Another draft and another round of hype about tight ends being selected in the first round is upon us.
Please make it stop.
No matter the year, no matter the college production, tight ends are not smart choices in the opening round.
Don't get me wrong: An excellent tight end is good to have. Through draft history, some tight ends selected in the first round have proven to be superb, even becoming members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow Sr.
But show me a team with an explosive passing game, one whose offense is the engine mainly responsible for driving it into the postseason, and I'll show you one dominated by dynamic wide receivers. If a team has a highly productive tight end, he often is a complementary part of the attack rather than the focal point.
Defenses generally are far more concerned with stopping wide receivers and running backs. Most teams are able to get by with a solid tight end who can find seams in coverage to exploit, provide an outlet for a quarterback under pressure and block -- or at least chip block -- an outside pass rusher. Teams usually can find such a player beyond the first round, and this draft figures to have at least six tight ends or so who fall into that category.
Player-personnel evaluators will tell you that most tight ends come in two varieties -- receivers or blockers. Rarely does one do both well, and a receiving tight end is always going to be quicker to generate first-round discussion than the blocking kind.
But should he be a top-10 or top-15 consideration?
"The guy has to be a rare talent to be a tight end you would consider taking (there), and I don't see that guy in this draft," said an NFL coach who requested anonymity. "Of course, with those teams up top wanting out of those picks, I don't know how much rare talent there is at any position."
One tight end receiving plenty of pre-draft buzz is Brandon Pettigrew of Oklahoma State. He has mostly impressed scouts with his pass-catching skills and athleticism, but he also draws high marks for his ability to block. Some pundits are projecting that Pettigrew will be selected in the top half of the first round, seeing him as an obvious choice for the Buffalo Bills -- who have a crying need for a tight end -- at No. 11.
South Carolina's Jared Cook also is viewed as a tight end worthy of a first-round pick, almost exclusively because of his immense talent as a receiver.
Time for a little reality check.
Tony Gonzalez, who joined the Kansas City Chiefs as a first-round pick in 1997, is one of the very best tight ends in the NFL. He is arguably one of the greatest to ever play the game. In 2008, he led all NFL tight ends with 96 receptions for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns. And all the Chiefs had to show for it was a 2-14 record, putting them in a tie with the St. Louis Rams for second-worst in the NFL behind the 0-16 Detroit Lions.
Of the five teams that had a tight end with 70 or more receptions in 2008, only one (the Indianapolis Colts) made the playoffs, and the combined record of the other four was 27-37. Dallas Clark, the Colts' tight end, caught 77 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns, but Indianapolis reached the postseason because of Peyton Manning and, because in addition to Clark, the Colts also had wide receivers such as Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez making plays.
Tight end is an important position, but there's a danger in overrating its importance.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers might very well have done exactly that by signing Kellen Winslow II, acquired in a Feb. 27 trade with the Cleveland Browns, to a six-year contract extension worth $36.1 million, including $20.1 million guaranteed. It is the richest deal for a tight end in league history. And it begs an obvious question: Why?
The Bucs still don't have a legitimate starting quarterback. They've hardly been a free-spending team this offseason, yet they chose to open the vault for a player who had two years left on his contract. Winslow is an outstanding pass catcher, but his five NFL seasons have mostly been defined by a history of injuries. He suffered a serious knee injury in a motorcycle accident in 2005, his second year in the league. In 44 career games, he has put up fairly modest numbers: 219 catches for 2,459 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"He's a good player but not as good as Gonzalez in his prime," said one AFC coach whose team has faced Winslow. "He's not a blocker at all. I consider (Jason) Witten (of the Dallas Cowboys) the best tight end in the league because he can block as well as catch. (Winslow) is one-dimensional."
Witten, by the way, was a third-round pick of the Cowboys in 2003.
"You do have to account for (Winslow)," the AFC coach continued. "If you're in two-deep coverage, a linebacker has to run with him, and not many can. He's also a big threat in the red zone. But you can always slow him down by taking a defensive end out of pass rush and just have him beat (Winslow) up at the line. He's a hot head and can be easily frustrated that way."
Winslow might make an impact, but the Bucs aren't likely to feel it until after they address a couple of more critical spots -- not the least of which is quarterback.