(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Tight End
OVERVIEW: Perhaps no position is set to continue to revolutionize the game of football like the tight end, as we saw in 2011 how lethal a dangerous player from that position (or, in the case of the Patriots, two of them) can be. Tight ends were at one time more closely associated as an extra layer of protection on the offensive line with the ability to be a receiving outlet when needed; today, players like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have altered the way teams build their defenses. The role of a tight end remains multifaceted, as they will be called upon to both block and catch on a consistent basis, which requires a diverse skill set and an aptitude to understand many angles of the game plan.
DESIRED TRAITS: The ideal tight end can both block at a level that resembles an offensive lineman and catch at a level that resembles a receiver. Finding such a player is a rarity, although the Patriots happen to have one in Rob Gronkowski.
On the blocking front, tight ends aim to get off the ball, engage defenders with a square, balanced base, and explode upon contact. Scouts looks for quickness in blocking, strength, footwork and a willingness to take on bigger, more powerful defenders. Gronkowski shows terrific strength, hand placement, power through his hips to drive forward, and a nastiness to finish his blocks as well.
The important traits to examine in tight ends as receivers are separation ability and catching skills. Tight ends are typically not as athletic as receivers, so separation often comes from using their size to leverage defenders. Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are exceptional athletes, but Hernandez is quicker and able to create even more space at the top of his routes.
To lump all tight ends into a single group is unwise, as what is known as an “F” or “move” tight end varies from a traditional “Y” tight end. The F is a player who is used all over the offensive formation, and is an adept receiver. Think of Hernandez in this context. A Y, by comparison, is responsible to be an effective blocker, while often owning a less prominent receiving role. Gronkowski bucks the trend, as he can both block and catch. Because of his size and production as a receiver, Daniel Fells looks to have enough ability to play as both a Y and F.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Tight end is another position that teams often look to for core special teams contributions, as well as blockers on the field goal/PAT team. If a team opts to keep a third and potentially fourth tight end, they must be able to contribute in the kicking game.
PATRIOTS TAKE: With Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots are loaded at tight end. Gronkowski has already signed a massive contract extension, while Hernandez has another two years left on his rookie deal. The team is well equipped at the position beyond the two young stars with Daniel Fells as a third tight end, although the overall health of the position is a concern at this juncture. Gronkowski rehabbed on the sidelines during OTAs and minicamp, while Fells was not spotted at all. If these two are back in time for training camp (it appears Gronkowski will be; we have limited info on Fells), the Patriots are set at the position. If not, then depth is a concern, with undrafted rookie Tyler Urban and platoon player Alex Silvestro (he’s also a defensive end) rounding out the group.