Training Camp Preview: Tight Ends

The tight end position has been revamped since last year. Gone are the teams’ top two tight ends: Alge Crumpler and Dwayne Blakley. Being replaced with free agent pickup Ben Hartsock.

Hartsock is a blocker first, receiver second. But in Mike Mularkey’s offense, that is the way it should be. But Hartsock does possess soft hands and drops rarely have been an issue with him. But he likely won’t be a very big factor as a receiver since he lacks ideal speed or quickness. But he’s a smart, hard-working player that may not see his impact in the stat sheets, but certainly can contribute significantly as a blocker.

The battle for the backup tight end position will be interesting. Martrez Milner is the incumbent, but his season was cut short due to injury. A fourth round pick last year, Milner has good potential as a blocker and receiver. He’s had issues with drops throughout his collegiate career, but they weren’t that much an issue last year as a rookie. He needs to keep that trend alive this summer. Milner gives the offense a bit more of a threat as a receiver, but also shouldn’t lose much as a blocker. While his draft pick status offers him some protection, it won’t save him from being purged if he’s clearly outplayed by other players on the roster.

The most likely candidate to unseat Milner is this April’s seventh round pick: Keith Zinger. Zinger was almost exclusively a blocker at LSU. But he has decent hands. But if he does win the No. 2 job, it’s unlikely he’ll do anything more than serve as a blocker when the team utilizes double-tight end sets.

The Falcons also signed Jason Rader, who was with the team a few summers ago in 2004. Rader is an impressive blocker and will also be in the running. He has the experience factor over Milner and Zinger, and also played for Mularkey in Miami in 2006.

A dark horse candidate is undrafted rookie Brad Listorti. Some reports in the spring indicated that the team really likes him and his chances are a bit better than your typical “camp body.” Listorti arguably is the team’s best receiver at this position. He caught 38 passes as a junior at UMass before a back injury cost him his senior season. Although he probably won’t be used as anything more than a No. 3 and H-back, he’s the ideal type of player that the team could stash away for a year on the practice squad as he gets stronger and improves his blocking.

The Battles

Milner vs. Zinger vs. Rader – Battling it out for the No. 2 position behind Hartsock.

The Falcons could keep anywhere from two to four tight ends on the roster. But most likely it will just be three. Hartsock is the only player among this group that isn’t eligible for the practice squad, so there are a number of combinations the Falcons could use if they want to keep an extra guy there. How many tight ends they keep will depend largely on how capable a blocker whoever wins the No. 2 job is, and also if they feel some of these guys will clear waivers.

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Aaron Freeman
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