In recent years, the tight end position has evolved. No longer are tight ends simply extra blockers for the running backs. Teams are now looking for players that have the bodies of traditional tight ends but also the ability to contribute to the passing game. San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has been San Diego's leading receiver in each of the past two seasons, and his 89 receptions ranked sixth in the league in 2005. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez has been Kansas City's most consistent pass catcher for nearly a decade. Tight end Alge Crumpler is the "go-to" guy for the Atlanta Falcons, and the same can be said for tight end Todd Heap of the Baltimore Ravens.
The 2006 draft class includes quite a few tight ends that have the potential to make an impact in the league the way the aforementioned players already have. The University of Georgia's monster tight end Leonard Pope is one such prospect. This April, look for Pope to join Randy McMichael (Miami Dolphins), Ben Watson (New England Patriots) and Jermaine Wiggins (Minnesota Vikings) as former Georgia Bulldogs tight ends in the National Football League.
Pope earned numerous all-state honors and won two Class AA state titles for Americus High School in Americus, Georgia. After spending a year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, it was on to Athens to attend and play football for the University of Georgia.
In his first season with Georgia in 2003, Pope caught only one pass as a backup to future first-round pick Ben Watson. With Watson on to the NFL at season's end, Pope assumed the starting tight end job in 2004 and was the team's third best pass catcher behind starting wide receivers Reggie Brown (Philadelphia Eagles) and Fred Gibson (Miami Dolphins). Pope caught 25 passes for 482 yards, and his six touchdown receptions tied him with Brown for second-best on the team.
As a junior in 2005, Pope caught 39 passes for 541 yards (both team highs), helping Georgia to a Southeastern Conference title. He had a career-high eight receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown against No. 15 Auburn, as well as six receptions for 50 yards and a score against No. 5 West Virginia in a 38-35 Sugar Bowl loss.
Following his junior season, Pope declared himself eligible for the 2006 NFL Draft. He leaves Georgia with just 1,044 yards receiving in three seasons, and an average of less than 50 yards per game. So what is it about the 22-year-old Pope that has him poised to be a first round selection in the upcoming draft?
We've already discussed Pope's statistics in college. Now let's talk about some more numbers - his measurables. Pope measured in at the NFL Combine at 6-foot-7 3/4, 258 pounds. At this size, Pope is a huge target for the quarterback and creates match-up advantages against practically any linebacker or defensive back.
Despite his large frame, Pope has fairly good speed. His recent 4.62 40-yard dash time was third best among tight ends at the NFL Combine behind only Western Michigan's Tony Scheffler and Maryland's athletic freak-of-nature Vernon Davis. Pope's 40-yard dash time was also faster than those of five running backs, seven receivers and three cornerbacks at the NFL Combine.
Obviously a very good athlete, Pope does all the things that make a receiver successful. He can make the difficult catches. He runs good routes and knows how to get open. He had a very impressive 18.1 yards-per-reception average in college and runs well after the catch.
If there is one negative with Pope, it would probably be his blocking. He still needs to work on his technique and be more physical. However, he obviously has the physical tools to fix that problem.
Pope did get into a bit of trouble off the field at Georgia, and an undisclosed incident in a campus dorm saw him suspended for a game against Louisiana-Monroe in 2005, but he seems to have put it behind him.
In a good group of tight end prospects, Davis will be the first at the position chosen, possibly in the top 10. After that, Leonard Pope has put himself in position to be the next tight end off the board, ahead of guys like UCLA's Marcedes Lewis, Southern California's Dominique Byrd and Notre Dame's Anthony Fasano.
At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Pope interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins. With L.J. Smith, tight end is not a major area of need for Philadelphia and 14th is a little high for Pope anyway. Jacksonville picks 28th in the first round and Washington won't go on the clock until the 53rd pick of the draft, in the second round. Though the Jaguars could both use a player like Pope at tight end, expect him to be a late first- or second-round selection.
The Chicago Bears at No. 26 is probably the most likely destination for Pope, and while he could go a little earlier, it is doubtful he falls any farther than this. Though the Bears could use help at wide receiver as well as another cornerback with the expected departure of Jerry Azumah, Pope would be too hard to pass on if he's sitting there when Chicago is on the clock. Current starting TE Desmond Clark has not surpassed 300 yards receiving in either of the past two years; both Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and offensive coordinator Ron Turner have expressed the need to obtain a "threat" at tight end. Turner was recently quoted as saying the team needs a tight end that can stretch the field. Mr. Turner, meet Mr. Pope.
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About Chris Nelson
Chris Nelson is a college student at Georgia State University currently majoring in journalism. Chris has been playing fantasy baseball and football for nearly a decade. He one day hopes to be a beat writer for the Miami Dolphins while eventually reaching the pinnacle of sports journalism, that being the ability to write about coffee, traveling, kids softball and whatever else he wants, all the while being paid good money by a national publication to do it. He has been a KFFL contributor since 2006.
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