- Craig Haubert, ESPN Staff Writer
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The best tight ends in the eyes of ESPN Recruiting are well-rounded ones that can contribute at a high level as both blockers and targets in the passing game. Those types of tight ends force opposing coaches to account for them in all phases of the game. These prospects might not possess dominating tools in one particular facet, but their versatility allows them to remain on the field and keep defenses honest.
The popularity of wide-open offenses has many teams putting an emphasis on tight ends that can stretch a defense and create difficult matchups for linebackers and safeties in the passing game. However, not every program has evolved into the spread. A number of teams still prefer to line up in your basic pro-style formation, with a fullback and tight end predominantly employed as blockers. One-dimensional tight ends can be a good fit for certain offenses, but they can also make offenses more predictable and present run/pass tendencies to defensive coordinators. As a result, a team's offensive scheme usually dictates the preference.
The 2011 class does not have as many tight ends in the ESPNU 150 as there were a year ago, but this class has still produced a good group of prospects. Five tight end prospects are currently among the top 150 players, and two of them are amongst the top 20 prospects in the nation. While the class is represented by strong talent at the top, the depth is also good. This year's class has produced 16 four-star tight ends as well as a good group beyond that.
What we look for: These are prospects with wide receiver skills and a big frame. They possess great hands and route-running skills. The best offer a superior blend of size, speed and athleticism, and cause matchup problems for defenses. Bulk and physicality are key attributes to catch the ball in traffic, absorb the big hit and produce tough yards after contact.
Jay Rome (Valdosta, Ga./Valdosta)
There is a plenty to like about Rome as a tight end prospect, including his ability to make plays in the passing game. He possesses that nice combination of size, speed and athleticism and can create some tough matchups for defenses. For a tight end with good size, he also has soft hands and displays the ability to effortlessly pluck the ball out of the air. After the catch, his size coupled with his ability to stay on his feet allows him to fight through tackles and gain yards.
M.J. McFarland (El Paso, Texas/Eldorado)
He could be the player Texas has been looking for: a tight end that can produce as a receiver. The strength of this top-15 tight end prospect is his pass-catching ability, and he is almost like a plus-size wide receiver. He displays soft hands, good body control and attacks the ball. He may not be a field-stretching threat as a target, but McFarland can be a big and reliable target.
Ben Koyack (Oil City, Pa./Oil City)
The Fighting Irish have gotten some good production from tight ends in recent years and they look to have another one who can make plays from that position. Koyack has good height, good hands and competes for the ball. He has deceptive speed, good body control and concentration. Plus, he can make some tough catches and create some big plays. One of his real strengths as a receiving target is his ability to consistently high-point the ball, and he could be a nice target in the red zone. Coach Brian Kelly could have a nice weapon to work with in Koyack as he continues to grow Notre Dame's offense.
What we look for: These tight ends can play the role of an extra blocker when teams want to run the football. They have the size and strength to control defenders at the line of scrimmage, as well as the leverage and physicality to wash down and mix it up with bigger defenders. They must also possess the athleticism and lateral quickness to effectively work up to the second level and block in space. Toughness and aggressiveness are imperative intangibles.
Louie Addazio (Gainesville, Fla./Buchholz)
Addazio is like an offensive lineman with less bulk and an eligible number. He needs to add some size and could clean up some little things in technique, but the son of an offensive line coach can get it done as a blocker. He is tenacious and can play with leverage, but one of his real strengths is how quickly he can get out of his stance and into defenders. He can deliver a good initial pop and at times almost shocks defenders with how quickly he is on top of them and as a result can create good push. Being a strong blocker may not bring a lot of fanfare from the masses, but Addazio's ability to contribute well in this area will likely be appreciated by his teammates and coaches at Syracuse.
Robert Kugler (Wexford, Pa./North Allegheny)
Not to diminish the ability of Kugler to be a productive and well-rounded tight end for the Boilermakers, but his greatest attribute is as a blocker. Not shockingly, this son of an NFL offensive line coach is a physical blocker that can help create running lanes. The top-25 tight end can quickly get into defenders and deliver a blow. He can generate power from his lower body when he engages a defender and can drive them off the ball and finish. He can also get up to the second level and block moving targets well.
Jake Reed (Columbus, Ind./North)
Reed could help some as a target in the passing game, but will contribute best at Indiana as a blocker thanks to his solid size and aggressive style. He gets his hands on defenders, drives his legs and can knock opponents off the ball. We like how he works to stay with and finish blocks and he does a good job of climbing up to and getting a piece of moving targets. As the Hoosiers enter a new era they have a good blocking tight end on board in Reed.
What we look for: These are versatile athletes with a rare blend of exceptional physical skills and the invaluable football savvy needed to be effective in both the run and pass game. Situational substitutions are not imperative; they can create rush lanes on first down and stretch a defense on third-and-long.
He reminds us a lot of the top tight end in the 2010 class, Xavier Grimble, because he offers a nice combination of size and athleticism. Rome has the size and upside as a blocker and can be an in-line player, but he also has the speed and soft hands to flex out and be a productive target in the passing game. Rome also offers versatility in how he can be used and contribute as a tight end and brings a lot of good tools to the table.
Nick O'Leary (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer)
He has all the tools to quickly become a fine, well-rounded college tight end because he is an excellent all-around athlete. In high school, he displayed his athletic ability by helping his team in several ways in all three phases of the game. With good hands and the ability to make tough catches, he can be a weapon in the passing game. A prospect with good size and a physical nature, he can also be a productive blocker with some fine-tuning in his technique. Being a good athlete and a good football player should allow O'Leary to be an excellent all-around tight end in college.
Malcolm Faciane (Picayune, Miss./Memorial)
The ESPNU 150 prospect has not seemed to get as much attention nationally as some of the other top tight ends in this class, but Faciane is someone to become familiar with, because he has the tools to be very good in college. He possesses good size and, coupled with the toughness he displays, he could be an asset as an in-line blocker. His size and good hands can present a nice target for quarterbacks and a tough matchup for defenses. An injury cut short his senior season, but a healthy return could give Alabama a well-rounded weapon at tight end.
Craig Haubert is the recruiting coordinator for ESPN Recruiting and has more than a decade of coaching experience. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.