- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Three years of great tight end drafts spoiled the NFL. From Todd Heap to Alge Crumpler to Jeremy Shockey to Daniel Graham to Dallas Clark, the growing list of tight end prospects seemed to be endless.
On the surface, this year's crop may seem even better. Kellen Winslow rates out higher than when Tony Gonzalez was the 13th pick in the 1997 draft. Ben Troupe of Florida is a low first-round prospect. Ben Watson of Georgia will go high in the second round. Kris Wilson of Pitt is a rising star.
But after that, the list thins out which is making scouts wonder about what's happening to the tight ends of the future. Kevin Colbert, the Steelers director of football operations, thinks tight ends in colleges are being deemphasized because of the rapid influx of "spread" offenses.
"It's all part of those spread offenses," Colbert said. "There aren't as many colleges using tight ends as much as they have in the past. They are getting third and fourth receivers on the field, so you have the tight end coming off the field."
Traditional offenses such as those at Miami, Pitt, Georgia, Notre Dame, Stanford and others will continue to keep cranking out top notch tight ends. But it's becoming a lot easier finding those quick receivers who run 4.5 40s or less to make an impact in three- and four-receiver passing sets.
Tight ends are rare talents. The best weigh around 255 pounds and need to run 4.5 40s. Because they play at the end of the offensive line next to a tackle, they are asked to block even though very few pass-catching tight ends of late are considered great blockers. But some of the same things that make them so valuable on the gridiron make them a commodity in other sports.
The NFL is in competition with basketball for these big bodies. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, college power forwards could be a great fit at tight end. If football teams can keep these guys off the hardcourt and out of the NBA, the NFL will develop more tight end prospects.
Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer knows a thing or two about power forwards/tight ends. At Kansas City, he drafted Gonzalez, who also played for the Cal basketball team. Last year, he groomed a former basketball player who looks like a good prospect.
"Antonio Gates is a player we signed as a free agent out of Kent State," Schottenheimer said. "He hadn't played football in five years. At 6-4½ he's a terrific prospect. Maybe the bigger people aren't all going to basketball."
Others around the league worry, though. They worry because of how thin this draft looks at tight end after the top four. Many consider Jason Peters of Arkansas as perhaps the fifth best tight end. He's 6-4½, 335 pounds. That's tackle size, which is where Peters might end up eventually.
Another top tight end prospect is Ben Hartsock from Ohio State who may have a higher calling than offensive line. Someday, he's going to be a doctor. The NFL team that drafts him might not know how long they will have him.
"I'll graduate this spring with a pre-med biology degree," Hartsock said. "It's going to depend on how long I make football last. It would to be very difficult to apply to medical school if I'm able to play 10, 12 years -- as long as I can. If football lasts only three or four years, I'll go back and take the application test and go through that process."
Like fullbacks, tight ends live in a cyclical age. At times in the 1990s, tight ends seemed to be heading toward extinction. They worried when teams turned to the Run-and-Shoot, which made their position useless. There was a point in the mid-90s you wondered if the NBA had cornered the market on those power forward bodies.
Drafts from 1998-2000 didn't help either. Only 13 tight ends were drafted in 1998; 12 in 2000. In 1998 and 1999, no tight end was taken in the first round and the first tight end wasn't selected until the 40th and 42nd pick, respectively.
Then came the tight end resurgence. In 2001, Heap and Crumpler went in the first round. They turned into Pro Bowl-caliber talents. So many underclassmen turned pro in 2002 that it produced the best tight end draft in NFL history. Shockey, Graham and Jerramy Stevens went in the first round. Doug Jolley, a second-rounder, ended up being a starter on a Raiders AFC championship team. Twenty-four tight ends were drafted, and the pool of talent was so deep the Dolphins hit on Randy McMichael in the fourth round.
With so many young tight ends going pro early in 2002, it was only natural for the list of draftable tight ends to drop to 14 last season. Teams are starting to worry about the long-term future even though the likes of Winslow, Troupe and Watson make this a talented tight end draft up top.
"You don't find those 250 to 270 pound guys running great routes with speed," Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "Not as many colleges use them. You have to decide if you want to get a blocker who might be a limited receiver or receiver who might be a limited blocker. Regardless, things are pretty cyclical."
Seeing a Winslow, though, truly spoils a team. His father is a Pro Football Hall of Famer at the position.
"Kellen really brought a lot of glamour to a position that is not really known to be a glamorous, big-time position," Troupe said of the younger Winslow. "With his
play these last two years, I think he's really brought it to the mainstream as
far as college sports."
Seeing him go within the top six selections might remind colleges of the value of finding those tight end talents. Seeing him play at a high level like Gonzalez and Shockey will keep the flames burning for the value of tight ends.
"I'm going to come into the league and just play ball," Winslow said. "Whatever I do, I do. I'm not going to try and change the tight end position. I'm going to
play ball and do what I do."
Winslow's value to the position will be in how he plays. Tight end isn't an endangered position, but it's a position that is affected by cycles. Using three to four to five receivers is a trend that isn't going away.
While the NFL had been spoiled by a great influx of tight end talent of late, the pool could dry up fast. It's something to watch.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Franchises are starting to show concern over the thinning crop of tight end prospects.