There’s a lot of he-said-she-said sort of talk out there right now about the Saints’ negotiations with all-world tight end Jimmy Graham. Supposedly Graham’s agent wants $12 million a year, and frankly that’s too high for Mickey Loomis to go when the Saints are already set to pay franchise QB Drew Brees $18 million, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs a combined $20 million and wide receiver Marques Colston $8.3 million in 2014.
So unless Graham’s demands come down significantly, he becomes expendable because of his salary demands. And in that case, tight end probably becomes priority No. 1 in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Simply put, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is a better athlete and blocker than Graham (not saying he’s going to be a better or more important player in the league). Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro is a clone of Graham in many ways, though not as athletic as the former basketball star.
Those two players figure to be gone by the time New Orleans selects in the second round (and could even be gone by the time the Saints select in the first stanza). One other player at the position is rising up boards, who may also drop off the board prior to the Saints’ second pick—Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas.
Nicklas is huge—6-foot-6, 270 lbs.—yet moves like someone 20 lbs. less imposing. He is the best route runner in this class of tight ends. It’s as if he’s practiced with the receivers for three years, yet also blocks like an offensive lineman. He is effective in pass pro and a hard worker in the running game who is more than capable of providing pancake blocks on crack blocks or really moving a defender who is lined straight up from him off the ball.
Because of his NFL readiness and polish, he’d actually be my No. 1 tight end in this class. If Graham is gone, Nicklas would be an amazing value for New Orleans (as would the aforementioned Ebron or Amaro, should they fall to 27th overall).
It’s far more likely, however, that Graham is re-signed at some easier-to-stomach price. The necessity, then, to draft a tight end would be significantly reduced. Thus a late-round flier or a patented undrafted free agent could be in the cards for Ryan Pace (Director of College Scouting) and Loomis.
Here are just a few tight ends I have my eyes on, if the Saints want to take a developmental player at the position to eventually replace Benjamin Watson.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
C.J. Fiedorowicz. Try saying that five times fast.
Worse yet, try typing it five times in a row. No thank you! Well, some unlucky beat writer and NFL fan base is going to be given such punishment come the middle of May. It really shouldn’t be viewed as punishment though – rather as a joyful type of suffering to endure of which the benefits are getting to enjoy a player who can become an NFL regular.
The Iowa senior will never become a star, and likely will never even become an NFL teams’ starting tight end. But he is more than capable of being a second tight end, as most NFL offenses today regularly feature at least two such players in their game plan every week. Of course Sean Payton usually features three.
Fiedorowicz possesses a similar body and skill set of Niklas (mentioned above), but is more raw and not quite as athletic. That is the difference between a future backup at the spot and a guy who could become an upper-echelon starter. At 6-foot-5 ½”, 265 lbs., Fiedorowicz is a high effort blocker who takes up space and can move his defender at ease when he gains good leverage.
With the Saints likely to become more and more of a run-heavy offense (at least I hope), Fiedorowicz would be a great fit moving forward.
Arthur Lynch, Georgia
Arthur Lynch was an effective part of Georgia’s explosive offense in 2013. Though not as big as some of the tight ends in this class, nor as athletic, Lynch knows how to play the position. Another player who will likely never be a star, Lynch at least brings intelligence and hard work to the position.
As a blocker, Lynch needs to improve his knee bend and increase leg strength to be able to move defenders off the ball. As a receiver, that same tendency to stay high hurts his route-running and ability to make quick cuts.
He does, however, possess reliable hands and will do whatever he is asked to do.
A.C. Leonard, Tennessee State
Given the Saints’ propensity to draft small school prospects, or find them as steals in the undrafted portion of free agency, it seemed mandatory to include a small school kid in this list. Leonard was a surprise early draft entry as a junior. While he probably would have been better off returning to Tennessee State for his senior season, that does not mean he is without significant talent.
At 6-foot-2 3/8”, 252 lbs. Leonard possesses adequate size for the position. His 4.50 40-yard dash number is impressive for a player of his size. On film, he looked at least that fast, so that number should not be considered deceptive. Simply put, he is a freak athlete. The only better athlete in the draft at the position is Ebron.
As is common, level of competition will lower his draft stock, as will his relative lack of skill in doing the thing tight ends used to be known for—blocking. Frankly, Leonard is quite raw. But he is quite athletic, and if the Saints want to join Graham with another freak athlete, Leonard makes the most sense.
Contract information courtesy of spotrac.com.
Heights, Weights and 40-yard dash times courtesy of player pages on draftbreakdown.com.