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Re-drafting the 2014 tight end class

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Last year's class of rookie receivers feels destined to go down as one of the greatest of our time. Not so with the tight ends.

After months of hype over Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Jace Amaro, all three were relatively disappointing in terms of their final numbers.

None of the trio topped 350 yards receiving, but first-year tight ends historically struggle to make an impact. Rob Gronkowski put up just 546 yards as a rookie, while Tony Gonzalez (368) and Jimmy Graham (356) also underwhelmed.

Still, Game Rewind revealed moments of promise and a potential jump -- especially for Ebron and Seferian-Jenkins -- in Year 2. As teams hunt for the next Gronk, do any of these players loom as future difference-makers?

After digging into the quarterbacks and receivers, let's now examine how we'd re-draft the class of 2014 tight ends:

Future playmakers


1. Eric Ebron, Detroit Lions

Much has been said of Ebron's scattershot campaign after the Lions made him the No. 10 overall pick last May.

His 6-foot-4 frame and 4.60 speed propelled NFL Media's Mike Mayock to call Ebron a "better athlete with better hands" than San Francisco's Vernon Davis, but Ebron struggled with the playbook and totaled just 25 catches all year -- never topping 38 yards in a game.

I watched the tape to find out why, coming away with one initial criticism: With Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate regularly swallowing up top cover men, Ebron was often an afterthought. "LEFT ALONE IN COVERAGE," was prominent in my notes. Ebron could have done more with those opportunities.

Still, his 549 snaps go beyond mere statistics. When he wasn't bogged down mentally in Joe Lombardi's complex scheme, Ebron displayed better physical gifts than any of his rookie peers at the position.

Detroit lined him up tight, in the slot and out wide. Plenty of his catches came off short-range patterns that first asked Ebron to sell the block. In his better moments, he took the ball for extra yardage, effectively hunting down the sticks. He also made a handful of grabs up the seam and showed flashes of dominance in open space, twice hurdling smaller defenders for more real estate.

That said, Ebron's 13.79 drop rate was sixth among all tight ends, per Pro Football Focus. Matthew Stafford was a factor, though, with 15 of Ebron's 47 targets deemed uncatchable. Better ball control from Detroit's quarterback would help.

Final analysis: Ebron's longest grab of the year was 22 yards. Seferian-Jenkins, Richard Rodgers and Crockett Gillmore all topped his 9.9 yards per catch, which had plenty to do with Ebron seeing an imbalance of work in the flats. But can he work a secondary deep? He won a nice battle downfield against New England's Devin McCourty in Week 12, but the Lions need more of this.

I'm not giving up on Ebron and neither are the Lions, with coach Jim Caldwell saying: "I'm anticipating a pretty significant rise in his performance." We aren't predicting Jimmy Graham 2.0, but another full offseason in Lombardi's system is a major factor. A comfortable Ebron -- leaning more on his natural talents -- is the top candidate on this list to make a jump in Year 2.

2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Here's my #HotTake on last year's draft order: I wouldn't change a thing about the top three. I'm comfortable with keeping Seferian-Jenkins in the second slot.

Like Ebron, Seferian-Jenkins -- with just 21 grabs for 221 yards and two scores -- was a letdown after we heard so much about Tampa's "Chicago Bears South" receiving corps. While Bucs wideout Mike Evans soared down the stretch, Seferian-Jenkins finished the year on injured reserve with a back injury.

Still, ASJ's 6-foot-5, 262-pound exterior gives Bucs passers a massive target. His work against the Ravens in Week 6 might serve as an appropriate preview of what new coordinator Dirk Koetter has planned for 2015. Against Baltimore, Seferian-Jenkins caught a tough 14-yard ball in traffic before, one quarter later, splitting Ravens defenders down the middle to take a Mike Glennon pass for 30 yards. He's strong enough to blast past initial blockers into space and fast enough to win one-on-one battles.

The Bucs employed Seferian-Jenkins on plenty of crossing routes while also trying to set him free downfield. More than once he dominated smaller defenders up the seam.

Final analysis: Can he stay healthy for a full season? If he does, will Tampa put a functional quarterback under center?

ASJ isn't the first option on a roster armed with Evans and Vincent Jackson, but he'll see an increased workload under Koetter, who made the most of Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville and Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta. Look for Seferian-Jenkins to net sneaky fantasy buzz over the summer.

Next up


3. Jace Amaro, New York Jets

Amaro gives the Jets a big-bodied target, but the second-round pick lacks the burst of Ebron or Seferian-Jenkins on tape. Based on athleticism, Amaro belongs third on this list.

To his credit, the 49th overall pick led all rookie tight ends in catches (38) and receiving yardage (345), but Amaro never looked entirely comfortable on the field.

Geno Smith and Michael Vick deserve some of the blame. One of the league's shakiest quarterback tandems didn't make it easy on a rookie struggling to learn the West Coast Offense. Too many of his six drops -- third most at his position in 2014 -- came when Amaro was alone in space.

Final analysis: The Jets can hope for more games like Amaro's handiwork against the Broncos, when he pulled down 10 catches for 68 yards with a touchdown. The score came off Amaro winning a one-on-one battle with safety T.J. Ward, something we should see more of in 2015.

He's far from a natural after the catch, but Amaro showed promise when Smith led him well on crossing routes. He looms as a better fit for Chan Gailey's spread offense than last year's role. Just don't tell that to Rex Ryan.

Newbies with potential


4. Richard Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers caught my eye by winning his share of one-on-one battles downfield. He's no burner, but Rodgers was more impressive than Amaro in a handful of games.

It certainly helps to have Aaron Rodgers serving up picture-perfect throws. The third-rounder earned his quarterback's trust down the stretch, making 17 of his 20 catches over the final half of the season. I was impressed with his 32-yard touchdown haul against New England in Week 13, a play that saw him outduel safety Patrick Chung at the goal line. He made another nice scoring grab in traffic to seal Green Bay's playoff win over Dallas.

Final analysis: With just one drop in 21 catchable balls, Rodgers gives the Packers an interesting developmental player alongside Andrew Quarless. I won't predict more than 45 grabs in this weapons-rich offense, but Rodgers should see more work this autumn.

5. Crockett Gillmore, Baltimore Ravens

Gillmore -- the 99th overall pick -- was drafted after Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz, but this mountainous 6-foot-6 target brought more to the table than both of those cats in 2015.

Used primarily as a blocker over the first half of the year, the third-rounder wound up catching 10 passes for 121 yards and a score down the stretch. He also lit up the Steelers for a 21-yard touchdown in the playoffs. Gillmore does a nice job of selling the block before releasing into open space. He's big enough to battle defenders, but also showed enough smarts to give quarterback Joe Flacco safe windows downfield.

Final analysis: With Dennis Pitta's status up in the air, it's worth noting that team owner Steve Bisciotti called Gillmore a "Jason Witten who loves to block." That feels rich, but he's in the mix to contribute in 2015.

Rest of the bunch


C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston Texans
Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals
Nic Jacobs, Jacksonville Jaguars
Cameron Brate, Buccaneers
Marcel Jensen, Jaguars
Asante Cleveland, San Francisco 49ers

After hearing last summer that Fiedorowicz "can do everything," he did very little in catching just four passes over 485 snaps for the Texans. ... Mostly a blocker, the 6-foot-6 Niklas was lost for the year with a high-ankle sprain in November. ... From there, the combination of Jacobs, Brate, Jensen and Cleveland roll into the summer as projects with plenty to prove. Some will serve their careers as blocking tight ends, a role I simply view as less valuable than a player who can also freak out a secondary.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast conducts a redraft of the 2014 NFL Draft before chatting about this year's event with Daniel Jeremiah. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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