When the 49ers selected Vernon Davis with the sixth overall pick in April's draft, he joined Kellen Winslow Jr. as the highest-selected tight ends since Riley Odoms (fifth by Denver in 1972). The 2006 draft also saw eight tight ends come off the board on the first day, the largest such total in more than two decades. Davis was among three underclassmen selected on Day 1, leaving next year's senior class void of premier talent.
As it stands right now, not one senior tight end prospect is regarded as a first-round value. Underclassmen Greg Olsen (Miami-Fla.) and Zach Miller (Arizona State), on the other hand, are a different story. Neither possesses the rare physical tools that earned Davis such a high pick, but both possess the size and athleticism to warrant first-round consideration should either elect to depart early for the 2007 draft. Miller is more of a proven commodity at this point, but he must kick the injury bug that set him back last season. Olsen was inconsistent a year ago, but big things are expected now that his first full season as a starter is under his belt.
As for the seniors, Clark Harris (Rutgers) and Matt Spaeth (Minnesota) rank among the leading candidates. Spaeth has better size, but Harris is a more complete player at this point. Unfortunately, neither possesses the speed to consistently stretch the field as a vertical weapon in the NFL.
Scott Chandler (Iowa) is a former wide receiver who continues to come into his own as a tight end with more time in the weight room and more game-experience. He lacks elite speed and has room to improve as a blocker, but Chandler should peak as a senior after accounting for 876 yards and four touchdowns on 71 receptions the past two seasons.
Martrez Milner (Georgia) has flashed more upside than Spaeth, Harris and Chandler, but he has just one season to prove his worth after spending most of his collegiate career behind Leonard Pope, who was selected by the Cardinals in the third round of April's draft.
Joe Newton (Oregon State) and Matt Herian (Nebraska) are talented tight ends who must rebound from injury in order to regain momentum heading toward the 2007 draft. At one point Herian was considered a potential first-rounder, but he hasn't played since suffering a gruesome leg injury in 2004.
Jonny Harline (BYU) is an intriguing late-first-day prospect because of his wingspan, athleticism and sure hands. Harline is a better NFL prospect than teammate Daniel Coats, but Coats is a similar H-back type with enough pass-catching skills to warrant late-round consideration.
Finally, two of the lesser known prospects to monitor are Ben Patrick (Delaware) and Samuel Smith (Florida International). Patrick, a versatile tight end in a similar mold to Vikings TE/FB Jim Kleinsasser, will play his final season for the Blue Hens after notching 79 receptions in three seasons as a Duke Blue Devil. Smith, on the other hand, has the athleticism and hands to emerge as a contributing H-back in the NFL if he can stay healthy and out of the dog-house.
The following is a graphic representation of the number of tight ends selected in each round of the previous three NFL drafts. Most NFL teams use this type of chart to study position trends when setting up their respective draft boards each year.