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The new glamour position

Infusion of talent has made drafting TEs a priority

Posted: Tuesday April 18, 2006 12:47PM; Updated: Tuesday April 18, 2006 6:57PM
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Georgia's Leonard Pope is over 6-foot-7 and will cause instant matchup problems in the NFL.
Georgia's Leonard Pope is over 6-foot-7 and will cause instant matchup problems in the NFL.
Bill Frakes/SI

Top billing and the lion's share of the hype in the NFL's 2006 draft class have unsurprisingly gone to the quarterbacks and running backs, and nobody's begrudging Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Vince Young their time in the spotlight this spring.

But if you've been paying attention to league trends in the past decade or so, it shouldn't be an unforeseen development if it's this year's ridiculously deep tight end crop that makes the biggest rookie-season impact.

Everywhere you look in the NFL these days there are athletic, playmaking tight ends rolling up gaudy pass-catching totals and changing the way people utilize -- and defense -- the onetime hybrid position. Has there ever been a better time to be young and a tight end in pro football?

Heath Miller, Chris Cooley, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Jerramy Stevens, Todd Heap, Dallas Clark, Randy McMichael, L.J. Smith, Ben Troupe, Jason Witten, Alge Crumpler and Erron Kinney all have entered the NFL since 2000, continuing the transformation -- seemingly begun by Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez as a rookie in 1997 -- of tight end into a featured skill position. And that's without factoring Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr. -- the sixth overall pick in 2004 -- into the mix, given that his first two NFL seasons were all but wiped out by injury.

And from the looks of it, there's a new infusion of tight end talent on the way this year, with the position projected to get called as many as four times in the top 40. That contingent undoubtedly will be led by Maryland's freakishly gifted Vernon Davis, who could be the first tight end drafted in the top five since Denver took Riley Odoms fifth overall in 1972.

"I feel good about being labeled the new breed of tight end,'' said Davis, who wowed scouts at the Indianapolis combine with a 4.38 time in the 40-yard dash, despite weighing in at a sculpted 254 pounds. "That's what it is, when you've got a guy who can do more than catch the ball, getting extra yardage after catching the ball and making guys miss. If you've got a tight end who can make moves like a wide receiver, when there is a linebacker on you, that's kind of a mismatch.''

Those kind of mismatches are what NFL offensive coordinators crave, and it's why tight end prospects such as Georgia's Leonard Pope, UCLA's Marcedes Lewis, USC's Dominique Byrd, Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano and Colorado's Joe Klopfenstein all are expected to be first-day picks, with all but Klopfenstein likely to go in the draft's top 50 slots.