This is the third of an eight-part series previewing the NFL Draft on April 25-27. Today’s installment: tight ends.

By Mark Gaughan


Football coaches love the matchup problems tight ends present to defenses, which is good news for the dozen or so tight ends likely to be taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.

“You can’t have enough tight ends,” said coach John Harbaugh of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in March. “Those guys are such good athletes and such good players. … We’re going to have as many tight ends as we can.”

“The more flexible tight ends can be – threats at a receiver or dual in-line backfield blockers – the more pressure you can put on the defense,” said Arizona coach Brice Arians.

“I think the tight end position is a tough position to defend,” said New England coach Bill Belichick. “There are not really many players on defense that you have that have the same physical criteria of a tight end – 240 to 260 pounds that run whatever they run and depending on the player, have that type of athletic ability and receiving skills.”

The Buffalo Bills need more tight ends. Starter Scott Chandler had knee surgery in December and might not be 100 percent healthy by the start of the season. The Bills have a blocking tight end in Lee Smith.

The top two tight ends in this year’s draft probably will be gone before Buffalo’s second-round selection. However, there are about 10 more intriguing candidates if the Bills want to pick a tight end in the third round or later.

Here’s a rundown on the top prospects:

The likely first-round prospect is Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. He’s no Rob Gronkowski, but the 6-foot-6 Eifert has the tools to become a quality, well-rounded starter, someone who catches more than 50 passes a year. He’s a late first-rounder.

Prospects for the second or third rounds: Zach Ertz of Stanford, Gavin Escobar of San Diego State, Vance McDonald of Rice, Jordan Reed of Florida and Travis Kelce of Cincinnati.

Ertz could be taken late in the first round or early in the second. Any of the others could be available when the Bills make their third-round pick, No. 71 overall. The 6-foot-5 Ertz is less of a blocker than Eifert and is comparable to Stanford product Coby Fleener, drafted 34th by the Colts. Fleener is faster. The 6-6 Escobar, 6-4 McDonald, 6-2 Reed and 6-5 Kelce all have the tools to be as effective as the Bills’ Chandler. Points of reference: Chandler ran 4.78 in the 40-yard dash out of college. Dallas All-Pro Jason Witten ran 4.65. Gronkowski ran 4.68. New England tight end Aaron Hernandez ran 4.64.

McDonald ran 4.69 in the 40 and had an impressive 31 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press, fourth best among tight ends the past 10 years. Nevertheless, McDonald is mostly a receiving tight end, seldom used as an in-line blocker. He caught a lot of quick throws at the line of scrimmage. He has long arms and helped himself at the combine. He averaged 12.5 yards a catch and scored seven TDs the past two years.

Escobar hurt himself at the combine with a 4.84 in the 40 but ran 4.78 on campus. He looked faster on the field and was more effective than McDonald the last two seasons. Escobar averaged 14.2 yards a catch and had 13 TDs the last two years.

Reed draws comparisons to Hernandez, the Patriots’ former Gator, but he’s not quite as good. Reed ran 4.72. He averaged 11.8 a catch and had five TDs the last two years. He’s strictly a big slot receiver, a lesser Dustin Keller, but some teams may rank him No. 3 in this class.

Kelce might be the second-best tight end in the draft. He averaged 16 yards on 45 catches last season with eight TDs. He needs work on blocking but he’s willing and shows some nastiness. He has a more solid frame than Escobar, McDonald or Reed. His brother, Jason, is starting center for the Eagles. The uncertainty comes off the field. He was suspended for the entire 2010 season for violating unspecified team rules on the eve of the 2010 Sugar Bowl. He is recovering from a sports hernia surgery and he did not work out at the combine. How much will teams downgrade him?

“I had a sports hernia,” Kelce said at the combine. “In a different wording for it, it’s a ruptured lower abdomen. I tore it probably around Week Three. During the season, just played on it, played through it, got through the season. It was still nagging me during the combine training. I just decided I needed to get it fixed. I’m about a month out of surgery and I’m feeling pretty good. Nothing is hurting; nothing is annoying or anything like that. It’s just stiff and I’ve got to get back into shape.”

Prospects for the later rounds on the third day of the draft include Ryan Otten of San Jose State, Dion Sims of Michigan State, Levine Toilolo of Stanford. Nick Kasa of Colorado, Joseph Fauria of UCLA and Jake Stoneburner of Ohio State.

Kasa converted from defensive end to tight end last season, ran 4.71 and has untapped potential. Otten did well at the Senior Bowl but developed a serious staph infection from a cut he got that week. He’s recovered. The 262-pound Sims is the best blocking TE in the draft and dropped 40 pounds since the end of the 2011 season. Fauria, strictly a receiver, had 12 TDs last season. Stoneburner ran 4.65.

Next: Linebackers.