The only real consensus on AtlantaFalcons.com's Mock Monitoras draft season has officially started is that the popular targets for mock drafters are defensive ends and tight ends. The popular thinking appears to be that Atlanta needs to improve its pass rush opposite John Abraham and/or replace the catches that have gone to future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez since 2009. Gonzalez is considering retirement and until that decision is final, things are a little cloudy on the draft front.
This week's Draft Spotlight focuses on a potential replacement for Gonzalez and we turn to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller (@NFLDraftScout), the website's NFL Draft lead writer. His recent mock can be seen here, and to kick things off this season we begin with Miller's selection for the Falcons, Stanford's Zach Ertz. Miller believes the Falcons must take a player with the potential to do some of what Gonzalez can do in Atlanta's offense, if they expect to continue to score in the passing game like they did in 2012.
"It could be said that Matt Ryan only went to Gonzalez so much in the redzone because of the tight end's skill set, but it's also clear that the Falcons need someone splitting the middle of the defense and allowing single coverage on either Julio Jones or Roddy White," Miller said. "Keeping a playmaking tight end in the mix is a key for this offense."
Ertz could make a nice selection for the Falcons. At 6-foot-6, 252 pounds, Ertz had an All-American season, catching 69 passes for 898 yards and six touchdowns. He split time with another talented tight end, Levine Toilolo, but Ertz projects as the higher selection because of his soft hands, athleticism and ability to block. A senior, Ertz has stood out on film for the last two seasons, despite sharing catches with Toilolo and Miller agrees he's the better of the two.
"Toilolo lacks the athleticism to be a top-level route runner," Miller said. "He was a player who really excelled in jump ball situations due to his size. Ertz was a better all-around player on first, second and third downs and has a higher ceiling as an NFL route runner and receiver."
Coming from a pro-style offense at Stanford, Ertz seems to understand how to use his size to gain an advantage on defenders, not unlike Gonzalez. While he's not as athletic as current dominant NFL tight ends like Rob Gronkowski or Vernon Davis, he's versatile enough to be a quality blocker on the line as well as a pass-catching threat anywhere on the field, especially in the end zone, a place where Gonzalez repeatedly wowed Falcons fans with his tremendous catches.
"He'll be an asset in the red zone thanks to his size and strong hands," Miller said, "and while he won't blow anyone away underneath, he's quick enough to pick up yards after the catch."
Miller sees some of Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis' game in the tight end. Like Lewis, Ertz may not be the best athlete on the field, but he's able to use what he has to make gains in space and use his frame to shield defenders as he makes the catch. Ertz' run blocking is top quality and gives him an edge over other pass-catching tight ends in this year's draft.
Ertz will graduate from Stanford this spring with a degree in management science and engineering, so his smarts shouldn't be questioned and he appears to have the type of intangibles the Falcons look for in a player, representing them well both on and off the field. As a key part of Stanford's powerful offense the past two years, Ertz projects as a player capable of stepping in immediately without letting the professional game overwhelm him.
This year's class doesn't have a ton of big-name players in the first round of the draft, but Miller sees a draft class with great depth, especially in the first three rounds. He believes Atlanta can find a potential first-year starter at their first pick, No. 30 in the first round. Although it's very late in the first round, he believes there will be plenty of options available and Ertz may be the best one, one of the top players at his position this season.
"He's as solid as any tight end you'll see this year," Miller said.