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Rookie Impact
Tight Ends
7/11/07

Note: This series contains excerpts and sample profiles from my 2007 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an FFToday.com publication available for purchase. For details, sample material, and testimonials for this compendium of game film study and dynasty league reports, go here.

Last year was one of the better classes of prospects for pass-catching tight ends, but the best performer turned out to be Wisconsin-alum Owen Daniels of the Texans—ranked 14th overall in standard scoring leagues—it goes to show you that rookies are not fantasy-friendly at this position.

To back this up, there have been 585 rookie tight ends in the NFL in 55 years. Only 5 rookie tight ends during this span have produced in a range worthy of a starter. And what was the best rookie performance ever for a TE? It was Mike Ditka’s 1,076 receiving yards and 12 scores on 56 receptions when he joined the Bears in the 60’s. Not Kellen Winslow (Sr.). Not Ozzie Newsome. Not Jeremy Shockey. Not even Tony Gonzalez.

Statistical histories reveal that a rookie tight end making an immediate impact as a starter only comes along once per decade. Yet it doesn’t mean rookies don’t make a significant contribution. In fact, almost one rookie per year produces well enough to be a worthy part-time starter at some point in the season:

32-47 Range
Rec Range Years TEs Rec Rec Yds TDs Rush TDs FF Pts
32-47 1950-2004 42 37.4 489.93 3.48 0.05 70.14
32-47 1950-1959 2 37 651.5 5 0 95.15
32-47 1960-1969 8 37.13 589.25 3.5 0 79.93
32-47 1970-1979 7 38.43 542.43 3.57 0.29 77.39
32-47 1980-1989 8 38.13 461.5 4.75 0 74.65
32-47 1990-1999 10 37.6 446.2 2.7 0 60.82
32-47 2000-2004 7 35.71 372.71 2.57 0 52.7

43 tight ends in 55 years have been within a range that is generally the equivalent of a 15th-20th-ranked player at their position. In fact, the first six seasons of the millennium appears to be on track for at least one rookie making this type of impact per year throughout the remainder of the decade—last year it was Daniels. Yet the trend also indicates the fantasy points for these rookies have steadily declined with every decade. Since the average value has declined as well, the ranking still makes these players worthwhile depth for late-round value in larger leagues or at worst, a decent mid-season waiver wire selection.

The class of 2007 isn’t nearly as strong as the 2006 class. The best is Bears rookie Greg Olson. The former Miami Hurricane is an agile receiver with enough intermediate speed and blocking skills to start right away in the Windy City—he should become a reliable target for Rex Grossman. Here are some of the players I felt rated well in key areas based on film study.

The Best And Worst By Category
Category Player Comment
Separation Ben Olsen These are the only two tight ends that consistently have the skill to get open past the short range of the field from their position on the offensive line.
Clark Harris
Routes Ben Olsen Both players know how to adjust to the quarterback and run a variety of routes with consistently good results.
Johnny Harline
Receiving Ben Olsen Harline and Olsen can make receiver-like catches downfield.
Johnny Harline
Elusiveness Ben Olsen Both possess H-back mobility after the catch.
Johnny Harline
Ball Handling Ben Olsen Sound technique that held up under big time competition.
Balance Clark Harris Both can break tackles after the catch and gain decent yardage in the open field.
Ben Olsen
Blocking Scott Chandler Powerful blockers that can take on a defensive lineman and win the battle.
Zach Miller

Although it’s a rarity for a rookie to perform like an elite fantasy tight end, they still make good investments in the upper mid-rounds of dynasty league rookie drafts. In re-drafts Olsen is your best bet in the late rounds. Zach Miller might be a decent waiver wire selection because he is the only likely candidate after Olsen to get a shot to start for his team.

Likely Starter By Mid-Season

Greg Olsen, Bears: In the context of last yearís draft class, I would have only rated Vernon Davis ahead of Olsen. Although the Bearsí pick lacked great stats throughout his college career, he was often the Hurricanes lone bright spot, toiling in an offense with teammates who underachieved or lacked talent commensurate to his ability. He was often the go-to guy who made key 3rd down or 4th quarter receptions for his team.

Olsen has few weaknesses in his game and he takes a workmanlike attitude as a player. Incumbent starter Desmond Clarkóa former wide receiver at Wake Forestómay be more athletic than Olsen, but the rookie demonstrates a level of savvy on the football field that took Clark more time to gain at the position. Olsen is already a better blocker and this will be the key reason heíll at least cut into Clarkís playing time in 2007.

As with many rookies, playing with injury may factor into Olsenís transition to the pros. If he can remain healthy or produce with the typical bumps and bruises veterans play through, Olsen has the best shot of any rookie tight end listed to produce as a fantasy starter.

This Yearís Top Waiver Wire Candidates

Zach Miller, Raiders: Prior to studying Millerís performances on film, I fully expected the former Sun Devil to live up to the good reviews I heard about him early in his career. Miller has the size and hands to be an effective blocker and short area receiver, but I believe his speed and is suspect. On the surface it seems this could be enough of an issue to be wary of him becoming anything more than a some-time fantasy starter during his career. But Miller was actually pretty fast in the short distance acceleration drills at the combine, and it is these drills that come closer to indicating he has the requisite athleticism than then 40-yard dash. But unless he was playing with an under-publicized injury, I thought Miller was a bit of a plodder on film after he got his initial release from the line. So Iím not sure what to make of Miller in this area until I see him in the preseason.

But what Miller lacks in top-shelf athleticism he makes up for in grit and effort. Heís made a good impression in camp and thereís no doubt that Lane Kiffin has seen enough of Miller to believe the rookie can be a solid contributor to the Raiderís new system. The Titans Bo Scaife wasnít a top-tier athlete after his injuries at Texas, but the Titan has been a surprise in former Trojan offensive coordinator, Norm Chowís offense. Miller doesnít have anyone on the level of Ben Troupe ahead of him on the depth chart in Oakland, either (although former Utah WR John Madsenís play last year was a bit intriguing). At the same time, Iím not convinced the Raiders will have the combination of solid play from their QB and offensive line to make Miller a productive rookie starter. At some point, I believe a healthy Raiders offensive unit will yield better than expected play in 2007, but a player like Miller will be a free agent in most re-draft leagues well into September. Donít jump the gun on him.

Clark Harris, Packers: I had a much higher opinion of Harris than many and believe heíll surprise. As a 7th-round pick, Harris was likely valued as a draft choice because he is a decent long snapper. But the Rutgers tight end has good ball skills as a receiver and runner after the catch. Heís not extremely fast, but he posted one of the better 20-yard shuttle times in his classóZach Millerís was the fastestóand this could make him an effective short-to-intermediate option. Although he had an early case of he drops in mini-camp, look for Harris to demonstrate his receiving skills during the preseason and earn himself a job. If there is a player at this position that I expect to outperform his draft position over the course of his career, Harris is the guy. Bubba Franks has lost his starting job to Donald Lee and neither of these vets are surefire bets for Green Bay.

Benchwarmers With Skills

Scott Chandler, Chargers: The 6-7 Chandler is a good receiver with excellent concentration and body control. If he had Ben Olsenís athleticism, he could start for several NFL teams. Unfortunately for the former Iowa Hawkeye, Chandler lacks this necessary component to be anything more than a Bubba Franks-type of player, at bestóand Iím stretching the possibility a bit far. If San Diego incorporates Chandler into the offense as a red zone threat sneaking past coverage focused on Antonio Gates, he might have a few nice games this year. I believe this is a possibility because Chandler is a fine run blocker and it is plausible heíll see the field in short yardage situations. If Gates gets hurt, Chandler could be worth adding to your roster, but he would only fill a fraction of the void left by the best tight end in the game.

Matt Spaeth, Steelers: Iím not sold on Spaeth as anything but a reserve, but when healthy heís a fluid athlete who can catch the football consistently. If Heath Miller gets hurt, Spaeth has a chance to be a useful fill-in and possible bye week starter. Otherwise, Spaeth isnít likely to see the field except as a special teams performer. His blocking is a bit suspect, although he has the physical attributes to get better. Spaeth is one of those players that might find his way into a specialized role with another team as he develops as a football player.

Joe Newton, Seattle: The Oregon State alumnus signed a free agent deal with the Seahawks this spring and with the departure of Jerramy Stevens to Tampa, Newton has a shot to make the roster. Netwon is a wide-bodied player whose game is similar to that of Scott Chandler. Newton has good ball skills as a receiver and if he performs well enough, could eventually see time as a second tight end in short-yardage sets. The problem is Newton isnít nearly as good of a blocker as Chandler. There is no guarantee Newton makes the team and even less likely heíll make your waiver wire short list if looking for a tight end during the season.

Tyler Ecker, Redskins: When I watched Ecker on film I couldnít put my finger on it, but there was something about his play that indicated to me the former Michigan starter should be better than he is. I wouldnít be at all surprised if Ecker works his way into a situational role with the Redskins somewhere down the line, but it isnít likely to happen this year.

Hybrid

Johnny Harline, Colts: Harline is my favorite player in this class because he is a savvy receiver and plays above his perceived athleticism. He reminds me a bit of Todd Christensen, a bit undersized and slower than the top prospects, but knows how to get open and catch the football in tight coverage. The Colts have a knack for developing tight ends. Marcus Pollard and Bryan Fletcher were much smaller names in college than Harline. The BYU tight end was John Beckís favorite receiver. If the Colts starters remain healthy in 2007 itís improbable Harline sees the field, but he does have the skills to develop a rapport with Manning if pressed into service.

Anthony Pudewell, Jaguars: The tight end out of Nevada has excellent hands and didnít seem to have a problem getting downfield against one of the speedier team defenses in college football. Iím not sure what kind of chance Pudewell has to stick with the Jaguars if Wrighster and Lewis remain healthy, but this is something Wrighster has failed to do consistently in his short career. Pudewell can catch the football and to this point the Jaguars receivers have struggled to do so. I donít anticipate Pudewell will make any impact, but heís a better player than his lack of draft status indicates.