Tall, sinewy and equipped with very good speed (his 40-yard dash had been clocked as low as 4.48) for the position, Egnew looked the part of a modern, prototypical tight end, and backed it up with some hair-raising numbers during his time in Columbia, Mo. Add in Joe Philbin's familiarity with third-round tight ends (namely Jermichael Finley), and the Egnew pick seemed like a no-brainer. Instead, it became a case of no brain.
We all know about Egnew's struggles last season (i.e., an inability to even get on the field until a depleted Dolphins roster forced Philbin's hand late in the season), and it's no surprise that his future in Miami is extremely murky at this point. However, let's use Egnew as a sort of measuring stick for this year's tight end class. Several of the top prospects in 2013 boast good speed, exceptional hands and outstanding size for the position. And just like Egnew, the top prospects are sub-par in the blocking game. Of course, this is a passing league in which it's completely normal to see 6'6", 250-pound tight ends split out wide, and as I stated at the beginning of this write-up, the inability to be effective as an in-line blocker just isn't a deal breaker for teams these days. If anything, it's starting to become rare for big-name tight ends to possess exceptional blocking skills (this is a big reason why Gronkowski is so special--he's a lethal combination of exceptional bulk and athleticism, but he makes it a point to heavily contribute as a blocker).
Which brings us to the two big-name tight ends in the 2013 NFL Draft: Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz. Both players possess elite size (6'6", 250, and 6'5", 248, respectively), quality wheels (likely high 4.6/low 4.7), silky route-running chops and the ability to elevate and haul in jump balls. Neither player is much to write home about in the blocking department, but they're both exceptional seam threats and bona-fide producers in the red zone. Again, that's right in line with what NFL teams are looking for at the tight end position.
Where Eifert truly shines is in the hands department (not that Ertz is chopped liver in this category, but we'll get to him next time around). The former Notre Dame seam-stretcher displays large mitts that absolutely swallow the ball, yet are strong enough to haul in contested throws up top or over the middle.
Also of note with Eifert is his ability to run crisp, efficient routes. Rarely do we see big men who can slink out of their breaks the way Eifert does on tape, and it's an ability that will serve him extremely well at the next level. Of course, Eifert would be a threat even without his route-running acumen, thanks to his ability to post up defenders and attack the ball like Charles Barkley did during his prime. This is the big reason why Eifert is such a nightmare in the red zone--even if he can't create adequate separation during his initial route, he's strong and agile enough to force himself open.
An area of concern for Eifert is his overall strength. He's an ineffective blocker on tape (way too stiff and steadfast, in my humble opinion), and he wasn't as physical with Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner as he could've been. And for such a large target, Eifert is somewhat mediocre in the YAC department (this is an area where Ertz is the superior of the two prospects).
Will these shortcomings derail Eifert's draft stock in any way, shape or form? Maybe, but it's unlikely, especially when you're talking about a tight end with Eifert's size, speed and hands.
The jury is still somewhat out on Egnew, but if the Dolphins choose to trade down from their No. 12 spot this April, a high-caliber tight end like Eifert could come into play for Miami--especially if its selection is in the No. 20-25 range.