Colts’ draft needs: Tight ends

Indianapolis Colts

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Three words sum up Kyle Pitts solving one of the Indianapolis Colts’ pressing needs: Not a chance.

While so much attention – and rightly so – has been focused on the importance of the Colts addressing serious needs at left tackle and edge pass rusher in the April 30-May 1 NFL Draft, we can’t ignore the fact they need to find a hybrid tight end between now and the September season opener.

Is that through the draft? Maybe another trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, this time for tight end Zach Ertz? Or perhaps it’s just waiting for the Eagles to release Ertz and sign him as a free agent.

Somehow, some way, a play-making tight end needs to be added to Frank Reich’s offense.

He has described a deep, diverse tight ends room as a “big dynamic.’’

“Within the game,’’ Reich said, “there are these little matchups that you have to try and find and create and take advantage of. One of those, I think, is at the tight end position.’’

Pitts is the personification of a matchup nightmare. He’s 6-6, 246 pounds and clicked off a 4.44 40 at his Florida Pro Day. He averaged 14.9 yards on 100 career receptions for the Gators, and was virtually unguardable in eight games last season: 43 catches, 770 yards (17.9 per catch), 12 TDs.

Pitts could help take Reich’s offense to another level. But again, not a chance.

The Colts hold the 21st overall pick. Pitts will be doing another round of Zoom interviews when they’re on the clock.

ESPN Scouts Inc. has Pitts and LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase ranked second overall behind Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Pitts No. 2 while the Athletic’s Dane Brugler lists him 5th, trailing Lawrence, Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Chase and BYU quarterback Zach Wilson.

Pitts could be on the verge of making draft history. He could be the first non-quarterback off the board, unless Sewell beats him to it. A top-5 entry into the NFL is a real possibility.

In the 51-year history of common draft (since 1970), only 13 tight ends have been selected with a top-10 pick. The highest: Riley Odoms taken 5th overall by Denver in 1972. Three others have gone 6th overall, the most recent being Vernon Davis by San Francisco in 2006.

The last tight end to be selected in the top 10: T.J. Hockenson by Detroit in 2019.

Here’s an overview of the position:

Draft capital: Six overall picks – round 1 (21st overall), round 2 (54th), round 3 (to Eagles as part of Carson Wentz trade), round 4 (127th), round 5 (165th), round 6 (206th), round 7 (248th).

On the roster: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox (restricted free agent), Noah Togiai, Farrod Green, Andrew Vollert.

Internal solution?: No. We’re not questioning Doyle’s value to the team or the offense. He’s money in doing so many things, ranging from converting virtually every third-and-medium opportunity to blocking at the point of attack to showing the younger players how to be a pro. And Alie-Cox continues to grow into the position.

But there’s no hybrid guy in the mix. Reich wants that tight end who can get off the line, get to the second level of the defense and create mismatches. That was Eric Ebron before things went off the rails. And that was supposed to be Trey Burton, who was just OK as a free-agent acquisition last offseason.

For Reich’s offense to operate at maximum efficiency, there needs to be a downfield threat.

External solution?: Perhaps that guy is Zach Ertz. Philadelphia has made it known the three-time Pro Bowler is trade bait, and Ertz was the Eagles’ leading receiver from 2016-19. His offensive coordinator in ’16-’17? Yep, Reich.

Ertz’s production fell off the cliff last season – 36 catches, 335 yards, one TD – as he missed five games with an ankle injury and the Eagles endured a forgettable season.

The issue for an Ertz-Reich reunion that would follow a Carson Wentz-Reich reunion obviously is trade compensation. The Eagles reportedly sought a third-round pick for their 30-year-old tight end earlier this offseason, which no one was willing to part with. What if they lower their demands to a fifth- or sixth-rounder? There’s no chance the Colts find that type of value in the draft.

Also, any team trading for Ertz inherits his $8.5 million base salary. That might require an extension. Of course, teams might simply wait to see if Philly cuts Ertz. Signing Ertz as a free agent would be much more affordable.

In the draft: Kyle Pitts, Florida; Pat Freiermuth, Penn State; Hunter Long, Boston College; Brevin Jordan, Miami; Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame; Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State.

After Pitts, Freiermuth?: Pat Freiermuth is projected as a second-day selection, but is that in round 2 or round 3? He represents that hybrid tight end, even at 6-5, 258 pounds.

“The consensus is I’m going to be that move tight end,’’ he said at his Penn State Pro Day. “Most of the teams that have talked to me want me at that F tight end, moving around the ball. They feel very comfortable in 11 personnel; obviously 12 I’m still at the Y, but I think it shows they think I’m versatile.

“I think I’m going to bring consistency and be a leader in the locker room. I think all the teams have seen I’ve been a team captain and most of the guys at Penn State have great things to say about me. I think one of the misconceptions about me is I’m a one-speed route-runner. I think that’s completely false. I think I showed (at Pro Day) where I can accelerate and decelerate. I showed teams I can do those double moves.’’

Freiermuth’s availability last season was limited to four games by a shoulder injury, but he had 23 receptions for 310 yards and one TD. In 30 career games, he averaged 12.9 yards per catch with 16 TDs.

Not surprisingly, his NFL role models are top-end tight ends.

“The guys I look up to are obviously Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) . . . watching him grow up,’’ Freiermuth said. “But I don’t like the name ‘Baby Gronk.’ Obviously (Travis) Kelce and (George) Kittle). I’ve watched Tyler Eifert a little. I’ve been comped to him, kind of seeing what he does well.’’

Thin position: This is not the draft for tight end-needy teams.

“This is not a deep tight end group,’’ said the Athletic’s Brugler. “Pitts is the best non-quarterback in this draft. After that, there are few day 2 options, then a big drop-off to day 3.’’

ESPN Scouts Inc. has only five tight ends ranked in the top 117 prospects: Pitts (2nd), Freiermuth (48th), Hunter Long (54th), Brevin Jordan (87th) and Tommy Tremble (117th).

Brugler has four in his top 100: Pitts (5th), Freiermuth (47th), Long (79th) and Jordan (82nd).

History lesson: Here’s a bit of trivia regarding general manager Chris Ballard. The only position (excluding specialists) he’s not addressed in the draft? Tight end. He’s opted to go the free-agent route with Eric Ebron (2018) and Trey Burton (2020); Alie-Cox was signed as an undrafted rookie in April 2017.

In fact, the Colts have drafted only one tight end since 2013 and it was Mr. Irrelevant, Justice Cunningham (pick No. 254).

The franchise has invested only four top-100 picks in the position since 2003: Dallas Clark (24th overall in ’03), Ben Hartsock (68th in ’04), Coby Fleener (34th in ’12) and Dwayne Allen (64th in ’12).

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