FIRST AND FOREMOST
Tennessee tight end Jason Witten gave up his final year of eligibility after the NFL advistory committee told him he'll likely be taken in the opening round
Friday April 18, 2003
By Brian Allee-Walsh
There is no Jeremy Shockey or Todd Heap in this year' NFL draft, but Tennessee tight end Jason Witten expects to make some noise at the pro level.
Witten, a converted defensive end, has emerged as the top tight end prospect after deciding to forego his final year of eligibility. He caught 39 passes for 493 yards and five touchdowns in 2002.
Many analysts project Witten to be the only tight end picked in the first round, probably in the bottom third. The second tier features Mackey Award winner Dallas Clark of Iowa, Michigan's Bennie Joppru, Auburn's Robert Johnson and Florida's Aaron Walker.
Witten, 20, decided to leave Tennessee after seeking an opinion from the NFL advisory committee.
"They told me late first," Witten said. "They always kind of downplay where you're going to come out. They're usually a little low to be on the safe side. Most guys they say who'll go in the second round go in the first round. If I had heard third round, I probably would have stayed in school.
"I will be a little disappointed if I don't go in the first round. I think I've proved that a tight end can be taken that high. Being the first tight end taken isn't really what I'm looking at here, just going somewhere in the first round."
Wherever Witten lands, he wants to be an integral part of that team's offense, not just another lineman. Heap and Shockey have established themselves as two of the NFL's best pass-catching tight ends with Baltimore and the New York Giants.
Scouts say they don't foresee Witten becoming that type of playmaker, but he is fast, has soft hands and can play outside and inside.
"Shockey showed the world, and made a statement for our position," Witten said. "You have Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzales -- but he (Shockey) did it at an early age, his rookie year. People just said 'Wow, there's a lot of excitement about this position.'
"A lot of guys have the ability, but nobody goes out there and does it like Shockey does it. He has the whole game. The catches he makes every week, he's a freak. But I think I can go in and do the same, make a huge impact and hopefully earn a starting role as a rookie."
Like Witten, Clark is relatively new to the tight end position. He played quarterback and linebacker in high school and walked on at Iowa. He made the move to tight end in 2001 and caught 38 passes for 539 yards and four touchdowns. He improved those numbers in 2002, catching 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns for the Big Ten co-champions.
Some teams project him as an H-back and third-down receiver because of his athleticism. But some say he lacks the bulk and strength to be an every-down player next season.
Several analysts compare Clark to former Dallas Cowboys tight end/H-back Jay Novacek.
"He's a work in progress," one AFC scout said.
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