By Matt Waldman
If there's one prospect type in football that rarely lives up to the first-year hype of the general public it's the tight end. Want to set yourself up for failure? Have high expectations for one of these rookies.
Having what it takes to be considered an NFL prospect at tight end has parallels to what it takes to pass basic training for the Army. But what is required to become a top-notch starting tight end in the NFL capable of performing the full range of duties that any offense could demand of him is like becoming football's version of an Army Ranger.
Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski are "NFL Ranger" material. Jason Witten and Antonio Gates? For sure. Some may not think so, but Heath Miller in his prime earned this designation even if some can't see past the confines of his use in Pittsburgh.
Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham are two of the best receiving specialists in the game in recent years. Both are options I'd arguably take ahead of most of the players I named above if strictly evaluating them as receiving weapons. But neither makes the cut if the standard is "the total tight end."
Grading players against the standard for every aspect of their position play is the right way to learn what a player can and can't do. However, projecting that player's success as a pro to the standard of the best in the game is an easy trap to fall into -- especially a position with a wide range of demands like tight end.
After determining the limits of a prospect's skill, talent, and savvy, it's helpful to consider how that player can fit into a role within an offense. Watching successful players with a more limited skill set is important; otherwise you could overlook a quality player because he lacks those near-perfect qualities.
I haven't studied Larry Donnell's progress as a blocker for the Giants, although the Giants are running the ball effectively. As a receiver, the Giants' use of Donnell is philosophically similar to what we saw from the likes of Gonzalez and Graham. Donnell's work is a big reason why the Giants have won three in a row.
Last week, the Falcons prevented Donnell from making a single catch, but the effort Atlanta made to stop the Giants tight end made life easier for the New York offense. The defense's efforts on Donnell opened creases for the ground game and created lanes for Donnell's teammates in the passing game, and the tight end's September production has forced opposing defenses to be hyper vigilant about guarding him in the red zone.
The Detroit Lions hope they'll earn similar benefits from rookie Eric Ebron, the player many draftniks considered the top prospect at the position last year. Ebron has the athletic potential to become a total tight end. After his first five weeks in the NFL, Ebron has barely been a factor in the Detroit Lions offense.
Tyler Kroft isn't a celebrated prospect like Ebron, but the 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior from Rutgers is a talented work-in-progress. Depending on how much he can grow into the demands of the position -- physically and conceptually -- Kroft could have a better pro career than his college output suggests. Kroft's work against Arkansas as a sophomore illustrates his current role, his limitations, and his future potential if earns an NFL career.
Flashes of Athleticism in the Passing Game
Kroft has a quick first step and he can move fluidly with and without the ball in his hands. If he can refine his understanding of how to use these tools on the field, he'll become a more consistent force as a receiver. This third-down pass in the early first quarter reveals some of Kroft's talent and integration of football concepts and athleticism.
The Rutgers tight end is next to the right tackle in a 22 personnel, I-formation set with the defensive end shaded to Kroft's inside shoulder. The tight end executes a quick first step to initiate contact with the defensive end during the play-action phase of this play. The pads are a little high, but Kroft uses his arms well to rip through contact and funnel the defensive end to Kroft's inside shoulder towards the tackle.
Kroft runs a crossing route on this play, splitting two linebackers in the middle of the field, drifting behind their drops to the left flat as the quarterback climbs the pocket to avoid pressure. The tight end's ability to read the situation at the line of scrimmage and adjust to it is what makes this play successful.
The quarterback spots Kroft and flips the ball to the left flat, and the tight end makes the reception over his outside shoulder while on the move. The arms are extended near helmet level and the catch is one fluid action with multiple moving parts.
When Kroft turns up field he delivers a stiff-arm that knocks over the cornerback. The tight end runs over the defender for another 3 yards, gaining 8 after the catch and a total of 11 on the play.
Another third-down route in the first quarter lacks the successful outcome, but there's plenty to like about the process. Kroft is once again next to the right tackle in this 21 personnel shotgun set. Watch the way Kroft sets up his break at the top of his stem against the linebacker.
Kroft earns an outside release on the defensive end and works up the middle as if he's setting up a break on a crossing route. Instead, he sets up a break up the seam with a stutter and dip to straighten his break past the linebacker rather than the anticipated break across the defender's face on the cross.
Although Kroft doesn't get his head around soon enough on this target and he's unable to look the ball arriving over his shoulder into his arms, his setup of the break displays athletic confidence and savvy that might serve him well at the NFL level.
Kroft displays similar handiwork with success later in the half for a touchdown from an 11 personnel, 1x3 receiver set as a slot man stacked behind twin receivers. Although not exactly the same, Rutgers sets Kroft in a position that the Giants like to use with Donnell when he's split -- but tight -- to his linemen in the formation.
Kroft works the seam against the middle linebacker and once again sets up his seam route with a story that looks like the conclusion will be a crosser.
Note Kroft's shoulder dip to the inside before fading outside the linebacker with a straighter break than the defender expects. Kroft is now wide-open and splits the safeties in the end zone for the score. He also makes another good catch with his hands.
Kroft's route savvy also includes some skill to work against tight, physical play -- a must to make consistent plays in an NFL passing game. This fourth-down play inside the final two minutes of the half is good indication of a coordinated, focused athlete.
The tight end encounters no resistance at the line of scrimmage (whether he can beat that or not will be revealed by more film study) and turns across the face of the linebacker on a crossing route with good depth. The linebacker makes contact and Kroft reduces the shoulder and swims through the contact at the top of his stem.
The adjustment to the contact earns Kroft a step, and that's all he needs to make the catch on the move, turn upfield, and earn the first down. The athleticism to also drop the pads and shed the linebacker's wrap is also a solid indication of his athleticism. He's not a special runner after the catch, but he doesn't make it easy on his opposition once the ball is in his hands.
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Nothing about Kroft's work in this game is eye-popping, but the combination of raw materials as an athlete combined with more advanced uses of his hands and feet to create separation with routes and releases are signs that Kroft should only get better.
Athletic, But Lacking Strength-Size
Where Kroft's game fizzles is at the line of scrimmage. This second-and-long in the first quarter is a strong-side I-formation run with Kroft next to the right tackle. The defensive end is set up inside the tight end and the outside linebacker is shaded at Kroft's outside shoulder.
Kroft displays a quick attack inside at the snap. The pads are low and the arms reach the chest of the end. Technically this is all good work and the speed is also encouraging. However, Kroft lacks the muscle to anchor his feet and hips to the ground and maintain his position.
The end makes quick work of Kroft, shedding fast and making the tackle in the backfield for a loss of yards. Although many NFL teams don't make it a requirement for a tight end to consistently handle a defensive end one-on-one, it is encouraged.
Kroft has to get stronger. The technique flashes promise, but if he wants to appeal to the widest range of NFL offenses, he'll have to show he can anchor in the run game.
An indication that Kroft is a liability in the run game -- at least as a sophomore -- comes at the end of the first quarter in a 1x2 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun set where Rutgers executes a run to left end. Not only is Kroft not at left end sealing the edge, Rutgers flip-flops him with the right tackle so the line has both tackles next to each other.
Kroft is relegated to protecting backside pursuit in an alignment designed to minimize his liabilities as a run blocker and maximize the strength of the Rutgers line. The Falcons have an excellent run blocker in tight end Levine Toilolo -- a player I thought Atlanta drafted as a developmental project at tackle. The young tight end earned time at right tackle against the Vikings as emergency depth two weeks ago.
One thing that is more common to see with Toilolo is for Atlanta to place the tight end inside the tackle on run plays where Toilolo is an integral part of sealing the defense. You won't ever see a team do this with Kroft.
Even so, there are further signs of decent technique that only needs another 15-pound anchor of muscle to make Kroft more than purely a one-dimensional receiving specialist.
This 21 personnel run begins with a good uppercut to turn the defensive inside inside.
Kroft manages to pin the end to the ground to open a crease to the outside. As it stands today, Kroft has a limited repertoire of assets at the line of scrimmage. If he doesn't get stronger at a fast enough rate, his career could be doomed to mimic the likes of Titans reserve Chase Coffman, a tall, long-legged, pass catcher who has bounced around the league.
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Kroft is a more fluid athlete than Coffman was at Missouri, but the weight is a real factor in his development trajectory. If Kroft adds another 15 to 20 pounds and maintains his athleticism, there's a chance he becomes a tight end with a more fully dimensional game. If not, he has shown enough for a team to invest in him as a contributor in an NFL passing offense. How much of a contributor will depend on how much speed, quickness, and strength he can develop between now and his first season in the professional ranks.
It means there's a broader range for Kroft's stock as a draft pick. In an offense that maximizes the use of the tight end in the passing game, he could be a third- or fourth-round pick if he continues to flash enough athleticism and consistency as receiver. However, he could easily be available in the sixth or seventh round if he doesn't stand out as a receiver compared to his peers and fails to improve his blocking.
If possible for Kroft, I'd like to see him finish his eligibility at Rutgers before making a move to the NFL. He'll give himself the best chance to earn a good fit with his first team and build his career on a firmer foundation.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece. Take a video tour of the RSP.