Over the next two weeks I will be highlighting a different position each day in an attempt to Find the Fit -- identifying 2011 prospects who are a particularly good schematic fits for the club that selected him. I'll also highlight one player per position who I believe could struggle in his new NFL role. Too often in the past rookies who have struggled in the NFL have done so because they were simply drafted into schemes that didn't fit their individual strengths.
Tight ends and centers were viewed by most talent evaluators as the weakest offensive positions available in 2011. For the first time since 1999, no tight ends were selected in the first round. The Minnesota Vikings made Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph the first tight drafted in 2011, taking him with the 43rd pick. This was the lowest the first tight end had been drafted since the Bills took Florida State's Lonnie Johnson with the 61st pick of the 1994 draft. It wasn't just the top-end talent lacking in this group. The depth was weak too. The 2011 draft saw 13 tight ends get drafted. The 2010 and 2009 drafts each had 20 get drafted.
There is, however, plenty of reason for optimism with this class, as there are some exciting schematic fits with this group.
Earlier this week I broken down the quarterbacks , running back and wide receiver fits.
Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams:
Kendricks signed with Wisconsin as a receiver and shows the body control, hands and athleticism normally associated with that position. He won't provide the Rams with much as an inline blocker at 6-3, 243 pounds, but he is a matchup nightmare with the reliable hands to take advantage of Sam Bradford's accuracy down the seam.
Lee Smith, New England Patriots:
Smith is probably the least talked-about of the Patriots' haul this year, but he serves as one of the clearest examples of this year's draft of picking players to fill specialist roles. The 6-6, 269 pound Smith proved himself to be every bit as stout at the Senior Bowl as he had on tape, cementing his status as the draft's elite blocking specialist tight end. The Patriots already boast two exciting receiving threats at tight end in second-year standouts Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Tight end, like running back, has become a position of specialists not unlike the starting pitcher-middle relief-set up man-closer roles in baseball. There aren't a lot of players at pick 159 that can make a real impact on a Super Bowl-contending team. Smith is one of them.
D.J. Williams, Green Bay Packers:
Just as Kendricks was a good fit for the Rams, Williams' athleticism and soft hands make him an intriguing mismatch in the middle of the Packers' aggressive passing attack. At 6-2, 245 pounds, he certainly lacks Jermichael Finley's size, but the 2010 Mackey Award winner is a reliable route-runner who will fit in immediately. Williams is also one of the more tenacious blockers of this class. His ability to latch on and ride defenders could lead to more big plays for his teammates.
Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos:
Thomas is a very intriguing talent who could pay off big for the Broncos with this pick. Denver has a need at the position and Thomas' athleticism and soft hands drew raves at the East-West Shrine Game. My concern is that Thomas is among the rawest of the 2011 tight end crop and that the Broncos seemingly could have used a player closer to starting. Thomas, like many before him, is a basketball convert. He played four years for Portland State's basketball team and walked on with the football team last spring. He'd only played one year in high school prior to that. John Elway knows full well the value of a security blanket over the middle. Thomas could become that security blanket, but he's far from the finished product right now.