Jace Amaro used to hate playing football. Now the record-setting tight end from Texas Tech hopes to make NFL defenders loathe lining up against him. And it doesn't matter whether he's throwing a block or snaring a pass.
"You get some juice from both of those things," Amaro told USA TODAY Sports. "I really love dominating a guy and knocking him down to the ground. At the same time, catching the ball down the seam for a touchdown is just as good."
Amaro was plenty good in 2013, the Red Raiders' first season under coach Kliff Kingsbury and his wide-open offense. Amaro finished with 106 receptions for 1,352 yards, a Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record for a tight end.
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"It's one of those things where I was dominating," says Amaro, who entered the draft following his breakout junior season. "I went four weeks straight with 100-plus yards and a touchdown every game. I just felt like college is fun, but right then and there was a time where I thought I know can play in the NFL."
He's near the top of what appears to be a thin tight end group.
"He's a very natural hands catcher, and he's a mismatch inside against the linebacker or safety," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told USA TODAY Sports. "He could slide late into the first round, but I doubt it. I think he's gonna be an early second-round pick."
North Carolina's Eric Ebron seems to be the only surefire first rounder at the position this year.
"He's got explosive ability to be today's vertical threat in the NFL for a tight end," Mayock says of Ebron. "He's what today's NFL is all about from that position."
But Ebron isn't a do-it-all player, at least not yet.
"He can't block," CBS analyst and 14-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez told USA TODAY Sports. "But I think most teams nowadays, they're not looking for that dual tight end. They're looking for a receiving guy."
While praising Ebron's physical gifts, Amaro points out that he faced more double teams and believes he played in a stronger conference. His blocking is also a source of pride.
"My sophomore year, I would have 10, 11, 12 pancakes (knockdown blocks) a game," he says. "People saying I can't block, I'm not really sure what they're watching."
It's a good bet opponents will be keeping a close eye on Amaro. He's not as fast as Ebron — Amaro ran a 4.74 40-yard dash at the combine — but at 6-5, 270 pounds, he generates scary momentum.
"Back in the day, a guy like Jace Amaro probably would've played defensive end," says Gonzalez. "You can't guard him, especially in the red zone. It's like, 'Jace, we're just gonna throw it in the air, doesn't matter who's on you.' "
Football didn't used to matter to Amaro. He said he was a "terrible" player growing up and preferred soccer and basketball. And unlike the litany of former power forwards turned NFL tight ends, Amaro was a point guard. He caught football fever in high school but credits the other sports for improving his footwork and route running.
Gonzalez wouldn't be surprised if the undersized nickel defenders in today's NFL would prefer facing the 250-pound Ebron.
"That's just physics right there," he laughs. "You'd rather tackle the smaller guy."
Depending on where he plays and what he's asked to do schematically, Amaro says he can easily play at 250 pounds ... or 280.
"I use my body in almost every single one of my routes. I love getting into defenders," he says. "Being a little bit bigger and just as fast definitely gives you an advantage."
Amaro claims his timed speed belies his game speed. Kingsbury's playbook highlighted his ability to move in space and often had Amaro in pre-snap motion when he wasn't lined up as a slot receiver. Aside from his size, Mayock says Amaro's game film portrays a resemblance to shifty former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez more than it does to bulkier Rob Gronkowski.
"If Jace gets in a really good system, if he gets a good quarterback, that makes all the difference in the world," says Gonzalez. "Look at Jimmy Graham, look at Gronkowski. If he can play with a guy like Drew Brees or Tom Brady, expect really good stuff."
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CREAM OF THE CROP
Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Height: 6-4. Weight: 250.
Scouting report: Explosive player could be a top-10 pick. Has drawn comparisons to Vernon Davis, the sixth selection of 2006 draft. Ebron's 973 receiving yards in 2013 established a single-season Atlantic Coast Conference record for tight ends, breaking Davis' mark. Ebron's size and speed should make him a terror in seams at pro level. Not a good blocker.
Insider's take: "When you think about upside, this league's about tight ends who are glorified receivers who present major matchup advantages. He is a nightmare." — ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
Projected round: First.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington
Height: 6-5. Weight: 262.
Scouting report: Won Mackey Award as nation's best tight end even though his 2013 production (36 catches, 450 yards) paled next to his 2012 numbers (69 for 852). His 21 TD grabs are school record at position. Had offseason surgery for stress fracture in left foot. Also played some basketball for Huskies. Dedication has been questioned coming off poor season.
Insider's take: "He has the most upside to be a complete tight end out of all the tight ends I've looked at. The knock on him is his attitude, and that's what stops a lot of players in the league no matter what position you play." — Gonzalez
Projected round: Second.
Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
Height: 6-6. Weight: 270.
Scouting report: Came to Notre Dame as a defensive end and played linebacker before converting to tight end in 2012. Given his rawness, it isn't fair to compare Niklas to Irish predecessors Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph. Nephew of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and cousin to Texas A&M T Jake Matthews.
Insider's take: "He's got great size, and he's chiseled. If he wants to be, he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in three years. But he's gonna have to apply himself." -— Mayock
Projected round: Second/third.
C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
Height: 6-5. Weight: 265.
Scouting report: Size makes him a nice combination tight end. Should be an asset opening holes in the running game. Won't command double teams downfield but should pick up plenty of first downs while providing big target in end zone.
Insider's take: "Prototypical in-line guy. Better blocker than receiver. Strong kid, 4.75, 4.8 40 kind of guy. Catches the ball well, will be good in the red zone. He's kind of an intermediate receiver." — Mayock
Projected round: Third.
Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State
Height: 6-6. Weight: 260.
Scouting report: Isn't particularly impressive in any area but can block and catch (111 receptions for 1,308 yards and eight TDs over past three seasons). Could be a nice No. 2 tight end for offenses that feature the position. Also played defensive end in college.
Insider's take: "Long, rangy tight end. A little more physical than what we're getting from most of the tight ends coming out." — NFL Network analyst Charles Davis
Projected round: Day 3 pick.
Clubs that will be looking to beef up the tight end position through the draft:
Atlanta Falcons: They drafted Levine Toilolo in the fourth round last year, but his production in 2013 and at Stanford doesn't suggest he's the long-term answer to replace retired Gonzalez.
Green Bay Packers: Jermichael Finley is unsigned, and neck surgery leaves his long-term future in doubt anyway. The Pack also lost WR James Jones in free agency, so it makes sense to give QB Aaron Rodgers a target who can open the field for WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
New England Patriots: Even if Gronkowski manages to escape the operating table this season, this offense could use another body after clearly regressing in 2013 without the dynamic Gronk-Hernandez tandem.
New York Giants: They've shuffled bodies through the position ever since Jeremy Shockey left in 2008. None of the tight ends currently on the depth chart will strike fear in defenses, so this could be the time to stop the revolving door.
New York Jets: They've spent a lot of time studying wideouts but could certainly help QB Geno Smith (or Michael Vick) by adding pass-catching tight end to the mix after struggling to replace Dustin Keller's production in 2013.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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