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February 24, 2017

NFL Combine preview: Tight end prospects who could interest the Eagles

The NFL Combine will kick off in Indianapolis next week, so we'll begin taking a look at some participants at each positional group every day. In case you missed our previous positional previews:

Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers

Today, we'll look at tight ends.

Is tight end a need?

Yep. It's a lesser need, but the Eagles could certainly add a tight end to their solid trio of Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, and Trey Burton. Doug Pederson wanted to keep four tight ends coming out of training camp last year, but the Eagles simply did not have four tight ends worthy of a roster spot.

Celek will count for $5 million against the cap in 2018, $4 million of which the Eagles will save if they release or trade him next offseason. He feels like a prime cap casualty a year from now. The Eagles might be wise to find a tight end in the draft that they can develop in the meantime.

Tight end was one of the positions vice president of player personnel (and "draft board setter") Joe Douglas listed as being among the strongest in this class. It is very talented at the top of the draft, with intriguing players like Alabama's O.J. Howard and Miami's David Njoku being potential first-round picks, and it is also deep.

Here are five tight ends that we think make sense for the Eagles:

O.J. Howard, Alabama (6'6, 249)

Howard has a huge frame at 6'6, 249, and very good athleticism to go along with it. He was the 16th-ranked high school recruit in the country by when Alabama was able to sign him for their 2013 enrollment. However, through his first two years in college, he was unproductive, catching just 31 passes his freshman and sophomore years, combined, although a huge reason for that was because Alabama had mouths to feed like Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, and Kevin Norwood, to name a few.

Howard was more productive as a junior and senior, although his numbers certainly weren't eye-popping:

 O.J. HowardRec Yards YPC TD 
 201538 602 15.8 
 201645 595 13.2 

Howard has been a major performer in huge games. In the National Championship Game after the 2015 season, Howard went off for 208 yards and 2 TDs on 5 receptions in a close win over Clemson. In Alabama's National Championship Game loss to Clemson after the 2016 season, he had 4 catches for 106 yards and a TD. 

Any novice football observer could see how good Howard looked in the week of practices at the Senior Bowl. In fact, he was voted the week's best player in practice by NFL scouts. He has good hands and speed to go along with his ideal size for the position and has drawn comparisons to Jimmy Graham.

While Zach Ertz can be frustrating at times because of his aversion to contact and blocking that still needs improvement, he is still very clearly a skilled tight end with legitimate top-end starter receiving ability. If the Eagles were to spend a resource as important as a first round pick on Howard, they better have a plan to get both Ertz and Howard on the field for the majority of their snaps. Should they draft a player like Howard, it would signal that the Eagles are committed to putting two tight ends on the field as their base offense. Otherwise, drafting a tight end in the first round would be an awful use of resources.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6'6, 277)

Ashland is a Division II school in Ohio, so obviously, Sheheen faced a much lower level of competition in college. In 2015, Shaheen caught 70 passes for 803 yards and 10 TDs. In 2016, he had 57 receptions for 867 yards and 16 TDs. This is a big boy who can run.

Since there's not exactly a ton of Ashland tape available, we'll rely on the eyes of's Lance Zierlein:

Big, fast and athletic, Shaheen will immediately interest teams who are looking for size and traits. He's a poorer blocker than what might be expected for a player with his frame, but he's also a much more dangerous pass catching target. The jump in competition will be substantial and teams will expect him to become a more consistent blocker, but he's a pass catching tight end in a Y-tight end's body. Shaheen has starting potential with an ability to impact a passing game early in his career.

Shaheen will be a player of high interest at the Combine. Scouts will want to see how athletic he is at his impressive size.

Jake Butt, Michigan (6'5, 250)

Butt reminds me quite a bit of Brent Celek, actually. He's far from an elite athlete, but he's a good blocker, he has reliable hands, he makes the most of his limited athleticism with subtly good route running, and he's not going to shy away from contact once he gets the ball in his hands.

Also, his name is Butt.

The downside? Butt tore his ACL in Michigan's bowl game against Florida State, and there's a decent chance he'll be a complete non-factor in his rookie season. However, if a team like the Eagles has the foresight to view Butt as a replacement for Celek in 2018, would it make sense to draft a second round level prospect in, say, the fourth round, for long-term gains?

Michael Roberts, Toledo (6'4, 261)

Roberts was a touchdown machine for Toledo last season, catching 16 TD passes for the Rockets. That was sixth in the nation among all players and first among tight ends. In fact, the next-closest tight end to Roberts for TD receptions had eight. Roberts' numbers the last two years:

Michael Roberts Rec Yards YPC TD 
 201521 234  11.1
 201645 533 11.8 16 

Roberts isn't the fastest guy, so you're not going to get many big plays down the field from him, but obviously, has been very good in the red zone for Toledo. The Rockets also often used Roberts on occasion in something of a fullback-type role out of the shotgun, in which he'll line up two yards behind the offensive line and lead block for Kareem Hunt. There's some good, some bad with Roberts' blocking, but there's something to work with there. In pass protection, Roberts struggled a bit at the Senior Bowl, but he certainly has the size to hold up as a blocker if the Eagles can coach him up.

Billy Brown, Shepherd (6'3, 254)

Shepherd? Where the hell is that, you might be asking? It's in West Virginia. At such a small school, as you might imagine, there isn't a whole lot of game tape of Brown. However, he's very intriguing because he played wide receiver there, and put up huge numbers.

In 2016, Brown had 99 catches (led D2) for 1580 yards (second in D2) and 22 TDs (tied for second in D2). He has since bulked up a bit in preparation of playing tight end at the next level. Brown would be a player teams will take a flier on, hoping to develop him into a dynamic threat in their offense.

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