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Tight end fight night

Sizing up Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham and Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski. National Football Post

Print This March 29, 2010, 03:00 PM EST

Competition level, production, postseason workouts and injury concerns all seem to play a major role every year when evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft. Today, the National Football Post takes a look at two of the nation’s top tight ends -- Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham and Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski -- and breaks them down to determine who has the better NFL potential.

The matchup

Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham vs. Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski.

Tale of the tape

Gresham: 6-5, 261, 66 receptions, 950 yards, 14 touchdowns, 4.72 40, 1.63 10-yard split, 35-inch vertical, 9-foot-5-inch broad jump, 4.53 short-shuttle, 7.07 three-cone drill.

Gronkowski: 6-6, 258, 47 receptions, 672 yards, 10 touchdowns, 4.68 40, 1.66 10-yard split, 33.5-inch vertical, 9-foot-11-inch broad jump, 4.47 short shuttle, 7.18 three cone drill.

Note: Receiving statistics are from the 2008 season.

Preview

There’s no doubt that the 2010 tight end class is one of the best groups to come along in years. However, if there are questions, it’s with two of the top prospects in Gronkowski and Gresham. Both players missed the 2009 season with injuries – Gronkowski’s back, Gresham’s knee -- and although both are extremely talented, being able to project their potential and their health at the next level is a major chore.

Breakdown

Coming into the 2010 season, Gresham was not only considered the draft’s top senior tight end prospect, he was also deemed one of the draft’s top prospects overall. But after watching Oklahoma tape last summer, I thought Gresham failed to live up to those standards. I’m not saying I didn’t view him as a potential starter at the next level, but the idea that he was one of the best tight end prospects to come along in years was probably an overstatement.

The first thing I noticed when watching him was that he wasn’t the type of explosive linear athlete that he was given credit for being. He did display impressive body control and range when asked to get down the field and get the football, but I didn’t see the kind of gear from him needed to outrun NFL defenders down the seam. He exhibited a good first step but seemed to top out pretty quickly.

Second, I didn’t think he was a real sharp route runner. He consistently got leggy out of his breaks, rounded off his routes and wasn’t polished or precise in any area of the field. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to separate vs. man coverage because he did a great job changing speeds and setting up defenders in order to gain a step and then shield the football. However, I was unimpressed with his overall route-running ability, which was hidden to an extent in Oklahoma’s wide-open spread offense.

Finally, Gresham didn’t strike me as a willing blocker in the run game. He showcased impressive coordination when asked to reach defenders off his frame and was fluid in space, but he didn’t seem to possess the grittiness or base to consistently win at the point in the NFL.

As for Gronkowski, he, like Gresham, possessed a great-looking frame and natural body control for the position. But he didn’t seem to have the initial burst/athleticism needed to set up and explode away from defenders as well as Gresham vs. man coverage, which can be directly related to his 1.66 10-yard split time.

However, Gronkowski’s game has an advantage in his sharpness and overall polish as a route runner as well as his overall toughness in the run game. He isn’t an overly explosive option initially off the line, but he showcases natural balance and body control out of his breaks -- which helps him separate underneath -- as well as the strider speed to turn routes up the field and attack throws down the seam.

Also, like Gresham in the run game, Gronkowski is coordinated as a blocker when asked to reach defenders off his frame. However, he also showcases some natural grittiness and power as an in-line guy. He isn’t there as a blocker yet as he has a tendency to get overextended and will fall off blocks too easily at this stage. But the clear difference is the willingness that Gronkowski has at this stage compared to Gresham, which can go a long way at the next level.

The wild card

From sources I’ve talked to, there are major concerns in NFL scouting circles about Gronkowski’s back and his ability to ever be 100 percent. And then there are sources I’ve talked to who think his back is healthy and he could end up being a real steal on draft day because of it. Either way, the back is a tricky area to deal with, and you have to think something that required surgery at this early is likely to pop up again in some manner.

As for Gresham, his torn cartilage in his right knee seems to be healing properly in anticipation of the draft. I wasn’t overly impressed with his combine workout as he still didn’t look 100 percent right. However, he was said to look much better at the Oklahoma pro day and seems to be getting stronger, which is a promising sign at this stage.

The verdict

Honestly, it comes down to a case of back vs. knee. Nine times out of 10 I’d take a tight end like Gronkowski in this battle because his polish in the pass game and willingness as a blocker are two attributes that will serve him well and, in my opinion, make him a much safer option.

I still think Gresham has the ability to create in the red zone and win some matchups down the field because of his ability to get the football. However, I don’t see the guy as a dynamic playmaking threat in the NFL because of his lack of elite straight-line speed and overall polish as a route runner.

With these two, it all comes down to their ability to stay on the field and battle through the nicks and pains of NFL life. And as much as I worry about back problems, Gronkowski is a guy who doesn’t rely as much on his overall athleticism compared to Gresham. If he gets nicked, I still think he could be more productive than Gresham, who relies on his first-step burst to overcome his deficiencies as a route runner.

I’ll admit I would feel a lot safer taking either guy in the second round, but if I’m looking for someone who can win for me as a starter in the run and pass game for the next 10 years as an “on the line Y,” my choice would be Gronkowski.

NFL comparison

Jermaine Gresham = Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars

Rob Gronkowski = Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders

Let me know if there are other fight-night battles you’d like to see. Just give me a shout in the comments section.

Follow me on Twitter: @WesBunting

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