2014 rookie review: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: It's unwise to overdraft rookie tight ends. It's one of the toughest transitions for a collegiate player to make, because it's one of the NFL's most diverse roles. You're a pass-catcher. You're a route-runner. You're a pass-blocker. You're a run-blocker. Almost no college prospect comes into the pros ready to contribute in all facets, and that tends to limit playing time.
Many folks tried to tell me Eric Ebron, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, would be different, but he wound up with just 25 catches all season with the Detroit Lions. Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Buccaneers) and Jace Amaro (Jets), both second-round picks, suffered similar fates. Richard Rodgers, a third-round pick by the Packers, flashed occasionally, but had only 20 grabs overall. That's not to say these players won't be good moving forward. It's simply a warning that hype almost always exceeds results for rookies at this position.
The 2015 prospects
Maxx Williams (Minnesota): If one guy is going to buck the trend, it's probably Williams. He has the best major-college tape of this year's tight end crop, and has adequate 4.78 wheels to attack the middle of a defense. He's 6-foot-4 and 249 pounds, which of course is very big, but it won't put him among the biggest players at the position in the NFL, and he's not a freakishly strong player, at least not yet. If his NFL coaches expect him to hop on the field on Day 1 and be a Rob Gronkowski road grader, they're going to be disappointed. And depending on his situation, that could lead to limited playing time as a rookie.
Comparison: Williams is an above-average athlete for a TE, but he's not someone like Vernon Davis, whose combination of speed and size set the standard for "smaller" TEs (Davis is 6-3 and 250 pounds, so "small" is relative here). Williams does have really good body control and above-average hands. I don't think he'll be the player who winds up breaking the fantasy mold for rookie TEs, but I think his upside is something along the lines of Dallas Clark, which is pretty darned good.
Devin Funchess (Michigan): Yes, Funchess is a hybrid, half-TE and half-wideout. In fact, on draft night, my guess is that ESPN will refer to him as a receiver. (And he worked out with the wide receivers at the combine.) But I'm listing him among the TEs, partly because without him on this page, it would be a pretty boring group, and partly (and more importantly) because I'm not sure Funchess is truly an NFL-caliber WR. Yes, when a guy gets QB play as bad as Funchess did at Michigan, it's unfair to blame that player for being less-than-stellar on tape. But I can only say what I saw, and what I saw was awful. Funchess had too many drops and didn't get open like a 6-4, 232-pound collegiate wideout should. It was his first college season as a WR after playing TE, and while the athletic potential is great, for me he's just too raw as a technical route-runner to play receiver in the NFL without blinding speed, and he doesn't have blinding speed. (His 40 time at the combine was 4.70.)
Comparison: Listen, I'm only saying what I saw Funchess lay down on tape. I'm not working him out, and there are a lot of smart people in the NFL. Someone may see Kelvin Benjamin in this kid; remember around this time last year, I was warning folks how inconsistent Benjamin was on tape, and he turned out terrific. If Funchess really is a TE, he's not going to play inline very often, so hopefully his NFL squad would make him into a matchup-nightmare "move" guy. Heck, Shannon Sharpe wasn't exactly a mauler in the run game, and he turned out great. More realistically, I do think Funchess could be Jordan Reed in the right situation, if his team goes that route with him.
Clive Walford (Miami): Walford has a chance to be rostered by fantasy teams at some point in '15, depending on where he lands. He was reportedly good at Senior Bowl practices (I wasn't there), and his tape shows a solid all-around collegiate TE. Walford won't be a downfield threat, but he's good in the red zone and there's a chance he'll be able to stay on the field right away as an inline blocker.
Comparison: By far the likeliest scenario is that Walford gets paired with a veteran to learn his craft, and doesn't get near the volume necessary to make a fantasy splash. There's some Dwayne Allen to his game: solid, not a seam-route player, tough to rely on week to week, but a source of TDs when the wind is blowing right.
Jesse James (Penn State): James helped himself at the combine by illustrating short-area burst with a 10-1 broad jump, best among all TEs. He's 6-7 and 261 pounds, which could mean he has the makings of an every-down TE at some point in the future, because he has the size to help block and the athleticism to get open down the field. He got caught up in the offensive mess in Happy Valley last season, so you can't punish him for not producing like a stud, but he's still technically quite raw as a blocker.
Comparison: Be careful of associating a guy like this with the NFL's current stud behemoths. No matter what his workout numbers say (and frankly, running a 4.83 40 isn't a "wow" moment), James isn't a super-elite athlete in pads. He's a little stiff as a route-runner and accordingly just didn't seem open all that much in college. I wouldn't be shocked if James uses his first couple of years in the league to refine his game with more finesse technique, but for the moment, I put him in the class of someone like Scott Chandler.
Other names to know: Nick O'Leary (Florida State) is Jack Nicklaus' grandson, and that's pretty cool. His great hands are apparent to anyone who has watched any Florida State tape, but he's just not the kind of athlete who'll break free of tight NFL coverage or make big plays. ... MyCole Pruitt (Southern Illinois) boosted his stock as much as any TE at this year's combine, running fastest and boasting the highest vertical of players at his position. At 6-3 and 254 pounds, Pruitt doesn't qualify as a prototypical monster, but that's big enough. He's probably a developmental prospect, but dynasty leaguers can remember the name.
Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has good length and some wheels, but doesn't have the bulk that will keep him on the field as a blocker. His NFL future may be at H-back, which can be useful for pro teams but not for fantasy. ... Ben Koyack (Notre Dame) was reportedly overmatched at the Senior Bowl both as a blocker and a route-runner. On his collegiate tape, he was a reliable receiver but not someone who scared defenses as a primary weapon. ... Jean Sifrin (Massachusetts) is intriguing both because he's 27 years old and because he was so physically overpowering (6-5, 245 pounds) compared to his competition. He's probably a developmental prospect, though he'll have less time than most before he reaches his physical prime.