Despite the rise in production from the position over the past several years, the elite tight end has been a somewhat elusive creature early in the draft. Specifically, the first round, with the likes of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski drafted early, but not that early. Finding a game-changing tight end has often been a process of locating gems hidden amongst several layers of mid round dirt.
This doesn’t matter to fans, most of whom have faith in their team’s dirt digging skills. It matters to Stanford’s Coby Fleener, though, this year’s best tight end heading into the draft, and the only player at the position widely projected to be told where he’ll play football next during the first round.
Although he could slip to early in the second round (very early, going to the Colts at No. 34), the Giants are widely pegged to take Fleener, meaning he’d squeak in at No. 32. The 49ers two picks earlier are a possibility, with Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford ties still strong, and the intrigue of a dynamic pairing with Vernon Davis also alluring. But some of the early mocks had Fleener heading to the Browns at No. 22, and lately there’s been significant buzz around the Steelers at No. 24, and Denver at No. 25.
So the forecast on Fleener is widespread, as draft forecasts often are in mid April. But it’s becoming quite reasonable to assume that he’ll be a first-round pick, and to justify taking a tight end in that spot, a general manager has to be confident that his new asset is durable, and has the versatility of a wide receiver packed into a tight end’s body.
You’ll think that’s not too difficult, especially after the swift emergence of tight ends over the past few seasons. But consider that the two elite young TEs who have broken out most recently (Gronkowski and Graham) weren’t selected in the first round. Gronk was taken in the middle of the second round in the 42nd overall slot, while Graham waited until the third round, and the 95th overall pick.
During a tight end renaissance, only three of the top ten tight ends in receiving yards during the 2011 season were selected during the first round. That’s a group which includes Jason Witten (third round, 69th overall), and Antonio Gates (rather famously undrafted), while the first-round picks were Tony Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, and Dustin Keller.
The puzzle of the tight end and the area of draft real estate that returns the best investment at the position is something we looked at last spring as we prepared for a year with no TE drafted in the first round. That happened, and it was the first time in 11 years no tight end was taken in the first 32 (or 31) picks.
But what does Fleener have to do long-term to justify his first-round value? There’s a calculator for that.
Over the last 10 years, 13 tight ends have been selected in the first round. If we take the average yearly totals for the most recent five (Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller, Greg Olsen, and Marcedes Lewis, all of whom were selected 20th overall or later just as Fleener will be), we can make a rough estimate for the kind of production a team is hoping to buy when selecting Fleener in the first round. Between those five tight ends, the career per season average has been 50.7 receptions, 548 receiving yards, and 4.1 touchdowns.
Those numbers seem quite attainable for Fleener since he finished with 667 yards for Stanford on 32 receptions last year. He also led all tight ends on bowl eligible teams with 10 touchdown catches, seven of which traveled 15 yards or more through the air, and he averaged 23.8 yards per reception on throws between the hash marks. For some perspective, Dwayne Allen, another top-rated tight end in this year’s draft, averaged 11.1 yards per catch on those same throws.