Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason will evaluate each position group. He will take a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and address how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. This week: linebackers.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: As tight ends become more emphasized as receivers, they've become a higher-priority pick in the draft. The seven tight ends selected to the Pro Bowl rosters this year bears that out; that group includes three first-round picks, two second-round picks and a third- and fourth-rounder.
But it's the receiving tight ends who go earliest in the draft -- and end up getting Pro Bowl accolades. If you're searching for a blocker, you can wait until the later rounds. Some of the league's most effective blocking tight ends came from lower draft stock, a group that includes Pittsburgh's Matt Spaeth (Round 3, 2007), Denver's Joel Dreessen (Round 6, 2005) and Tennessee's Delanie Walker (Round 6, 2006).
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY: It hasn't been overly productive. In the last 20 years, they've taken two tight ends in the second round (Tony Scheffler, 2006 and Richard Quinn, 2009); neither lasted longer than four years with the club.
The Broncos have selected just nine tight ends since 1993. Four of them were in the seventh round; another two were sixth-rounders. As a result, the Broncos have often turned to free agency to fill in the gaps; their production has been led by free agent pickups three consecutive years and five of the last 11.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK: Only one of their tight ends is in their 30s (Joel Dreessen), and he's coming off a year that was among the best in his career. Because he spent a season out of football earlier in his career, has been healthy and a rotational player for most of his time in the NFL, he should have multiple prime years left.
If the Broncos do select a tight end, it could reveal uncertainty about the progress of Julius Thomas and Virgil Green, the two tight ends drafted in 2011. But with all of their tight ends under contract until 2015, there's not an urgent need here.
TIGHT ENDS THAT MIGHT FIT WHERE THE BRONCOS PICK IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS:
Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame: Whether he can catch passes in the NFL isn't up for much debate; he proved that he could make plays in a crowd, grabbing 140 passes for 1,840 yards at Notre Dame. What can be questioned is whether he can hold up as a blocker; although he has the size (251 pounds on a 6-foot-6 frame) and the strength (22 bench-press repetitions at the NFL Scouting Combine) to grow into a solid blocker, the 2012 Mackey Award winner will likely need some time and coaching to be an asset in pass and run blocking.
Zach Ertz, Stanford: Ertz made the most of 2012, finishing with 898 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 13.0 yards per reception. That production ensured that Stanford didn't miss predecessor Coby Fleener. As with Eifert, Ertz has some work to do in his blocking, and his 4.76-second combine 40-yard dash time was a bit slower than hoped, but this is countered by the massive growth he displayed when he ascended to the first team last year and a body type that could probably handle a few more pounds than the 249 he carried at the combine.
Gavin Escobar, San Diego State: Escobar is athletic and smooth moving down the field and is quick enough to be used in a slot role from time to time, even though he's a 254-pounder. He's not the most instinctive blocker, however, and his receiving numbers tailed off last year after Ryan Lindley graduated and was drafted by the Cardinals. Escobar could be dangerous in formations that split him out, and he can create physical mismatches that way.
TIGHT ENDS OF NOTE FOR THE MID TO LATE ROUNDS:
Vance McDonald, Rice: Two questions linger on McDonald: 1. Is he a postseason/combine wonder? 2. Can he refine his blocking skills? If the answers are no and yes, respectively, he'll be a steal in the third round. McDonald bolstered his stock at the Senior Bowl and was the best tight end during practice, consistently making plays both in space and in traffic. At 267 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame, he has the body type to be a dominant blocker, and his 31 bench-press repetitions at the combine, the most among tight ends there, are evidence of his strength. He never had a dominant season in terms of numbers at Rice, but could flourish at the next level.
Nick Kasa, Colorado: He didn't become a tight end until midway through 2011, but made the transition so well that he was invited to the Senior Bowl even though he caught just 25 passes last year. Kasa is already one of the best blockers among the tight end class -- arguably the best -- and is not a liability down the field. At 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds, he could be a scary target if given time to develop as a receiver.
Jordan Reed, Florida: Reed is a solid receiver, but the team that drafts him might not find much use for him as a blocker. He's one of the smaller tight ends in this class (236 pounds), and works much better in space than lined up next to an offensive tackle. But there's plenty of teams who would be happy to use him in that sort of role.
Others of note: Joseph Fauria, UCLA; Chris Gragg, Arkansas; D.C. Jefferson, Rutgers; Travis Kelce, Cincinnati; Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn; Ryan Otten, San Jose State; Chris Pantale, Boston College; Mychal Rivera, Tennessee; Dion Sims, Michigan State; Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State; Levine Tollolo, Stanford; Michael Williams, Alabama.