TAMPA — It wasn't long ago that you would expect to hear a tight end's name called in the first round of the NFL draft.
From 2000-10, at least one was taken every year, and two or three in some drafts, producing eventual Pro Bowl players such as Heath Miller, Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
But come Thursday night, chances are you won't see a tight end picked in the first round, and that would be the fourth time in the past six drafts, a clear sign that the position has lost much of its value in the NFL, with less and less talent coming from colleges.
"You look at the offenses and the spread looks. A lot of these teams have really eliminated the tight end," said former Bucs tight end Anthony Becht, a first-round pick of the Jets in 2000 now entering his fourth season with ESPN. "There aren't too many kids coming through high school wanting to play that position."
Consider the top 25 receivers in the NFL last year. Eleven hadn't turned 25 when the season started. Ten of the top 25 running backs hadn't turned 25. But tight end? Just three of the top 25 tight ends in total yards were younger than 25, and none of them close to being stars: the Lions' Eric Ebron, the Packers' Richard Rodgers and the Giants' Will Tye.
The most productive tight ends are more likely to have arrived a decade earlier, with big numbers coming from the Chargers' Antonio Gates (age 35), the Saints' Ben Watson (35), the Cowboys' Jason Witten (33) and the Steelers' Miller (33), who announced his retirement this offseason.
The current generation? There were 19 tight ends drafted in 2015, and just two of them mustered even 200 receiving yards last year. The year before, just four drafted tight ends had 200 yards as rookies, the Bucs' Austin Seferian-Jenkins among them with 221 in an injury-plagued season.
"There just hasn't been a lot of talent, to boil it down," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "The last two (draft) classes have not been great. Maybe it has to do with more teams in the spread, more focus on wide receivers and guys who are tweeners deciding to stay at wide receiver.
"We have been without that elite, true first-round, top-20 pick the last few years. It's not like we're surprised by the lack of production."
In this draft there isn't much expectation of a tight end being worthy of a first-round pick. Arkansas' Hunter Henry (6 feet 5, 250 pounds) is likely to be the first off the board but not until Friday's second round, perhaps joined by South Carolina's Jerell Adams (6-5, 247).
With more passing in college offenses and tight ends being cultivated as mismatch big receivers, it's harder to find young tight ends who enter the league with adequate blocking technique. Many are "move" tight ends more likely to flex as a receiver than to bury a defensive end in run-blocking.
"I have not seen a tight end come into the league in the last 10 years that could quite get the blocking down as far as what it takes in the league," Becht said. "It took me a long time, too, maybe 31/2 years to figure out how to compete and win against a defensive end."
That's not to say teams don't look for all-around tight ends. When the Bucs drafted Seferian-Jenkins two years ago, it was the highest the franchise had selected a tight end. Seferian-Jenkins has missed exactly half his games in two seasons, but if healthy, he could develop into the complete tight end the Bucs — and largely, the NFL — haven't been able to develop.
If the size is right, a team will overlook a lack of college receiving production. The Bucs' local predraft workout two weeks ago included USF's Marlon Pope (6-4, 260), who totaled three catches in his two years with the Bulls.
"It's unbelievable," Becht said of the falloff of talent at his old position. "When I was coming out, the offenses were a little different, a lot more traditional, pro-style offense. There's been a complete overhaul in the college game, and teams in the NFL still want a complete tight end, that guy that can do both. (The Patriots' Rob) Gronkowski is the closest that comes to it, but everybody else has a hindrance."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.