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NFL draft preview: Tight ends

3rd in a series exploring the April 25-27 NFL draft

By Dan Pompei, Chicago Tribune reporter

April 12, 2013

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Many teams are seeking athletic tight ends who can stretch the field — even those that already have them. So the dynamic receiving tight ends are not expected to last long in this draft. There are probably four of them scouts expect can make big impacts as rookies.

1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, 6-6, 250: With excellent athleticism, he is what every team wants. He runs excellent routes and catches the ball well. And he's a decent blocker who has shown strides in that area. No other tight end in this class separates as well as Eifert. He had more opportunities to shine in 2011 than 2012, but that was mostly because of the quarterback and the Notre Dame offense. Said an AFC scout, "He can catch 70 balls a year in the NFL." One front office man compared him to Tony Gonzalez athletically; another found similarities between him and former Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph, but he said Eifert is better athletically.

2. Zach Ertz, Stanford, 6-5, 249: He is similar player to Eifert with very good ball skills and zone awareness. He runs well (4.75 40-yard dash) and shows vertical burst. He is most effective in the slot, and also can be split out wide. As a blocker, he is not overpowering, but is competitive. Ertz was a full-time starter for only one season, so he isn't as experienced as some, but he also might have more upside than many.

3. Vance McDonald, Rice, 6-4, 267: He is the best athlete at the position, with the speed and explosiveness to develop into a special player. In high school, he also was a basketball player, track athlete and defensive end. He wasn't always special on the football field during his college career, however. "You don't love what you see on film, but you like it," is how one college scouting director put it. McDonald's stock has shot up since the season ended. McDonald is strong, as his 31 bench press reps of 225 pounds at the combine show. He has an NFL body, but his blocking technique needs work. His hands are inconsistent.

4. Gavin Escobar, San Diego State, 6-7, 254: This big underclassman looks like a basketball player. He runs good routes, has excellent length and separates well so he can be very difficult to cover. Escobar has good hands. His workout at the combine was not very impressive, but he looks faster and more athletic on tape, according to multiple front office men. He needs to develop strength and work on his blocking, which is below average.

5. Chris Gragg, Arkansas, 6-3, 244: His lack of height limits him a bit, but Gragg is a fine prospect. An AFC college scout said Gragg would be best suited playing H-back, but he also can be split out and create mismatches that way. A former wide receiver, Gragg gets in and out of cuts quickly and catches the ball well. He has good straight line speed, too, as his 4.46 40-yard dash time indicates. His route running can be a bit sloppy. Durability is a concern, as he has had some injuries. He needs to work on his blocking.

6. Dion Sims, Michigan State, 6-5, 262: He is a big, strong blocker who can hold his own at the point of attack. He looks more like an offensive lineman than tight end. Sims has potential to develop into a better blocker, however. He has some natural athleticism and surprisingly soft hands. He might not have the elite athleticism and route running ability to be a dominant receiving tight end in the NFL, but he can catch a lot of passes and make yards after the catch. The junior eligible could be just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. He sat out the 2010 season after pleading guilty to concealing stolen property. The charges eventually were expunged.

7. Jordan Reed, Florida, 6-2, 236: His speed is so-so, but Reed is athletic, gets open and shows good hands. As a blocker, Reed lacks bulk and leaves something to be desired. "He'll get rag-dolled on the line," one front office man said. Reed won't appeal to some teams as a result. The underclassman could develop into a nice second tight end in the right situation. Durability is a concern.

8. Levine Toilolo, Stanford, 6-8, 260: This huge junior eligible is a nice all-around prospect who can block better than most. Toilolo can make the catch away from his body, which can make him difficult to defend. He lacks a special trait, and his athleticism is ordinary. He does not run very good routes. He is a former basketball player. At one point, he was starting ahead of Coby Fleener. Concerns about knee problems could affect his draft stock.

9. Nick Kasa, Colorado, 6-6, 269: This former defensive end does enough of everything to be graded as a "make it," player by many teams, but Kasa may be just a third tight end in the NFL. "He does everything pretty well, but nothing really good enough," is how one scout put it. Kasa hasn't been a tight end for long and still is developing. He is a willing blocker. His route running needs work.

10. D.C. Jefferson, Rutgers, 6-6, 255: He is a tall, athletic tight end with decent receiving skills. He isn't a bad blocker. He is a former quarterback who understands the passing game. Jefferson tore a pectoral muscle at the combine, and his draft status is in flux. Some team could take a chance on him and develop him into a pretty good player. He didn't produce a lot in college and he has a lot of areas to improve, and he has the ability to make those improvements.

11. Travis Kelce, Cincinnati, 6-5, 255: He has the skill set and size to be drafted in the third-round range, but probably won't be picked until later because of concerns about his football character. He missed the 2010 season after violating team rules. Kelce is very athletic and can stretch the field. He can be a nasty blocker, but he lacks power. He is a former quarterback who still is learning to play tight end.

12. Joseph Fauria, UCLA, 6-8, 259: His size and athleticism make him intriguing to NFL teams. The nephew of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria, he is somewhat one dimensional. His blocking leaves much to be desired in technique as well as intensity. He has a lean build, which doesn't help him as a blocker. As a result, he may be considered more of a receiving specialist.

13. Mychal Rivera, Tennessee, 6-3, 242: His size won't help his draft stock, but he could find a role in the NFL. Rivera might be best suited as an H-back if he is athletic enough. Rivera shows good movement skills and ability to adjust to passes. He lacks a standout trait. He works hard, which should help him.

14. Matt Furstenburg, Maryland, 6-4, 242: A decent workout boosted his stock, but scouts say he does not play as fast as he ran (4.71 40-yard dash). He has good hands, and good potential as a receiver. His blocking needs work. He has had a number of injuries.

15. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, 6-3, 240: The Gophers quarterback is a little like Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in that he could be a man without a position in the NFL. Teams are considering him as an H-back. He runs pretty well and is athletic, and has a chance of being drafted, according to front office men.

16. Ben Cotton, Nebraska, 6-5, 256: It's difficult to overlook his size. Cotton is an effective receiver in the short to intermediate range, and he has decent hands. He is average as a blocker. He is solid all around, but scouts say there isn't a lot special about him.

Others

Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State

Ryan Griffin, Connecticut

Ryan Otten, San Jose State

Zach Sudfield, Nevada

Lucas Reed, New Mexico

Luke Wilson, Rice

Jack Doyle, Western Kentucky

Michael Williams, Alabama

The Bears

Tight end was one of the Bears' major needs going into the offseason, but they signed free agent Martellus Bennett. They also picked up blocking tight end Steve Maneri to replace Matt Spaeth, who was a cap casualty. The Bears have high hopes for second-year tight end/fullback/H-back Evan Rodriguez. So tight end no longer is a need for the Bears. But the new trend in the NFL is to attack defenses with multiple tight ends, so another playmaker wouldn't be a bad thing.

Next: Centers

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter@danpompei