After watching games and breaking down film, Scouts Inc., in conjunction with ESPN.com's Matt Williamson, has evaluated and graded more than 2,500 NFL players heading into the 2012 season. Here's how the top tight ends stacked up.
Note: No rookies were included in this exercise. Age refers to player's age at start of the 2012 season on Sept. 5.
This might be the most interesting and quickly evolving position in the NFL right now. Excelling at tight end today is all about one's receiving skills, with inline blocking a distant secondary thought. Every team does have tight ends who are effective blockers, with little to contribute as a receiver, but you won't see such players highly ranked on this list.
The reason is simple: The NFL is a passing league and this new wave of receiving tight ends just simply creates mismatches. From Tony Gonzalez to Antonio Gates to Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, the defense really has no answer for such a tall player with uncommon movement skills, body control and pure downfield speed. And now more than ever, offensive coaching staffs have truly figured out how to move such weapons around the formation and design routes for these immense abilities. Only a handful of linebackers can keep up with Aaron Hernandez or a healthy Gates. No safety in the league can consistently handle the physical mismatch created by Gronkowski or Graham.
While Gates, Gronkowski and Graham are truly elite, most of the teams in the league now have a tight end who causes similar problems. In the Gates mold, personnel evaluators are even looking outside the traditional means to find new talent to develop at this position. Going forward, expect more and more tight ends to join the Top 200 list.
He has outstanding size, athleticism and good strength. Gronkowski was the most dominant tight end in the NFL in 2011. He improved his ability to stay connected, setting the edge as a run-blocker, and he creates huge mismatches in the passing game.
The Patriots built much of their offense around him in 2011 and he likely will continue to have a huge role in future seasons.
Graham made huge gains in his first two years as an NFL tight end. At this point it is difficult to tell that he is a former basketball player still in his early years as a football athlete. He brings a rare combination of size, speed, athleticism and natural receiving skills to the position and is improving as a blocker. He is a long strider who eats up a lot of ground as he closes the cushion on defenders, and he has the top-end speed to challenge secondaries down the seam.
He has big-play capabilities and the ability to go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. He can extend to catch the ball at its highest point when in traffic and shows excellent concentration. He is still not a very aggressive or strong blocker but shows effort and is improving.
Over the past nine years, Gates has become the standard by which top tight ends have been measured. However, he has missed his share of time in the past two years due to injuries and durability is becoming an issue. He has excellent dimensions for the position with good downfield speed and elite athleticism.
Plus, he's developed his strength both in his upper body and lower. He is not a dominating blocker, but has enough strength to wall off or stay in the way. He is rare in terms of being able to react and adjust to balls thrown slightly off target, as well as in his ability to go up and high-point the ball above defenders when in traffic.