INDIANAPOLIS — Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is in a bit of a quandary this offseason. Though he and head coach Mike Smith have built a perennial playoff contender, contending is not enough at this point after one postseason win in five opportunities since 2008. That’s when Dimitroff and Smith took over a then-dysfunctional franchise and built it the right way. For more definitive results in the postseason, the Falcons will either have to welcome tight end Tony Gonzalez back from a possible retirement, or replace him in Atlanta’s offense. That’s a tough thing to do — putting a new player in the spot once occupied by the greatest player at his position in NFL history — but at the scouting combine this week. Dimitroff was already talking about the possibilities either way.
In 2012, Gonzalez caught more passes than any other Falcons receiver (93) despite getting fewer targets than the dynamic duo of receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones (124). He finished second to New England’s Rob Gronkowski in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted performance metrics, and helped to define Atlanta’s new pass-first offense. Not bad for a guy who will turn 37 on Feb. 27.
Dimitroff knows that if Gonzalez does stick with his plan to retire, he’ll have a major hole to fill in the draft or in free agency. Fortunately for him, the tight end class in this draft is very solid, which reflects the college game’s need for players at the position who can do multiple things.
“It’s a good tight end group,” Dimitroff said on Friday. “The numbers are good, the athleticism is good, the ability to catch the ball is good, and the ability to block is there. I think we all know the importance of the tight end position — it’s not just about catching the ball, but it’s also about being able to block the right way. Not always as effective as some of those big tight ends, but if you have the total package, and I think there are a number of guys in this group with the total package — blocking and receiving.”
Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is the top man on most lists. He ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds when the tight ends went at it on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, and that will just have NFL executives going back to his college tape and confirming that he can line up anywhere in the formation and make an impact.
“I’m lucky to be coming in at a time where the type of tight end that I am is being used quite a bit,” Eifert said. “In the passing game, but also a guy that can stay in the game on every down throughout the game and can also block. Create mismatch problems in the passing game … I strive to be a complete tight end, I don’t think I’m there yet. But guys like Jimmy Graham, Gronkowski, [Kyle] Rudolph, those guys I like to watch and see myself being similar players to them.”
Stanford’s Zach Ertz is another player who will most likely hear his name called in the first round. Less explosive but perhaps more well-rounded that Eifert, Ertz will appeal to teams who need the “do-it-all” tight end in more of the old-school mold — think Jason Witten or Zach Miller.
“I take a lot of pride in my run blocking,” Ertz said this week. “It’s something that I’ve worked on the past four years specifically. It’s something that I look forward to working on.”
Ertz played in a more traditional offense that asked its tight ends to block more than in any spread scheme, but he believes he’s shown that he can get outside in the formation and make plays, as well.
“I think I can do both, to be honest. At Stanford, we were a run-first offense. We started with the power running game and I took a lot of pride in my run blocking. As a receiver, that stuff kind of came more naturally but I look forward to doing both.”
Perhaps the wild card in this group — and a player who has received comparisons to an embryonic version of Gonzalez himself — is San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar. If you want one of the new wave of tight ends, this might be your man. More a flax/slot receiver than a traditional in-line tight end, Escobar fits the hybrid role more and more teams are searching for.
“I think some people look past my blocking ability because of my pass catching ability. It’ something I’m willing to do and I’m always working hard to get better at. The way they use tight ends these days is really translating with my body frame and abilities, being able to be a red zone target and threat, being able to create mismatches. They moved me around a lot [at San Diego State], but I’m fine with my hand in the dirt.”
One thing’s for sure — NFL executives like Dimitroff will look more and more to the tight end position for top-shelf offensive production. He just has to hope that the future Hall-of-Famer who gave him a major head start in that department sticks around for a while.
“Tony’s an anomaly,” Dimitroff said. “You see him walk out on to the field as a 36-year-old, and he looks like he’s 25. He’s in great shape, he takes care of himself, and he moves around the way I think he’s always moved around. Everyone loses a step or a quarter of a step, but Tony can still produce at a very high level, and those guys don’t come around every day.”
But if he needs to find a new “next Tony Gonzalez,” as difficult as that may be, Dimitroff is at least drawing from a fine pool of talent.