At the end of the season Tony Gonzalez said he would be coming back for at least one more year in Atlanta. But Gonzalez left the door wide open for him to hang it up after this season. I saw an interview on Jim Rome is Burning last month that indicated that Gonzalez before he left Kansas City had envisioned 2010 being his last year as a pro.
With this in mind, it makes a lot of sense for the Falcons to be looking hard at tight end prospects to replace Gonzo as soon as 2011.
Behind Gonzo is Justin Peelle who is a solid blocker and capable receiver. But the presence of Gonzalez in the lineup adds so much more to the Falcons offense, particularly in the redzone, something that Peelle just cannot bring to the table.
As for Keith Zinger, I was really impressed with his blocking this past year and he was a major asset when the Falcons went to their big sets with three tight ends in short-yardage and goalline situations. But Zinger dropped the only pass thrown to him this season, and thus there’s no reason to think he can pick up any of the slack left by Gonzalez in the event of his departure.
All of this means that if the Falcons can find a tight end that can bring many of the traits that Gonzalez brings to the passing game this April, then they should definitely pull the trigger on him.
1. Reliability – This pretty much incorporates all the skills you look for in a tight end. But the No. 1 asset that Gonzalez brought to the offense was his reliability. Ryan went to him often when he wasn’t open because he trusted him, and it paid off quite a few times. This unknown prospect should have been a security blanket for his quarterback during his college days.
2. Hands – Gonzalez has arguably the best hands of any player in the league, let alone any tight end. And it’s why he was so reliable for Ryan. This tight end should also have strong hands.
3. Speed/Burst – While Gonzo is slowing down and not quite able to stretch the field like he used to, having a tight end that can challenge defenses vertically would help a lot fill his void. Peelle has good hands, but lacks speed and burst and isn’t particularly difficult to cover for defenses, which is why he’s a backup as opposed to a starter. It’s the ability to separate from defenders coupled with good hands that make some tight ends Pro Bowlers and others journeymen. Also the Falcons used Gonzalez a lot this past year split out wide to create matchup issues. That would be an ability that would behoove the Falcons to replicate in their prospect.
4. Body Control/Size – This again is related to the reliability of Gonzalez. Gonzalez had the body control to adjust to Ryan’s throws and size to box out defenders when the windows were small, and occasionally non-existent. Ryan could have easily had a handful more interceptions this past season if not for Gonzalez’s skills in this area. So his replacement should also possess these skills.
5. Blocking – Gonzalez is not a good blocker. Serviceable at best would be how I would describe him. But too often he proved to be a liability. But because he is such an asset to the passing game, he rarely missed a snap and is asked to block on a great many of them. So it would be definitely a bonus if his replacement could be an upgrade in that area. He doesn’t have to be devastating as a blocker, but he should be more than a liability. Presumably moving forward, Zinger can pick up a lot of that slack.
While a player like Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma) would be a strong option in the first round, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons using their top pick on a tight end unless they are convinced that Gonzalez won’t be back in 2011.
Gresham does fit. He has the size, ability as a blocker, and the athletic ability that compares with an Antonio Gates. The problem is that Gresham has unreliable hands. He’s more of a big athlete than a natural pass catcher. But despite his having questionable hands, he would create many of the same matchup problems that Gonzo does.
Other top tight ends include Rob Gronkowski (Arizona) and Aaron Hernandez (Florida). Gronkowski is coming off a back injury, but has a skillset very similar to Jeremy Shockey. He’s big, got great hands, good speed, and is an effective blocker although not good. He is exactly what the Falcons would be looking for in a Gonzalez clone, but the injury issue is a significant obstacle that team doctors would have to sort out. Hernandez isn’t the biggest guy in the world, but he has good speed, good hands, and is also an effective blocker. He was definitely a security blanket for Tim Tebow this past year.
All three players look like they’ll be Top 50 picks, so if the Falcons wanted them, they would likely have to use their first round pick on them, or trade back into the early part of Round 2.
But if the Falcons wanted to wait until the middle rounds, there are other options: Ed Dickson (Oregon), Jimmy Graham (Miami), Tony Moeaki (Iowa), Garrett Graham (Wisconsin), Dennis Pitta (BYU), and Andrew Quarless (Penn State).
Dickson isn’t the biggest guy, but blocks well for his size, has good speed, and nice hands. He can split out wide or line up as an inline tight end. But he wasn’t the truly valued asset in Oregon’s offense despite being productive each of the past three years.
Jimmy Graham was orginally a basketball player at Miami before playing football this fall. He’s big (6’8″) and showed remarkable improvement over the course of the season. He’s still fairly raw, but has good hands, and his size and speed could be matchup nightmares for defenses. He needs to improve his blocking though. But teams have been scouring the country for the next Antonio Gates in terms of ex-basketball player turned football star, and Graham is by far the best candidate so far.
Moeaki has a similar skillset as Gonzalez with good speed, comparable size, is a good blocker, and has good hands. But he too was a readily used asset in Iowa’s offense like you’d prefer.
Garrett Graham is a player in a similar mold as Owen Daniels, undersized, but has nice hands. He’ll be listed as an H-back by most draft folks, but has the good combo of hands, speed, and toughness to be a valuable NFL tight end just like Daniels.
Pitta is used to working in the slot, has excellent hands, body control, and was a valued asset in BYU’s offense. But he lacks speed, and is a poor blocker. He’s basically the same player as Chase Coffman was a year ago. Coffman struggled as a rookie in Cincinnati because there is a high learning curve from going from a slot receiver essentially to an inline tight end.
Quarless is an upside guy. His athletic ability, speed, and size make him an intriguing prospect. But he was in JoePa’s doghouse for much of his career and is fairly raw in all aspects of his game. So one would really have to question his reliability.
All of these guys probably figure to go somewhere between Rounds 3 and 5. And all have the potential to be productive starting tight ends at the next level. I think Graham especially has a chance to move up in the second round if he has a strong Combine.
The Final Verdict
I would probably say that the Falcons should target Gronkowski if he falls in the draft because of his injury situation. He’s currently projected as a mid-to-late second round pick on many boards, but if he falls a bit further into the third round, then the Falcons should think hard about moving up to get him. He really is first round talent.
But other than him, I think Moeaki, Jimmy Graham, and Dickson would all be solid options. Graham and Moeaki I think have the higher upside, but Dickson is probably the more polished product of the three. Between the three of them, I think I’d be happy with any of them. Graham’s past as a basketball player makes a strong connection with Gonzalez’s own past there, but he may need a few years to develop where he’s ready to contribute significantly. Moeaki and Dickson should be able to contribute right away and if the Falcons are fearing that this is Gonzalez’s last year, then are probably the smarter options because their learning curve is less.
While I would never put the expectations on anybody to be the “next Tony Gonzalez” i.e. the best pass catching tight end the game has ever seen, I do think the Falcons have the potential to exit this draft with a player on par with a Vernon Davis, Chris Cooley, Owen Daniels, Brent Celek-type of player that can be very productive in this offense.