It's hard to get excited about the Missouri Tigers anymore. Overshadowed by the sexier teams in the Big 12, no longer sporting a Heisman contender in Chase Daniel, the Tigers currently hold meaningless rank at 11 (the BCS's equivalent of Mr. Irrelevant - not a Top 10 team, but maybe, eventually). In spite of the high-profile loss to Oklahoma State that scratched Daniel's name off the H-List, the Tigers, if they can survive an Iowa State team with, er, a lot of potential, can still sew up a berth in the Big 12 championship after a likely loss by Kansas to a hungry Texas squad this Saturday. Still, all prognosticators of that game are predicting a repeat of what happened last year: Missouri won't keep up with the better team from the Big 12 South, whoever that may be.
That said, the Tigers still boast one of the best receiving tight ends in the country in Chase Coffman. When Martellus Bennett of Texas A&M entered the draft last year as a junior, taken in the second round by the Cowboys, and Travis Beckum of Wisconsin was left stranded without a competent quarterback this year, the title of most-sought-after was Coffman's to lose. He hasn't, despite sharing the field with another notable Tiger, sophomore Jeremy Maclin, who could be First WR Overall if he decides to enter early. Coffman, for what it's worth, has 73 receptions so far this year, two more than Maclin, for a total of 819 yards and seven touchdowns, two of which came in a crucial win over a surging Baylor team two weeks ago.
Coffman's ability to keep pace with Maclin, and, in so doing, lead the NCAA in receptions for a tight end, is notable not only because it has landed him on the Biletnikoff Award watch list (given to the best wide receiver in the country), but also since catching a lot of passes is one of the few ways Coffman can positively distinguish himself from his draft competition. Beckum, as mentioned, has a paltry 23 catches, none for points; Okie State's Brandon Pettigrew, higher than Coffman on many fantasy draft boards, has 28, also for no touchdowns. This lack of production kept Pettigrew, yet to become a game-breaker on the Cowboys' balanced offense, off the Biletnikoff watch list in favor of his counterpart, Dez Bryant (though the NFL has never particularly cared about who won what awards in college; ask Troy Smith if you don't believe me). Coffman is enough of a dynamic player to see an equal amount of catches, something he will have to play up to be the First TE Taken.
Now, for the drawbacks: at 6'6", 245 lbs, Coffman possesses a loping style of running (read: not fast), and his steps appear carefully chosen, even labored, on film. That said, he stands nearly a half-foot above your average linebacker-in-coverage, and he can still loft a dude when he needs to.
If he is to be the first TE taken, he will have to sell this gangliness to the NFL scouts, as it will definitely call into question whether he can throw a block without getting knocked on his ass (at Missouri, in the spread, he luckily hasn't had to; more on this in a moment). Okie State's Brandon Pettigrew, on the other hand, is a rawer talent offensively, yet boasts a stronger, better build and is more capable of blocking, while Wisconsin's Beckum has a more innovative route-running pattern, and speed to boot. If Coffman is done growing, bulking up, he might be considered too thin to be a viable TE on the line, and might slip through April undrafted.
Actually, it will be interesting to see whether Missouri's use of the spread impedes Coffman's attractiveness as a TE. This is not a player who gets open because of precise route-running. Coffman's receptions come from physical mismatches, quick drops, underneath routes, or blown coverages caused by a defense unable to defend against the spread, allowing Missouri to run up the score. His vision is what has allowed him to find openings in zone coverage, but Missouri's spread grants an edge in timing to the offense that will be nonexistent in the NFL, where offensive and defensive speed is evenly matched. With that in mind, NFL scouts might feel that, without innate speed, a majority of passes thrown Coffman's way won't get caught since a defender's helmet is slamming into his back as soon as the ball arrives; not exactly the recipe for a rookie of the year award. To silence this criticism, Coffman will have to show in camp that he is able to get open through precision and timing as well as vision: the old-fashioned way.
On the positive side, Coffman will join a growing corps of young, reception-focused tight ends, light on the blocking side, who have paved a path for him somewhat. Players like Bennett, who has filled in competently while Jason Witten battles various injuries; Dustin Keller of the New York Jets, who has had his best two games in the past week against the Rams and Patriots and is currently Favre's favorite target; and John Carlson, ex-Irishman, serving time as Seattle's best receiving option while the Seahawks struggle through a disappointing, injury-plagued year, are good indicators of what type of player Coffman will be. With the offensive development those rookies have made in the space of less than a year in mind, Coffman, hopefully, can promise a huge upside, and the team that takes him - probably with a fairly settled defense, yet lacking a breakaway tight end - must develop and play to Coffman's strengths, which will probably require expending a lot of time and resources. Some teams, luckily, can afford that. My guess for Coffman's future spot is with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who will take him some time in round three.