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Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert tops among college tight ends

Football season is right around the corner! Not only in the NFL, but at the college level, too. As a resident guru of the Saturday standouts, Chad Reuter provides the top draft-eligible college players at each position in a 10-part series. Today's group: tight ends.

The success of tight ends Rob Gronkowski with the New England Patriots and Jimmy Graham with the New Orleans Saints has led people to believe there's been a sudden increase in the importance of the position. Gronkowski and Graham ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in receiving yards in 2011, both of them besting Kellen Winslow's 30-year-old NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end.

But tight ends have been producing at a higher rate for a few years now. Receiving yards and touchdowns at the position increased by nearly 40 percent from 2002 to 2010, thanks to perennial Pro Bowlers like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.

However, this hasn't yet translated into higher draft status. No tight ends were picked in the first rounds of either the 2011 or 2012 NFL Drafts. Over the past four drafts, an average of four tight ends have been picked in the first three rounds.

There's no certain first-round talent in this year's projected class, though one or two of the players listed below could leap up boards if they exceed expectations in 2012. But the group is deep enough to warrant some relatively high draft picks -- meaning NFL defenses will have to keep planning to face tall and athletic pass catchers for the foreseeable future.

*Denotes underclassmen.

1. Tyler Eifert, 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Notre Dame
Eifert decided to stay in South Bend for the 2012 season after leading all Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends in receptions in 2011 (notching 63 for 803 yards). The Irish have issues at quarterback, but if those are settled, the tall, strong-handed, athletic and sinewy Eifert will have another successful season as a redshirt junior, cementing his status as the top future prospect at the position.
NFL comparison:*Greg Olsen

2. Philip Lutzenkirchen, 6-5, 250, Auburn
Auburn's career leader in touchdowns for tight ends (14 in three seasons) should work himself into position as a second-day pick in 2013, even if the Tigers' passing attack struggles again in 2012. NFL offenses will be better able to utilize his underrated route-running ability and strong hands.
NFL comparison:Zach Miller (Seattle Seahawks version)

3. Zach Ertz, 6-6, 249, Stanford
Ertz will not have former Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck throwing to him in 2012, and he must stay healthy after hurting his right knee on a kickoff return last season. But this bullish runner has strong hands and just enough speed to utilize his size down the seam against smaller defenders. He has potential as a three-down contributor if he can block more consistently.
NFL comparison:*Jason Witten

4. Chris Pantale, 6-6, 251, Boston College
The Eagles' starting tight end had only 21 catches for 236 yards and three touchdowns as part of their 100th-ranked passing offense in 2011. But scouts can see Pantale possesses solid hands and a strong blocking mentality, and has enough agility and speed to become a reliable NFL starter in time.
NFL comparison:John Carlson

5. Joseph Fauria, 6-7, 258, UCLA
Fauria, the nephew of Christian Fauria (who spent 13 seasons as an NFL tight end), transferred from Notre Dame to UCLA three years ago. The younger Fauria finally flashed the talent everyone knew he possessed in 2011, grabbing 39 catches for 481 yards and six touchdowns. He used his height, length and unexpected foot quickness to make plays around and over the top of defenders.
NFL comparison:Rob Housler

6. Jake Stoneburner, 6-5, 245, Ohio State
Stoneburner is not an exceptional athlete and hasn't been targeted often in the Buckeyes' lackluster passing attack. He was also suspended indefinitely in June after a misdemeanor arrest, though he'll likely be reinstated in time for the 2012 season. He has a strong enough overall package of blocking and receiving skills to excel this year, and a standout showing at an all-star game could tempt scouts into giving him a starter's grade.
NFL comparison: Kevin Boss

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter

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