NFL Draft 2013: Breaking down the 'Joker' tight ends

Chris Trotman

Athletic, hybrid tight ends are carving out an important place in the modern NFL. Which players in the 2013 NFL Draft represent the next generation of jokers?

The hybridization of NFL player positions is one of the most interesting evolutions of the modern game. Advances in weight training, speed training, and dietary planning have trickled their way down into high school football, middle school football, and even PeeWee and Pop Warner football, and coaches are armed with earlier access to all this technology and the methods, knowledge, and information is at their disposal. The football machine in America is producing a steady stream of bigger & better athletes.

These bigger and better athletes are now being drafted into a pro game whose rules favor passing, and as these players become faster and stronger, positional paradigms shift. During this shift - I say shift because it's not a total switch up, it's a slow process indeed, one that has outliers - in positional prototypes, hybrids have emerged.

The Joker tight end is a blend of wide receiver and tight end. The H-back is a blend of tight end and fullback. Players like Percy Harvin, Darren Sproles, and Randall Cobb are a blend of running back and receiver. Even some players like Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill and Robert Griffin seem to be a blend of quarterback and running back.

This intriguing evolution has created hybrid style players on the defensive side of the football as well.

To counter wide receiver and tight end hybrid type players like Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham, linebackers and safeties have seemed to trend in the toward each other - safeties getting bigger and taller, and linebackers getting lighter and quicker. Stuck in the middle between linebacker and safety is the position some call the "Deathbacker" - this was what they said Kam Chancellor played in college and though he's technically a safety in the pros, "Bam Bam" spends a lot of his time in the box.

Along those lines, in order to counter receivers like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, and Julio Jones, corners are getting taller and more physical. Similarly, the lines between safety and corner are being blurred and slot nickelbacks have become a distinct position in their own right. Up front, to counter the pass-happy NFL, defensive linemen seem to be becoming more versatile and more apt at rushing the passer - you have 6'6, 295 pound players that can play defensive end on early downs and then move to the interior to rush from a 3-technique position on passing downs. The player types between 3-4 systems and 4-3 systems are even being blended.

So why am I blathering on about this? Mostly, I find it fascinating during this time of year because it makes Draft scouting that much more difficult (and subjective). Projecting 'tweener' players to roles in the NFL has become more of a toss up, and individual teams can see players in different lights, depending on scheme and intention.

With that in mind, over the next few weeks, in the run up to the NFL Draft, I wanted to highlight a few of these hybrid style positions and break down a few players that I like at each spot. The players I'll talk about are not necessarily first-round talents - you've probably read about all the projected first-round players ad nauseam anyway - but are players that I think have some attributes that could make them successful at the next level.

The offensive 'positions' that I plan on hitting on include: the "Joker" tight end, more or less a WR/TE hybrid, the H-back, or FB/TE hybrid, and the RB/WR hybrids. On defense, I'll try to talk about the CB/S hybrid position, the S/LB hybrid, and the DE/DT hybrid. As you'd expect, some of these postions will blend together and the players I mention may not even end up playing where think they will. Nevertheless, here we go.

The Joker

The most famous contemporary joker or "move" tight end (sometimes designated as the "U" tight end by coordinators) is probably Aaron Hernandez. Others that fit the profile well include Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley, Fred Davis, Dennis Pitta, Owen Daniels, and Delanie Walker. High-profile jokers of previous (but recent) eras include Dallas Clark and Kellen Winslow, Jr. Essentially, these are players that, first and foremost, are asked to catch the football. They CAN block, some, and at times will be asked to do so, but as Seahawks' Assistant Head Coach Tom Cable put it once:

"In terms of the 'U' tight end, he is certainly going to have some responsibility to block, but I think on a list of the top important things for him, on a list of five - that's fifth. He's going to be moving around, blocking on the move, but he's probably going to be more thought of as a playmaker-receiver type."

As Cable explained, the increased usage of two tight end sets - New England has been the most prominent at this with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez - means an offense can dictate to a defense. When your offense shows up in the huddle with two tight ends:

"I think you have to make a decision as a defense now - do you want to play these guys in base defense? If you do, then you're going to have a linebacker covering those tight ends. If you're going to go the other way, say, you're going to put nickel in the game (substitute in one defensive back for a linebacker), then we're going to try to shove the ball down your throat running it. For us, it kind of puts us back into a position of power, where we're going to play off of how they want to substitute and how they want to match up. If they stay in base, you might see us attack them more and throw the ball more; if they get in nickel, you might see us run it more."

"Anytime on offense you can kind of dictate a little bit, then you're ahead of the defense. When your'e the punching bag, and you're taking shots from the defense, you're really behind it."

Since we're talking about both Tom Cable and the Patriots, let's look at an example of this methodology, involving both teams.

In the Seahawks' Week 6 matchup with the Patriots, New England had a third down with goal to go from the 2-yard line, and Bill Belichick trotted out a heavy '23' personnel package. With three tight ends and two running backs in the huddle and the Pats facing a third and short yardage at the goal-line, Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley responded with their goal-line run-stuffing package - five defensive linemen, three linebackers, and three safeties. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, backup safety Jeron Johnson got the assignment of one-on-one coverage on Aaron Hernandez.

Now, Johnson is a reliable sub-package player and has done well for himself in that role, but being matched up outside on an island against a 6'3, 245 pound receiver/tight end hybrid is not his forte. That's a tough job for a corner, much less a sub-package safety.

(Hover to animate GIFs)

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The Patriots motion Hernandez out to the wing, see Johnson is in man coverage, and Tom Brady audibles to the fade route. He throws a damn perfect ball too.

Using your personnel groups to create mismatches. That's what the move tight end is all about.

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Along those same lines, in the Packers' offense, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have been really good about using Jermichael Finley as a moveable chess piece to take advantage of match-ups and mismatches. For the most part though, the Packers use Finley in single tight end sets and move him around the formation, based on defensive groupings and alignments. You can use this joker tight end in many different ways. (This is similar to how the Saints use Jimmy Graham as well, whereas the Niners used Delanie Walker in 2012 in two tight end sets, parallel idea to the Patriots' schemes.)

Below, in a familiar situation to the above example, but from a different schematic angle, Aaron Rodgers checks out of a called 3rd down play when he finds that Jermichael Finley is matched up one-on-one with a safety on the right wing.

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The Packers' three receviers are all aligned left, drawing the attention of the Bears' two corners and a nickelback, which leaves Finley matched up with a safety, #47 Chris Conte. Press coverage on an island is not typically a safety's strong suit, as I've already stated, so this slight advantage is something worth exploiting (this would be a nice seque to my post on hybrid CB/S type players). First down. And not by much. Aaron Rodgers can thread a needle.

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Speaking of threading a needle..

With base, 3 wide receiver sets, as I pointed out above, even if teams respond with a nickel package, you're still likely to see a linebacker matched up on your tight end. Note: some teams are even using 'dime' packages as their base formation to combat the use of these 'spread' style offenses.

Below, you can see Finley release from a three-point stance in-line and he's picked up by #55 Lance Briggs. I once saw an interview with Aaron Rodgers that stuck with me and in that interview he said, and I'm paraphrasing - 'if you can see the numbers on the back of a defender, we consider that a high-percentage throw.' In other words, even if Briggs is in tight coverage, which he is below, if he's not looking, Rodgers is throwing the ball. With pinpoint accuracy.

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Finley makes an athletic catch, takes a hit, spins, stays on his feet, and picks up extra yardage. Finley seemed to elevate his game towards the end of the year and he's a big part of that offense. It's why they decided to pay his big roster bonus and keep him around in 2013. Guys that are his size don't usually move that well and possess that high-caliber of coordination and balance.

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This leads me to the 2013 NFL Draft.

The 2013 NFL Draft

Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz are the two most-talked about tight end prospects in this year's class. Eifert fits the profile as a Joker tight end and the Golden Domers used him in that manner frequently. He would split out wide as a receiver, run routes from the slot, and from in-line, and in my eyes is the clear front-runner of the class. He's athletic, catches the ball smoothly, and has a quick twitch element to his game.

As for Ertz, he's not as explosive of an athlete, and I tend to think he's more of a "Y" type of tight end than a Joker, but regardless, he's a very good prospect at the tight end position as well. Ertz could go as high as the late first round or into the second round. However, I don't want to talk about these two guys. Because, they've been talked about ad nauseam for the past few months. Let's look a little later, shall we?

Now - I didn't have a strict criteria for labeling a prospect a 'move' or 'U' tight end type versus a more traditional 'Y' tight end, but this list does not include guys I view as all-around versatile Y tight ends.

Generally speaking, the guys on this particular list spent most of their time split away from the formation, or at the very least, were moved around a good deal to dictate match-ups. Also, generally speaking, the players listed below are a tad underwhelming in the blocking department, and that's why Cincinnati's Travis Kelce is missing. Kelce was used as a move type of tight end in the Bearcats' offense, but also has the chops to block in-line.

On to the hybrids.

Jordan Reed, Florida

Now, if you follow the draft, you've surely heard of Reed. He's very commonly compared to Aaron Hernandez because they're similar in size, both hail from Connecticut and both are Florida Gators.

Reed collected 45 catches for 559 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 2012 season, and finished with a respectable 12.4 yards per reception. Possibly of note is that in his freshman season (2010) he played part time at the quarterback position, throwing for 252 yards and three touchdowns and rushing 77 times for 328 yards and 5 TD (4.3 ypc) in Florida's spread option offense. He made the switch to TE the next season as Charlie Weis took over, and while his numbers haven't been eye-popping, he obviously feels comfortable with the ball in his hands. He did lead the Gators in receiving this past season.

Combine measureables: 236 - 33.50" arms, 10" hands, 4.72 40, 1.63 10-yard split, 16 on bench.

Reed's combine numbers were disappointing. He came in sub-6'3, and ran north of 4.7 - two bench marks for 'move' tight ends that you'd typically look for. Nonetheless, I am still quite high on Reed's prospects in the pros, and he's one case for the thought that 'game-speed' and 'track-speed' are completely different things.

Reed's after the catch burst and power running the football makes you forget pretty quickly that he ran a 'slow' time in the 40. See below:

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Reed demonstrates an ability to evade tacklers and his lateral juke move is impressive. The comparisons to Aaron Hernandez don't just end at the obvious - he even seems to move like the Patriots' star TE and demonstrates that open field spacial awareness that makes Hernandez so dangerous - he gets open, finds a soft spot, and can run after the catch. He has soft hands as well.

Because DraftBreakdown is my absolute rock when it comes to NFL Draft prospect study, no scouting report would be complete without one of their videos embedded:

As you'll see, in-line blocking isn't necessarily Reed's strong suit. He can be relied upon at times to down block or even step out against a DE to help seal a lane, but he'll often lunge for a defender and get swiped away or miss altogether. He's not the type of tight end that you want lining up against a defensive end in pass protection one-on-one, so you have to use him intelligently within your scheme. If you're using him to protect your quarterback against an NFL speed rusher, you're missing the point.

The idea is, of course, to get the ball in his hands in space, and let him utilize his size and speed to become a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. He's still raw and has only played the tight end position for two seasons.

I like Reed as a perfect example of the hybridization of players because he's a converted quarterback that looks like receiver, plays tight end, and runs like a running back.

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The bottom line with Reed is that while he may not have the upside of an Aaron Hernandez, in the right system, a savvy coordinator can use him in a myriad of ways - a true joker. Line him up in-line if the defense counters with a nickel or dime look and let him block away from the play or downfield. Line him up in the slot against a linebacker. Line him up on the wing against a safety. His athleticism with the ball in his hands allows you use him as an outlet option or hot read against the blitz, or you can even use him on screens.

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Vance McDonald, Rice

McDonald is one of the more interesting prospects in this year's draft because he absolutely oozes physical potential but possesses less than overwhelming tape. I'll admit I hadn't heard of McDonald much prior to the Senior Bowl but a quick description by the Rookie Scouting Portfolio's Matt Waldman piqued my interest. Per Waldman,

"The most physically impressive tight end of this group was Rice's Vance McDonald. Of all the players here, I thought McDonald's frame was the best proportioned from his arms and chest to his waist and legs. He was a well-muscled, but not overly chiseled 6'4″ 262 pounds with 10-inch hands and an 81.58-inch wingspan, longest of any skill player here and longer than many linemen. McDonald is a versatile player, who often saw time split as a wide receiver on cornerbacks as a part of the Owls."

Waldman followed up during the week of practice with:

"He's fluid like a wide receiver and because he's so well put together as an athlete he doesn't strike me as a 260-pound player. In terms of players with potential to be a consistent mismatch on every down, McDonald is the only tight end in this game that fits this description."

As for the comment "he doesn't strike me as a 260-pound player," as basic and imprecise an observation that is, I cannot help but completely concur. Watch below as Rice uses their 260+ pound tight end on an end around:

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His smooth athleticism is apparent.

McDonald further piqued my interest with his Combine measureables - 6041, 267 pounds with absurd 34.38" arms and above average 10.13" hands. He ran 4.69 in the 40 with a 1.67 10-yard split and put up an extremely impressive 31 reps on bench. His 9'11" broad jump is nice, and a 7.08 in 3-cone drill/4.53 short shuttle are also very good. In other words: holy crap this guy is a physical specimen. He's not as tall as Rob Gronkowski but rivals him a bit with pure physical impressiveness - a guy that can move like McDonald at nearly 270 pounds is a guy that you can do some things with at the NFL level. Simply put - he was among the heaviest tight ends at the combine and also among the fastest.

McDonald produced pretty consistently for three seasons at Rice, and in 2012 he had 36 catches for 458 yards and 2 TD. He posted a respectable 12.6 yards per reception, and he also rushed 3 times for 20 yards.

JR year: 43/532/5 catches/yards/TDs
SO year: 28/396/8

As mentioned above, his tape doesn't really jump out like I was hoping, but that doesn't mean I am writing him off as a pro prospect (actually he seems to have generated sufficient buzz to put himself in the 2nd-3rd round range). His hands are a bit inconsistent and he doesn't do much blocking in line, but he shows instincts in space and once he has the ball he's hard to bring down (or even catch).

My guess is that his eventual role in the NFL will involve more pass-catching that blocking, but he's definitely got the frame - well proportioned weight, sturdily built with long arms - to develop as an in-line blocker. My guess is that he simply wasn't asked to do it much in school.

Again, the clip below just shows the burst he possesses once the ball is in his hands.

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Gavin Escobar, San Diego State

Measured 6'5, 254 at the combine with 33.63" arms and 9.75" hands. He ran the 40 in 4.84 seconds and had a 1.66 ten-yard split. He registered a 32" vert with a 9'6" broad jump, 7.07 3-cone.

Escobar moves well and shows glimpses of potential as a blocker, but I still include him in this list because of how much he was moved around in San Diego State's offense - lining up in the slot, outside, at the H-back spot, and in-line.

Escobar uses his long wingspan to catch inaccurate passes and seems natural fully extending to go up and get a jump ball. There's potential there.

Others:

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Ryan Otten, San Jose State

6'5, 230

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6'5, 230, 33.38" arms. Otten didn't run at the Combine because of a staph infection that he got in a cut at the Senior Bowl, but his movement skills and excellent coordination are apparent; for reference, he ran in the 4.6 range at his pro day recently. His height and length really intrigue, but I would hope he'll gain a little big of weight - he reportedly got down to 220 while fighting the infection, but if he could get up to at least 245 or so, that would probably be ideal. Nonetheless, shows nice concentration when making a catch in traffic and was used all over the formation. A solid prospect that I'll be monitoring on Draft day.

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More names I'm keeping an eye on - and these guys are all sort of lumped into one category:

NIGHTMARES TO THE DEFENSE IN THE REDZONE...

Joseph Fauria, UCLA - 6'8, 259

Lucas Reed, New Mexico - 6'6, 247

T.J. Knowles, Sacramento State - 6'8, 254

Levine Toilolo, Stanford - 6'8, 260

Luke Wilson, Rice - 6'6, 250

D.C. Jefferson, Rutgers - 6'6, 255

The six guys here are more in the 'receiver' category than in the 'blocker' category and all possess some interesting qualities. The one common denominator, in case you're missing it, is length. You can't teach someone to grow to 6'8 with 35" arm and an 82+" wingspan, so some coach out there is going to take one of these guys and hope to make him into a quality, multi-faceted and productive tight end.

Finally, a couple of 'players without a position' that intrigue me as 'move' type tight ends are Nebraska's Kyler Reed and Minnesota's Marquies Gray. Reed is undersized at 6'2, 225, but is an explosive athlete with 4.4 40 seam-running speed. Gray is a former quarterback that may or may not still be a quarterback - it's unclear exactly which position teams see him playing at the next level, but his athleticism intrigues - 6'3, 240 with 34" arms, Gray ran a 4.73 40 with a nice 1.59 10-yard split. Explosive.

More soon.

Photos via: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports, Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports, Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports, Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

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