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When the Eagles signed versatile fullback/tight end James Casey in March, coach Chip Kelly spoke about the increase of two tight-end formations, about the creation of a lethal tight end tag team similar to New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Casey and veteran tight end Brent Celek, right now, are Kelly’s vision of the Gronkowski-Hernandez pairing. Backups Clay Harbor and Emil Igwenagu are OK but haven’t proven themselves to be dynamic.
Hoping to emulate the Patriots, who have stockpiled at the position, the Eagles have closely examined this year’s college crop of tight ends, and several league officials familiar with Kelly’s background and offense expect the Eagles to add depth there before the end of the draft.
Are they going tight end at fourth overall? Of course not.
But with at least five tight ends expected to go in the first three rounds, the class is deep enough for the Eagles to come away with one in the later rounds who could make a significant impact in 2013.
The creme of the crop is Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, the cleanest and most complete of all the tight end prospects. Some analysts and scouts think Eifert could go as early as 15th. NFL Network draft czar Mike Mayock has Eifert rated as his 13th overall prospect and the only tight end in his top 45.
After Eifert, opinions are mixed (see tight end position preview). Stanford’s Zach Ertz is considered late-first, early-second round material. San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar should go in the second or third rounds. Cincinnati’s Travis Kelce, the younger brother of Eagles center Jason Kelce, has deceivingly good athleticism along with plus blocking acumen. He is a fast-riser, once considered third- or fourth-round eligible but now viewed as a potential early second-rounder.
Rice’s Vance McDonald and Florida’s Jordan Reed could also be gone before the start of the fourth round.
The Eagles held private workouts with Ertz, Escobar and McDonald and brought Kelce into the NovaCare Complex for a pre-draft visit, which shows their level of interest in the position.
“Similar skill set in terms of body type, athletic ability, receiving ability,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said when asked to size up the class. “And then you need to make a determination on what you’re looking for from a blocking perspective.
“I think that’s where these guys may start to separate a little bit, depending on what you’re looking for. Everybody has a scheme that looks for different things from those guys, and fitting them in in different places.”
Unless the Eagles trade down from four, they can forget about Eifert, who won’t be there when the Eagles pick 35th overall, third in the second round.
It’s very possible Ertz, Escobar and Kelce are there, but the Eagles enter the draft with safety, cornerback and offensive guard/tackle as areas where they could use help, and there should be several enticing prospects at those positions who could also be available at 35 that might not be around when the Eagles make their third-round pick at 67th.
If they can’t make any trades to add picks, the Eagles might have to hope Escobar or McDonald tumble into the third round. Escobar clocked only a 4.84 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine but plays faster on tape, and his 6-foot-6 frame has drawn him comparisons to Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham.
“Yeah, Escobar is an interesting guy,” ESPN draft chief Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I've liked him. You look at his skill set and how it translates to the NFL ... he runs well, he plays fast too many times, he's got the hands, he's got the natural receiving skills. The 49ers could look at him at 61. Tampa Bay could look at him in the third-round mix. Seattle, even, in the third round.”
It’s hard to predict how the tight ends will fall across the board.
In 2010, a draft considered deep at tight end, only one went in the first round. The Bengals took Jermaine Gresham at 21st overall. The Pats took Gronkowski 21 picks later in the second round at 42nd overall. Ed Dickson went 70th overall to the Ravens, the third pick of the third round, followed by Tony Moeaki to the Chiefs at 93rd overall and Graham two spots later to New Orleans.
Although Gresham’s career has been modest so far, Gronkowski is considered the new face of the pass-catching tight end position, Dickson just won a Super Bowl in an offense that heavily featured two tight ends, and Graham has become Drew Brees’ favorite target. In his second season, Graham caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, becoming an instant superstar.
The depth of this class means teams might not be able to wait until the third round to catch the next sleeper.
Although it’s known that Kelly would prefer to have four or five tight ends, Roseman has maintained that he won’t reach just to have extra depth at one position.
“We’re not going to take an extra tight end if we think there is a better running back or wide receiver just to get our numbers up,” he said. “That’s going to be part of the process. We’re not going to force things just to get the numbers right. We’ll do it based on whatever the best personnel is, and if we have to circle back on a couple things, whether it’s next year or going forward, we’ll do that. We don’t want to force anything.”