The tight end situation will be one to follow in training camp. After Kellen Winslow toughed out another season last year, the Browns decided to spend a draft pick on tight end Martin Rucker. Rucker enables offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to get more creative with more versatile personnel at his disposal.
When considering some of the depth trying out for the fullback position, it will be kept in mind that one of them could make the team in place of Charles Ali as a tight end/fullback combination. Teams really only need three tight ends, and as far as I can tell, we've already got three reliable ones locked up...
1. KELLEN WINSLOW JR - STARTING TIGHT END
The controversy surrounding Winslow this offseason is over, hopefully. There were two issues, perhaps both of which were made way too big a deal out of by the local media, depending on who you ask. The issues were...
1. Winslow missing part of OTAs and rehabbing
2. Contract negotiations possibly leading to a holdout
Neither of the two issues seemed to actually have an adverse affect, at least at minicamp and in the present. Now, we can focus on what matters: playing football. Amen.
Worst Attribute: Breaking Tackles - One of the things we've failed to see Winslow do at a high level in the NFL is break through tackles. He knows how to get open and catches the ball extremely well, but his yards-after-catch average is a career mark of 4.2 (it was 4.4 last season). With Winslow's receiver-like speed, I would expect him to lead tight ends in this category. Instead, guys like Alge Crumpler (6.5), Donald Lee (6.0), Desmond Clark (5.6), Heath Miller (5.2), and Chris Cooley (4.6) are all ahead of him.
Part of the problem probably stems from Winslow's serious injuries from his first two seasons with the Browns -- a broken fibula and a torn ACL. When Winslow catches the ball in the open field with his feet stationary, he doesn't seem to have the "wheels" to get started again before a defender makes contact with him. In Winslow's third year after his ACL, it'll be interesting to see if he regains more of his original lower body agility.
Note: Blocking is also a weakness for Winslow.
Best Attribute: Athleticism - Even with the "weakness" listed above, Winslow remains a tremendous athlete, even to the point where outsiders have labeled him as a wide receiver instead of a tight end. Knowing Winslow isn't an elite blocker, the Browns have taken advantage of putting Winslow in the slot. More times than not, against an undersized defensive back or a linebacker having to cover too much ground, that creates a mismatch.
Here is an interesting note regarding Anderson and Winslow's chemistry last season: in the first six weeks of the season, Winslow had receptions of 30 yards, 33 yards, 49 yards, and 33 yards. After Week 6 though, the duo failed to connect for more than 25 yards. The dropoff could be paralleled with Winslow "gutting out" seasons through pain, and therefore progressively declining slightly as the season goes on. If Winslow is able to improve his stop-and-start ability this year, his athleticism will allow him to break out for 30 yard receptions more often.
Various Concerns / Comments - Will a new contract with Winslow be reached at some point during the season? If the Browns feel that Winslow needs a break, will they let him "gut" things out again, or will they put their foot down and utilize Martin Rucker instead?
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. MARTIN RUCKER - BACKUP TIGHT END
Deemed as first/second-round talent by general manager Phil Savage, Rucker also represents an insurance policy in case Winslow's past injuries catch up to him again.
Downside Level: Blocking Experience - Note that the subtitle says "blocking experience", as opposing to just "blocking". Rucker's "downside" could inevitably turn out to be a strength, at least in comparison to Winslow. In scouting profiles, Rucker was criticized for not being able to block. However, after being drafted by the Browns, Savage and company stated that they believed it was simply a case of Rucker never being asked to block at Missouri. Once they tap into his potential, it may make the decision easier on whether or not we need a fourth tight end exclusively for blocking/special teams.
Best Attribute: Athleticism II - Like Winslow, Rucker has similar athleticism when running routes vertically down the field. The dynamic of having both Rucker and Winslow running down the field should present us with more targets down near the red zone too. Rucker's body could especially be useful if Joe Jurevicius isn't available during the regular season.
Various Concerns / Comments - Will the staff feel Rucker is "ready" to be part of our offense by Week 1? Winslow is the starter, but typically two tight-end sets involve one receiving tight end and one blocking tight end. In that case, you may see Steve Heiden continue to fulfill his regular duties as the backup tight end.
Player Quality: C (Incomplete)
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. STEVE HEIDEN - BACKUP TIGHT END
Heiden has been with the Browns for six years already. It doesn't seem like it's been that long, does it? The veteran tight end suffered career lows last season since coming to Cleveland in receptions and yards, and matched a career low in touchdowns. With Braylon Edwards and Winslow coming into their own last year, and the team being able to depend on the running game, Heiden was used for what he was originally brought in for: blocking. With Rucker added to the mix, it's hard to imagine Heiden piling anything more into the stat sheet than a token catch here and there. I'm not doing a weakness/strength breakdown for Heiden; I think we get the picture with him already.
Various Concerns / Comments - Heiden always seems like a stand up guy and a leader at the tight end position. I hope his injury from earlier in the offseason doesn't cause him to start the year on the PUP list or anything.
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 95%
4. DARNELL DINKINS - BACKUP TIGHT END
Some battles in training camp are more exciting than others, and Dinkins is involved in one of them. There looks to be a four-way competition between him, fullback Charles Ali, and two other tight end for only one roster spot. Dinkins has been with the Browns for two years and has been held in high regard for his special teams contributions. While I believe there is merit to that, I also remember Dinkins and Simon Fraser being at the forefront of costly penalties.
Various Concerns / Comments - Part of the reason Dinkins was kept last year was to help ease the transition for Jamal Lewis, since they were together in Baltimore at one time. Since Lewis has tasted success in Cleveland, will that play a part in feeling more comfortable in releasing Dinkins?
Player Quality: D+
Final Roster Odds: 40%
5. BRAD CIESLAK - BACKUP TIGHT END
Added to the Browns practice squad near mid-December in the 2007 campaign, Cieslak will have the opportunity to compete for the fourth tight end spot if the team feels like cutting all ties with Dinkins outright. Usually, there is a tight end in camp that impresses us.
Last year, it was tight end Ryan Krause due to his receiving abilities in the preseason and in camp. Cieslak has similar receiving potential, but they didn't keep Krause last year, and we now have two receiving tight ends as locks (Winslow / Rucker).
Final Roster Odds: 10%
Practice Squad Odds: 40%
6. KOLOMONA KAPANUI - UDFA TIGHT END
So...this is the guy that is getting Browns fans excited (in terms of the three-for-one roster spot theory)? What the Browns seem to like about Kapanui is his potential as a blocker.
At a crowded tight end position, he was often lined up as a third-string fullback in minicamp sessions. Since there are technically six tight ends on the roster, I wouldn't be surprised if Kapanui is used almost exclusively at fullback during training camp to present more of a balance. He has caught the ball well enough.
Final Roster Odds: 10%
Practice Squad Odds: 40%
TE Position Quality (Overall): A
You can't ask for much more at the tight end position -- you have a Pro Bowl receiver, a rookie with a lot of promise, and an 8-year veteran blocker. On top of that, you've got what should be a competitive battle for the fourth tight end spot, if necessary.
NEXT UP: Offensive Line