Bucs Could Address Tight End with Early Pick

The tight end position wasn’t a focal point in the Buccaneers’ offense this past season, but that doesn’t mean the front office isn’t coveting a big-bodied pass catcher who can work the middle of the field and create all sorts of mismatches. In fact, the Bucs are considering taking a tight end as early as the second round and possibly even at the bottom of the first if there’s a willing trade partner.

All offseason the Bucs have looked to upgrade the tight end position. Dallas Clark wasn’t the dangerous receiving weapon be was for Peyton Manning in 2009 and did not re-sign with the Bucs after one season.

Luke Stocker has shown he can be a good in-line blocker, but his skills as a receiver appear average at best. And there hasn’t been any indication that Tom Crabtree, who signed with the team this offseason as a free agent, will become a starter.

So the team still needs an explosive play-maker who can serve as Josh Freeman’s ‘it’ guy on third down.

The problem last year wasn’t that Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan didn’t know how to incorporate the tight end position into his offense, even if that position was seldom-used when he worked with the Giants. A coach builds his playbook around the weapons he has, highlighting their strengths. Tight end just was not a strength for the Buccaneers. Thankfully for the team, it is a strength of this draft class.

I’ve been told by a pretty reliable source that if Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert is still available towards the back-end of the first round that the team would make a move for him. The Bucs hold two fourth round picks and two sixth round picks, plus a running back in LeGarrette Blount that the team continues to shop. The team could offer a combination of picks or Blount and a pick to possibly get one of those spots.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a team in that doesn’t like the 6-foot-6 251-pound Eifert, who caught 50 passes for 685 receiving yards and four touchdowns in his final year with the Irish. Most regard him as the top-rated tight end in this year’s draft.

Some think Eifert will go in the top 15, but not every team in the league is willing to take a ‘luxury position’ so early, even when the demand for a player with his skill set has never been higher, even if there has been some criticism of him as a blocker, but as long as he can get off the line of scrimmage, I don’t see it being an issue.

There wasn’t a single tight end taken in the first round last year before Coby Fleener went to the Indianapolis Colts at number 34. In 2011, Kyle Rudolph was the first off the board at 43, the spot Tampa Bay holds in the second round.

So even if the Bucs don’t move into the first round, there is a slight chance, very slight, that Eifert will be there at 43. If not, Stanford’s Zach Ertz is an excellent choice at that spot.

Ertz has a skill set very similar to Eifert. He’s 6-foot-6, 250 pounds with great hands, smooth route-running, and vertical leaping ability. He clocked a 4.62 at his pro day, compared to Eifert’s 4.68, and posted an identical 35 1/2-inch vertical.

The fact that Ertz was willing to re-test his combine events at his pro day also shows a superior level of level of confidence, something he’ll need taking on the menacing safeties of the league.

Ertz caught 69 passes last year at Stanford for 898 yards receiving and six touchdowns. Some regard him as the second-best tight end prospect in the draft, but others will tell you their value is practically the same.

Another tight end the Bucs seem to like is Gavin Escobar out of San Diego State, who has nearly the same physical measurements as Eifert and Ertz, but doesn’t quite have the timed speed or on-field explosiveness as either. He clocked a disappointing 4.84 at the combine but bettered it with a 4.70 at his pro day and posted a 32-inch vertical jump.

Escobar didn’t face nearly the competition that Eifert or Ertz did in college but he performed his best when it counted, catching eight passes for 113 yards receiving and two touchdowns in a 2011 game against Boise State. In 2012, he had 42 catches for 543 receiving yards and six touchdowns. If the Bucs don’t end up with Eifert or Ertz in the first two rounds, this is a player who should be available in the third.

Florida’s Jordan Reed and Rice’s Vance McDonald are talented players who should be available in the fourth round, if the team looks elsewhere early on.

At 6-foot-2 1/2 and 235 pounds, Reed doesn’t have the physical stature of the players previously mentioned, but his ability to line up anywhere on the field in any receiving position would give the Bucs a ton of flexibility on offense.

McDonald, at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds compiled over 1,500 yards receiving yards and 15 touchdowns during his career with the Owls, with a lot of that production coming underneath. He doesn’t possess the speed or elusiveness of some of the others, but he is quite physical and doesn’t go down upon initial contact.