What makes a first round tight end? It’s not as simple as you think.
If you look at the last ten years a real cluster of very different tight ends have been drafted in the first frame. You’d expect to see a bunch of big guys with incredible speed. That isn’t quite the case. Here’s every tight end drafted in the first round since 2005 alongside their forty yard dash time.
There are nine in total:
Eric Ebron (#10, 2014) — 4.60
Tyler Eifert (#21, 2013) — 4.68
Jermaine Gresham (#21, 2010) — 4.66
Brandon Pettigrew (#20, 2009) — 4.83
Dustin Keller (#30, 2008) — 4.53
Greg Olsen (#31, 2007) — 4.51
Vernon Davis (#6, 2006) — 4.38
Marcedes Lewis (#28, 2006) — 4.80
Heath Miller (#30, 2005) — 4.77
Vernon Davis is the only genuine ‘freak of nature’ drafted in the last ten years — he also had a 42 inch vertical to go along with that 4.38 forty. He was 6-3 and 250lbs. It’s no wonder he was a top-ten pick. After that, there were a couple of ‘great’ athletes for their size. Greg Olsen and Dustin Keller both ran in the early 4.5’s — Olsen at 6-6, 254lbs and Keller at 6-3, 242lbs.
Three players ran in the 4.6’s. Eric Ebron almost cracked the 4.5’s but still went in the top ten last year (one pick ahead of Odell Beckham Jr). Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham both ran ‘good but not great’ times in the high 4.6’s. And then you have the downright sluggish times recorded by Brandon Pettigrew, Marcedes Lewis and Heath Miller.
You’re looking at one incredible physical specimen out of nine. The Lewis/Miller/Pettigrew trio were drafted as much for what they did on the field in college as they were for their athleticism. You could pretty much say the same about Eifert (Gresham’s forty time was seen as a surprise, given the athleticism he flashed on the field for Oklahoma).
When you put all this into context — what does it say for Maxx Williams’ chances of going in round one? He’s the only 2015 prospect with any shot at being a day one pick. This is a tremendously weak looking TE class — and that could impact the free agent market for Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron (if they even make it that far).
It’s very difficult to judge how quick Williams is. On tape he looks relatively slow — as he’s running away from defensive backs. It’s a contradictory sentence but still sort of makes sense. “He’s very slowly getting away”. (That’s a Simpsons reference by the way, not to be taken seriously if you happen to stumble across this piece during a Google search Maxx).
Look at the first play in the video below:
He runs right down the seam and is thrown the ball at the 35-yard line. He finishes the play, sprinting home despite being chased by two safety’s and a cornerback. Touchdown. The second play he shows good initial quickness to settle into the underneath zone for a nice gain (before dragging a cornerback downfield for extra yardage). The third play is a touchdown on a wheel route down the left side line. He motions from right-to-left and just beats the linebacker who is far too stiff and slow to react to the play call. Having seen Seattle get beat a few times on TE-wheel routes in 2014, this play felt familiar.
So you seem some quickness, the ability to make YAC and get open on the second level. The fourth play in the video he struggles to gain separation and looks labored. He still makes an incredible one-handed catch for a big first down.
At 6-4 and 250lbs — I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran a 4.7 at the combine. I felt going into this week that his forty time would probably determine if he can make it into round one. Looking at the history of first round tight ends in the last ten years, now I’m not so sure. Clearly teams are willing to consider taking slower TE’s in the first frame — if they provide unique qualities. And I think Williams has shown plenty of these. Plus an average forty time doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad athlete. I think this play proves he’s a good athlete, if not a brilliant straight-line runner:
One of the things that made Kevin Norwood stand out last year was his ability to maximize his targets. He didn’t play in a high-volume passing attack. This was the pre-Lane Kiffin Alabama offense. When they did throw, Amari Cooper received most of the attention.
Norwood made several difficult grabs, was adept in the scramble drill and kept making chunk plays for decent yardage. He was consistent, impactful, showed good hands and became a safety net on broken plays. Seattle wants to have the best scrambling offense in the league and that’s why Norwood was so appealing. He also ran a 4.48 and had ten inch hands.
The more I watch Maxx Williams, I think he shares similar traits. Not so much on the broken plays — the passing game is a virtual afterthought at Minnesota and they don’t have the quarterback extending many plays. But when they did throw to Williams at tight end, he just had a knack of making it count. Touchdowns, big plays, third down conversions, difficult leaping grabs, one-handed catches. He doesn’t drop the ball.
Williams led all college tight ends with nine explosive catches (25-plus yards) last season. If you want to believe he’s a possible Seahawks target — the chunk plays, character, consistency, bloodlines and red-zone potential all add up. The only caveat is they took Norwood in the fourth round. Will this combination of skills make up for a lack of game-changing size or speed to warrant a possible three round jump?
I don’t think anyone should judge him for not being a Gronk or Jimmy Graham clone. That’s not what he’s about. Those types of players are so rare. If you’re looking for a guy who can max out his targets, convert a few key third downs, run the seam and show up in the red zone — Williams ticks those boxes. And these are all money situations during a game. He isn’t going to be a 1000-yard monster but he might be a consistent feature, worthy of a few 800-yard seasons pushing 8-10 touchdowns. Throw in above-average blocking skills on a modest CBA-salary and you can see some worth in the latter part of the first round. Especially when you know the depth at the position is so weak in this years class.
I’ve seen comparisons to Olsen (one of the more underrated players in the NFL since he came into the league) and Lane Zierlein went a step further suggesting he compares to Jeremy Shockey. I’m not sure about either comparison personally. He’s a really good player with some physical limitations. I think he can get stronger without losing any speed, adding some extra tone to the upper body. That should make him an even more effective blocker.
The other thing he has going for him of course is the NFL bloodlines. Both his father and grandfather played in the NFL. You better believe teams pay attention to stuff like that. Williams’ mother was also an excellent athlete. He speaks like a player who spent a childhood growing up in a NFL locker room. He’s admitted in interviews he’s tight with Michael Strahan because of the years he spent following his dad’s career with the Giants. He’s not going to be intimidated by ‘the rookie experience’ and will know what to expect. He speaks with eloquence and confidence — plus a passion for the game:
Speed won’t be the deciding factor for Williams. There are so many other strings to his bow. The clutch-catching, the explosive plays, the athleticism shown during that touchdown against Missouri, the consistency and good hands, the character and the bloodlines. It all adds up. All of these traits are easily transferable to the next level. I’m more interested in his vert and broad jump (explosion), hand size and arm length (catching radius).
He won’t be the flashiest player drafted. He won’t have an exciting SPARQ rating. He won’t be the Gronk. But there is so much to like about his overall game. He’s a second round player at the very worst and he has every chance to go in round one — even if he runs an average forty time. I’m not convinced he’ll be Seattle’s pick at #31, but I could see someone else taking him in that kind of range (top-40).
And speaking of tight ends — get ready for Devin Funchess to have a big week in Indianapolis…