Scouting a tight end is a chore to learn and even not easy to actually execute. To be able to look at a college tight end and know if he’ll be a good NFL player, there is so much to look at. A complete tight end must be one-part receiver, one-part tackle and one-part fullback. The player must be able to pass block, run routes, catch and run block. A complete tight end must be agile, strong and have respectable speed in the open field. Each team wants something different in a tight end, I’ll mainly be looking at how to find a tight end to compete against a cover two defense and work as a blocker in the running and passing games.
Speed : As cover two defenses become more trending, and as 3-4 defenses take over the NFL, tight ends must be able to run as well as other skill players. We are seeing more tight ends like Vernon Davis, who can consistently run a 4.4 40 yard dash. Greg Olsen, a first round pick in 2006, runs a legit 4.55. When playing against the Cover 2, NFL teams want their tight end to be able to run the seam (or hashes) route and hit the area between the linebackers and safeties. It’s important for a tight end to have enough speed to get into his route quickly, but also to make plays with the ball in his hands. Against a cover two defense, a tight end generally will have one or two men to beat at most before scoring.
Scouting Points: Quite simply, the 40 yard dash. Game speed is very important, as mentioned with the wide receivers breakdown, but players are judged and ranked according to their speed in the dash. Anything under a 4.7 will get you classified as a receiving tight end. Above that and it’s best to add weight and learn to block. Game speed can be evaluated by watching the tight end in his release and in his routes. Does he look heavy and uncoordinated? Is he out-running linebackers? Does the defense cover him with a safety?
Strength: Even though we are seeing more and more teams use their tight ends as pass catchers first, they are still asked to block on running downs and even some passing situations. A tight end must be strong enough to not only be an effective blocker, but also to be able to release off the line of scrimmage and beat press coverage from a defensive end or linebacker. A tight end’s primary role in the offense is as a do-it all type player. He must be strong enough to be relied upon as a blocker and red-zone receiver.
Scouting Points : This is also tested at the Combine with bench press reps of 225lbs. Strength is not always measured best in pure numbers though. Some players are naturally strong, but cannot bench press well. Other players excel in the weight room, but cannot put that strength to use on the field. The best way to scout strength on a tight end is to watch him closely when blocking. A good indicator of his strength is if the team uses him as a blocker and how they use him. Does the team trust him to handle a defensive end, or is he asked to climb the ladder to a secondary block on every down? A good tight end should be able to block 9 out of 10 defensive ends on his own. You can also watch to see how the tight end does in one-on-one blocking. Does he give up ground or can he hold his own? I also like to watch the tight end release into his routes. If he is jammed at the line of scrimmage, does the tight end fight to get off his man or is he too weak?
Agility: Agility is so important for the tight end. He must be agile enough to be a good pass/run blocker, but also have the quickness and mobility to be a pass receiver. The complete tight end must be able to not only take short, quick steps in the blocking game; but he must be able to run for distance and stretch the field. Being an overall athlete is a must for this position, and more and more we are seeing former basketball players excel at the position because of the required agility.
Scouting Points: As I’ve pointed out probably every time, the three cone and pro agility drills are my favorite to watch to get a gauge on agility. On film or in person you can get a good look at how athletic the tight end is by watching him move in and out of his cuts and by watching his feet and hips in the blocking game. Does he stumble and lumber around, or is he quick and fluid in his movements? These are some keys to watch for.
Size: Size may be more important for a tight end than any other skill position. To play here, you must be of a certain height and weight. A short tight end will not only struggle blocking, but will also have a harder time getting open and being seen in tight spaces. A tight end that is too skinny or lean will not be able to fight off jams and “box out” in the red-zone. Size matters here because the tight end must be so versatile. It is important to remember that a tight end is going to take a lot of hits from linebackers and will be asked to bang heads with blitzing ‘backers and ends for most of the game. They must have the size to hold up.
Scouting Points: Size cannot be scouted, but there is an industry standard here. Most tight ends need to weigh at least 245lbs. There has been some change here over the past few years with Vernon Davis and others coming into the league. We have always used 245 as a standard and will still mark a report if a player is under that weight. I prefer that a tight end be at least 6’3″, but I’ve seen others use 6’2″.
Catching: Being able to catch is what separates a tight end from an offensive lineman. In the high school and even college ranks, the tight end is generally a bigger player that has decent hands. Once you get into major college football and the NFL, you will find that the tight end is a very specialized position that requires a lot of attention. This is the one position in football other than a quarterback that demands a position coach for so few roster spots. Being able to catch as a tight end is a virtually must. In the era of 3-4 and cover two defenses, a pass catching tight end is no longer a last resort. The tight end is now becoming a one or two read in most offenses. Because of the athletic ability being seen at the position, and because of the openings in zone coverages, a tight end used as a receiver propels most elite offenses in the NFL.
Scouting Points: This is quite simple, as noted with the wide receivers. I like to chart catches and drops for tight ends just like with the receivers. One thing to note with tight ends is that many have the bad habit of body catching because they are usually going across the middle. This is a very bad habit and one that must be broken during rookie camp if it persists. Tight ends need to have strong hands that can pull the ball in when in space and when they are getting hit. Watching tight ends run the gauntlet in Indianapolis is very important to me because here I have a chance to watch them make multiple catches in a very natural environment for them, as most tight ends will be running horizontal routes versus a wide receiver you runs mainly verticals.
Pass Blocking: Not many offenses keep their tight ends back as pass blockers anymore, but this is still a valuable asset in the tight end. If a tight end is kept in on a pass blocking assignment , he is generally going to be asked to do one of two things; he will either be zone-blocking or hinge-blocking. My terminology may be different from what you learned, so I’ll break these down in the next section.
Scouting Points: Zone blocking is becoming more popular with the success of the Denver Broncos and college teams like Florida and Texas. A zone block asks the player to take a 45-degree step to either the strong or weak side (which is called in the play) and fill a “zone” or “gap”. This is a very popular method because it essentially allows you to fill every possible rushing lane and lets you utilize quicker linemen. Hinge blocking incorporates some of the zone theory, but instead the player steps first inside to close down the gap and then opens to the outside to seal off any edge rushers. This is called a hinge block because the player should resemble a door being opened when he steps back and outside. Now that you have a basic understanding of these blocking schemes, you can watch and evaluate how well the tight end is pass blocking. Some things to note in pass blocking are: a) the blocker needs to keep a wide base and use his hands to punch at the defender; b) in pass blocking, you do not want to engage the defender or lock up with him, you want to keep him at bay and punch, only taking him to the ground if he locks up with you; c) most linemen are taught to block inside out, watch for this on film.
Run Blocking: Run blocking is where tight ends earn their paychecks. Most people look at the red-zone touchdowns as the role of a tight end, but the majority of NFL offenses still teach run blocking over route running. The tight end is the catalyst for most off-tackle and outside runs. Depending on the play called and the blocking scheme, the tight end can be one of the most important people on the field. Run blocking is an unquestioned skill that every tight end must possess or learn immediately. Being an effective run blocker is what keeps most rookies off the field.
Scouting Points: Just as there were a few techniques to look at with pass blocking, there are some with run blocking. I won’t get into steps as much here, but some things to look for follow. The tight end needs to be the first man off the line of scrimmage on every play. He must anticipate the snap count and fire off into his man. Once he has made contact, the blocker must get inside leverage (on the chest plate in most cases) and drive his man in the direction the play calls for. This is where lower-body strength comes into play. The tight end must be strong enough to use his butt and legs to drive the defender. The blocker will take short, choppy steps in an effort to move the defender. This is where the term “rolling your hips” comes from. The blocker should be rolling through his defender by using his legs to drive block.
Footwork: Footwork sets up all blocks, routes and catches. Having sound footwork will help the blocker set up the correct angle and puts the receiver in the proper position on his routes. Tight ends must be nimble on their feet and have exceptional balance to be able to play the position on every down.
Explosiveness: As mentioned above, the tight end should be the fastest player off the line of scrimmage. The tight end must be explosive on every play as to not tip off pass patterns and run downs. Every release should be the same within the first few steps. Quick burst is very important to the position and will be watched and evaluated heavily on film and the Combine.
Route Running: Tight ends are expected to be able to run precise routes, just as receivers are. The how-to for receivers is a good read on route running, but there are some differences for the tight end. Most routes by the TE will begin with a straight up-field run. The TE must release hard off the line of scrimmage, and in most cases low to the ground. The TE will also need to be able to maintain consistency in their routes, despite running through and around traffic at times. The TE should fire straight off the ball, without trying to juke the DE or OLB. We want his first 5 yards to be a dead sprint.