Path to the draft: Tight ends

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Tight end doesn't figure to be a top priority for the Texans in the 2009 draft, but there is scarcity at the position on the roster now that Mark Bruener, a run-blocking specialist, retired after last season.

Behind Pro Bowler Owen Daniels on the depth chart are Joel Dreessen and Courtney Anderson, a four-year veteran who was signed to a reserve/future contract in January. Clark Harris, who played tight end in college, is considered strictly a long snapper by the team.

Rick Smith, Gary Kubiak and tight ends coach Brian Pariani have worked together for a total of 12 seasons in Denver and Houston. During that time, their teams have never drafted a tight end earlier than the fourth round (Daniels, 2006). Their other two draft picks at tight end were both sixth-rounders with the Broncos: Jeb Putzier in 2002 and Desmond Clark in 1999.

That's not to say Smith, Kubiak and Pariani haven't enjoyed success with late-round tight ends. Daniels caught five touchdowns as a rookie and has averaged 815 receiving yards in his last two seasons. Putzier and Clark are still in the league – Putzier recently re-signed with the Broncos, and Clark had at least 40 receptions in each of the last three seasons for the Chicago Bears.

The 1990s Broncos didn't need to use a high draft pick on a tight end because they had Shannon Sharpe, one of the best tight ends in NFL history. But even he was a seventh-round pick in 1990, five years before Kubiak and Pariani arrived in 1995 (Smith joined Denver's staff in 1996).

Dreessen was a sixth-round pick by the New York Jets in 2005, and Anderson was taken in the seventh round by the Raiders in 2004. The Texans' current regime has an excellent track record of finding production out of tight ends drafted on the second day.

In an exclusive for HoustonTexans.com, Michael Lombardi of The National Football Post offers his Top 5 tight end prospects in the 2009 draft class. A 23-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, Lombardi is sizing up each position group with us in our "Path to the Draft" series.

Michael Lombardi's Top 5 Tight Ends

1. Shawn Nelson, Southern Miss (6-5, 238)
Lombardi: He possesses a massive wingspan and cleanly plucks the ball away from his body. Does a nice job getting down the field and has the deep speed to consistently threaten the seam. Is a bit light at only 238 pounds and at times looks more like a receiver than a tight end, but blocks with more power than given credit for and should develop physically over time.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State (6-5, 263)
Lombardi: A tall, long-armed tight end with good overall muscle tone and power in his base. Is a physical blocker on the edge and has the strength to handle the defensive end one on one. Does a good job getting off the snap quickly and into his routes, but isn't a real explosive athlete and lacks an ability to get down the seam.

3. Jared Cook, South Carolina (6-5, 246) Lombardi: An explosive athlete who quickly gets out of his stance and into routes. Has the speed to get down the field and consistently threaten the second level. Is still developing as a route runner and doesn't have a great feel for reading zone and man coverages. Hasn't lined up much as a traditional tight end and lacks the technique and hand placement to handle a defensive end on the outside.

4. James Casey, Rice (6-3, 246) Lombardi: A natural football player who saw time at TE, RB, QB and WR in his two years at Rice. Was productive over that time and showcases the ability to cleanly get in and out of his routes and separate on all levels. Was not asked to fully focus on the tight end position at Rice and is still raw with his blocking technique. Might be best suited to be split out and/or line up as an H-back at the next level.

5. Chase Coffman, Missouri (6-6, 244) Lombardi: Showcases great hands and plucks everything away from his body. Looks like a power forward going up and attacking the ball at its highest point. Uses his body well to shield defenders down the field. Loves contact and shows a willingness to block in the run game. However, he hasn't lined up much as a traditional tight end and needs to improve his blocking techniques on the outside.

Nick Scurfield's Top 5

1. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State Scurfield: A big target with strong hands who should have no problem emerging as a potent pass-catching threat over the middle in the NFL. Pettigrew is the most complete tight end in the draft by a longshot because of his big-time blocking skills.

2. Jared Cook, South Carolina Scurfield:An outstanding athlete, Cook ran the fastest 40 (4.50) and had the highest vertical jump (41 inches) of any tight end at the combine. Was an inconsistent blocker at South Carolina, but he has nice size is a rare explosive deep threat at the tight end position.

3. Shawn Nelson, Southern Mississippi Scurfield: Long and lean, Nelson was one of the most accomplished receiving tight ends in Conference USA history and lined up in the slot at times at Southern Miss. He ran a 4.56 40 at the combine, second only to Cook among tight ends. Nelson was a solid blocker at Southern Miss but needs to add strength to succeed in that area as a pro.

4. James Casey, Rice Scurfield: Casey was a 24-year-old sophomore last year; he spent three years playing minor league baseball, and scouts love his natural athleticism. He lined up at seemingly every position at Rice and could become an H-back in the mold of Dallas Clark or a dangerous quarterback in the "Wildcat" offense. He's athletic (4.66 40, 36-inch vertical jump), strong (28 bench press reps, most among tight ends at the combine), has great hands and can run after the catch.

5. Chase Coffman, Missouri Scurfield: The Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end in 2008, Coffman caught 247 passes in his Missouri career – the NCAA record for tight ends. Another potential H-back prospect, he has excellent athleticism to go with his 6-6 frame and his father, Paul, was an NFL tight end for 10 years. But Coffman is inexperienced as a blocker and has a troubling injury history. He hasn't been able to work out for NFL teams because of a broken foot he suffered in Missouri's bowl game this year.

Michael Lombardi* spent 23 years as a high-level executive in NFL personnel departments, working with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos. He has spent 26 years evaluating college and pro football talent. He currently serves as one of the main contributors of The National Football Post.*

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