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Saturday, March 30, 2002
Shockey, Graham both top 20 picks
By Len Pasquarelli

In the 32 drafts since the historic 1970 merger of the NFL and AFL, exactly 32 tight end prospects have been chosen in the first round, so it doesn't take a degree in advanced trigonometry to divine that the position is not a high priority for most teams.

Jeremy Shockey caught 40 passes last season for Miami (Fla.).
Even in a world where it's possible to make numbers say just about anything, the basic calculations at the tight end position all support the same conclusion, one that reflects an increasing offensive emphasis on three- and four-wide receiver spread formations.

"What it pretty much adds up to," University of Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey said four weeks ago at the annual combine workouts, "is that tight end is a position which is kind of dying out. It isn't the big, glamour position, you know?"

Certainly the game has evolved away from the tight end, a hybrid position that demands offensive lineman-caliber blocking ability merged with above average receiving skills.

Since 1970, there have been only two drafts in which more than two tight ends were selected in the first round. Since 1980, there have been only three drafts in which more than one tight end gained first-round status. Conversely, there have been eight drafts since 1980 in which not a single tight end went off the board in the opening round.

In the past four drafts, only three tight ends were chosen in the first round.

This year, however, the tight end drought figures to end, at least temporarily. In both Shockey and University of Colorado star Dan Graham, the 2002 NFL Draft features two tight ends of rare ability, and it will be an upset if both aren't off the board by the conclusion of the first round. Several scouts feel Graham and Shockey are among the best tight end prospects in the last decade, and recent on-campus workouts haven't altered those opinions.

Although each prospect needs to improve his blocking, both are willing workers and won't shirk from the more menial demands of the position.

"When you look at them on tape, the first thing that jumps out is their athleticism, because both of them are very fluid," said Carolina Panthers personnel director Jack Bushofsky. "But then when you really break down their performances, you see them doing the little things, too, that make a big difference. You can tell they really enjoy playing the game, and they want to be good."

Indeed, they should be very good in the NFL, where over the last few years the tight end position slowly has regained some stature. There is only one Tony Gonzalez, to be sure, and the Kansas City Chiefs star represents the prototype of what the position might become in this millennium.

There aren't many prospects who will fit snugly into the computer-generated model Gonzalez has established, but the more athletic tight ends, like Shockey and Graham, have the best chance.

Daniel Graham
Daniel Graham of Colorado caught 84 passes in his last two seasons.
Graham is the son of former NFL middle linebacker Tom Graham, who played for Denver, San Diego, Kansas City and Buffalo. The younger Graham was born in 1978, the same year that his father's professional career ended, so he has no recollection of a dad in shoulder pads. But he noted earlier this month that his father has been "a tremendous sounding board" for him as he tries to navigate the weeks leading up to the draft.

The more countrified Shockey grew up in Oklahoma, still possesses that undeniable heartland accent of a Tom Joad displaced, and until a few years ago was just a skinny wideout wannabe who didn't run very fast but knew he wanted to play in the NFL someday.

Shockey isn't very slow anymore, as reflected in 40-yard times consistently under 4.6 seconds, and currently rates among the fastest-rising players in this year's draft. Particularly adept at being able to separate in the "red zone," and a receiver with the innate ability of being able to find the soft spots in zone coverages, he might be chosen as early as the middle of the first round.

"If you need (a tight end)," said one NFC scout whose team definitely does, "you'll have a hard time passing on him."

Having run times in the low 4.6s, Graham likewise is an accomplished receiver. He won the John Mackey Award as the country's top tight end in 2001, is blessed with perhaps superior deep speed than Shockey and like Shockey will make the tough catches in a crowd. Graham figures to be selected in the lower-third of the first round.

Respectful of the game, and of the demands soon to be imposed upon them, neither player wanted to project at the combine how quickly they can make an impact in the league. Likewise, however, neither expressed any doubts about their eventual success at the next level.

"Modesty aside," said Shockey, "my feeling is that I'd like to be one of the young guys who help bring the tight end position back (to prominence). And I think I can do that."

Len Pasquarelli is an senior writer.