Vanishing breed

Updated: 6:25 p.m.

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INDIANAPOLIS - While everyone here at the NFL scouting combine is bemoaning the NFL fate of such creatures of the spread offense like Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the pro tight end as we once knew it has become a vanishing species.

Where have you gone Rodney Holman? Bengaldom turns its lonely eyes to you. The age of the dual tight end that can run and catch as well as line up and block next to the tackle and can help right away as a rookie has been stolen by the spread. So don't think there are any magic answers to the Bengals' massive tight end problems in the first round because there doesn't look to be anybody close to last year's first-round tight end, Brandon Pettigrew.

This depressing state of young tight ends, along with the thin crop of wide receivers, makes you think the Bengals might be better off taking that defensive end at No. 21 and going for the tight end and wide receiver in the second and third rounds.

Personnel men like the Steelers' Kevin Colbert are saying it's the deepest field of defensive linemen in his 26 years in the NFL.

(And, maybe re-signing tight end Reggie Kelly becomes more of an emphasis despite his age of 33 and ruptured Achilles from last season.)

Bengals No. 3 quarterback Jordan Palmer is going to be able to give his guys a pretty good read on two tight ends that are going to be talked about in the first four rounds. He is working in California with Florida's Aaron Hernandez, maybe a second-rounder, and BYU's Dennis Pitta, maybe a third-rounder, the newest players in agent David Dunn's stable.

Palmer can provide an exhaustive scouting report on both and he'll do the same for the Bengals. Along with brother Carson, Jordan says they also plan to sift through cutups of the top tight ends and receivers from the combine and games and give the coaches an idea of what they think.

"Whatever we can do to help," Jordan said. "Let's bring them all in."

Jordan Palmer is big on the 6-2, 245-pound Hernandez's athleticism and the 6-4, 246-pound Pitta's route running.

"Hernandez is a big dude. A good athlete. He's freaky," Palmer said. "This guy has great yards after catch ability. He's a better Kellen Winslow (Jr.). The problem is he's never blocked in his life. But he's going to be a better pro player than college player. Both these guys go hard every play. Pitta runs real good routes, he's smart. I've been told he's a pretty good blocker."

Hernandez has the same problem that Tebow had at Florida and that the 6-6 Chase Coffman had when the Bengals took him last year in the third round out of Missouri. They played in the spread, the farthest thing from an NFL offense you can find. This year's Pettigrew is supposed to be Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham, but he didn't play at all last year because of a knee injury and the Sooners also play a spread. Arizona's Rob Gronkowski figures to be the closest to a dual top-round tight end, but he missed all last year after back surgery and that's too risky at No. 21.

The question for Pitta is if he could fend off defensive ends on the anchor as a blocker at a lean 245.

"You think you may get a good guy and draft him high, but he's deficient in some areas and you really can't play him in a lot of situations," said former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, who has noticed the dwindling versatility at the position in the decade since he came into the league.

"The problem you have is finding a dual tight end. A guy that lines up right next to the right tackle and can do everything from there. Now you've got a guy that lines up wide, or if he's blocking he's not the greatest receiver. It's almost like you have to spend more. Get a receiver and a blocker."

Thornton broke in on a 1999 Tennessee team that had Frank Wycheck, "who was a receiving tight end, but Frank could go in and get his nose dirty on the line," and that got Thornton to thinking about a conversation he had with Lions coach Jim Schwartz the day after last year's draft. Schwartz, who coached Thornton in Tennessee, was trying to lure Thornton to Detroit and he was excited about the kid the Lions had just drafted at No. 20, Oklahoma State's Pettigrew.

"He was more of a receiver-type but they saw him pancake (Texas end) Brian Orakpo a couple of times," Thornton said. "That told them they'd be able to put him on the line and that's what coaches are thinking. Can they use him in the base offense?" 

Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has been in the league for 19 seasons and even though the tight ends pool is dwindling, he still has to make do with it.

"There is no doubt it's getting harder and harder. They don't have the same background that you look for in the NFL these days," Bratkowski said. "There are guys out there, but they're always going to be short in one area or the other. Blocking or pass receiving. You find the best one you can and use their skills the best you can. You need a guy who is a main blocker and who is a main receiver."

But it sounds like they need Kelly, the guy who can do both when healthy and can play all three downs and, for a very big instance, does not come off the field in the no-huddle if the Bengals decide to get back to that this season.

When Bratkowski watches the tight ends work out here, he's looking for "certain quickness and speed variables are what you're looking for and the ability to catch the ball. Those are what you're looking for. It's hard to teach speed, it's hard to teach quickness.  If they have those already and can catch it, that's fine. You can teach a guy to block, but if he hasn't had a lot of background in him, it doesn't happen overnight. You can't teach a guy to block being a great in-line blocker in one year."

So maybe it's a guy that you're not hearing about in rounds three or four. USC's Anthony McCoy has blocked guys in a pro system and averaged more than 20 yards for his 22 catches. Two guys that had good Senior Bowls and may be moving up from the late rounds, Illinois' Michael Hoomanawanui and Miami of Florida's Jimmy Graham, have shown flashes of being able to block.

But the 6-7, 260-pound Graham is more of a project than Coffman. He just switched from basketball, although he was good enough that the football coach and school president asked him to come over to football this past August.

Gronkowski also surfaced in the media room Thursday after his physical and pronounced himself 100 percent healthy. He's only going do the bench press here, but will do everything at his pro day and his looking to run a 4.6 40. But he admitted teams have been curious about his blocking.

"Some teams have been saying I did a good job blocking and others say I need work blocking," Gronkowski said. "With coaching and technique, I intend to get better."

In this day and age, that seems like the best teams can hope for when it comes to this new endangered species.

Just listen to what Graham said:

"At the University of Miami, (blocking) was something that wasn't expected of me. They were just trying to get me on the field. I had three other senior tight ends playing with me."

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