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What do scouts look for in NFL tight end prospects?

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Former NFL scout Matt Williamson lets us know

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals
T.J. Hockenson was drafted No. 8 overall by the Detroit Lions.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 4 of our scouting series, we examine the tight end position. While receiving prowess is far and away more important than blocking in today’s NFL for tight ends, there are some teams that require a quality inline blocker. So, without question, the job description changes for tight ends from team to team. While it is factual that the big heavy blocking types are not in demand, we are seeing glorified big wide receivers being labeled as tight ends now, even if they rarely align on the line of scrimmage next to an offensive tackle.

Tight ends usually begin their career slowly in the NFL and their respective teams need to show patience. Generally speaking, tight ends hit their stride and reach their peak in about their fourth or fifth year in the league. That being said, the good ones seem to last forever. Think about guys like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and just recently, Jason Witten coming out of the television booth. Even if they can’t run well anymore, knowing the tricks of the trade at this position gives good tight ends a long lifespan.

As bigger bodies than wide receivers, many tight ends enter the league without refined route running skills. They don’t know when to sit down in zones or keep running vs. man coverage. They aren’t sharp out of their breaks. Some just lack the athletic ability to snap off a route and make banana cuts instead of right angles. You absolutely want to find a tight end prospect with some change of direction skills. Route running can be learned, though, as can blocking for that matter. So while it would be easy to list those two attributes amongst the most important, having the three traits below is more important in the long run.

Attitude

This could also be described as toughness. This is still a physical position. While you don’t see Mark Bavaro/Mike Ditka type of highlights from tight ends after the catch quite as much as we used to, it doesn’t mean that running over or dragging defensive backs isn’t still appreciated. There is an attitude needed to play this position. The attitude that “I am bigger, stronger and tougher than you little people trying to defend me” … almost like a center in basketball. There is also an attitude that even though I am mixing it up in the run game or pass protection with a great defensive end, I am going to hold my ground and fight you to the end. Also, an attitude is needed to be able to withstand some difficult/learning seasons before a tight end reaches his prime and the work ethic to keep honing his craft. Now, it is certainly true that tight end is more of a finesse position than at any point in NFL history, but attitude and toughness will never go out of style.

Ball skills

Tight ends usually operate in the middle of the field. They absolutely must excel in tight quarters. Of course this goes for producing in the red zone, a must for top tight ends, as well. This position must do a great job of shielding smaller defenders and securing the football. Big strong reliable hands at this position are a must. Again, more so than with outside receivers, tight ends are being hacked at and attacked from all angles by defenders. They must secure the football. Being able to catch on the run or contort to poor throws is more difficult for these big receivers than their counterparts at wide receiver.

Knowledge

As mentioned, the job requirements for tight end really varies from team to team. But if a player is smart with his assignments, the offense he is in and the nuances of the position, he can play a very long time. Knowledge of coverage schemes is extremely important. Knowledge of his quarterback’s tendencies and preferences is extremely important. Knowledge of blocking techniques is extremely important. The use of blocking angles and hand placement can go a long way in getting a bigger defensive lineman blocked, even if the tight end is at an obvious physical disadvantage. Knowledge is also key for the team doing the drafting. Don’t ask a 245-pound athletic receiving tight end to block defensive ends all afternoon and don’t expect the mauling 275-pounder to win down the seam. Find the player that best fits your system and let him grow and develop.