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Tight end's surest Duck route to NFL.

Byline: Rob Moseley The Register-Guard

When Justin Peelle took over as Oregon's starting tight end in 1999, the three players who preceded him were all playing in the NFL.

There was no way, Peelle figured, that he would ever join them. He said as much to his UO position coach, Tom Osborne, who reflected on that conversation recently.

"Now," Osborne mused, "he's in his eighth or ninth year in the NFL."

Peelle has played eight professional seasons and is with the Atlanta Falcons almost a decade after leaving Oregon. For tight ends who play for the Ducks, it's simply what they do.

For more than 15 years now, if a guy has started at tight end for Oregon, he has moved on to the NFL in at least some capacity. The latest in that line is Ed Dickson, who figures to be drafted later this week and begin his own professional career.

This is a relatively sparse draft class for Willamette Valley products. Dickson and his friend and former teammate LeGarrette Blount are both projected to be selected as high as the third round, and defensive backs T.J. Ward and Walter Thurmond III are likely to be selected Saturday during the final four rounds of the seven-round draft.

In a new format for this year, the first round will be held Thursday beginning at 4:30 p.m. PDT, and the second and third rounds are Friday. Along with the four UO products, Oregon State quarterback Sean Canfield also is expected to be picked this week.

Dickson is as sure a thing as they come among the crop of locals in this draft class. After all, he played tight end at Oregon.

Perhaps the best tight end ever to come out of Eugene, Russ Francis, was selected in the first round in 1975. The Ducks didn't have another tight end drafted for 23 years, but lately it has become a regular occurrence.

The current run of talent began with undrafted free agents Jeff Thomason, Willy Tate and Josh Wilcox in the 1990s. Since Tate, every UO starting tight end has reached the league, even if just with a practice squad, as was the case with undrafted free agents Enyi Nwamuo and Tim Day. And lately, they're been more likely to be drafted, beginning with Blake Spence in 1998.

Since Spence, UO tight ends Jed Weaver, Peelle, George Wrighster and Dante Rosario have all been drafted. Dickson is next in line.

Osborne credits the run of NFL-caliber talent to the players themselves, and a system that affords them chances to catch the football. He doesn't mention a third critical influence: the coaches who recruited and developed all that talent.

Osborne began his UO tenure in 1995, recruiting and/or developing the likes of Wilcox, Spence, Weaver, Peelle and Wrighster before leaving for Arizona State in 2001. Since returning to Oregon in 2007, he's had the luxury of coaching Dickson.

"Each one of those guys has been different - but they've been talented," Osborne said.

The Ducks have also employed a system that allowed the tight ends to thrive. When Mike Bellotti was head coach, he used a pro set that was well-suited for guys like Wilcox and Peelle. In recent years Oregon has employed a spread offense and found various ways to use the versatile Rosario and Dickson.

Such players fit the profile of athletic tight ends like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez who have thrived in the NFL over the last decade.

"They're all looking for guys that can run, guys that can defeat man-to-man coverage, guys that can split the middle," Osborne said. "And those guys are hard to find, guys that can turn around and play at the line of scrimmage and block a defensive end. There aren't that many of those guys around."

That helps explain why Peelle, despite his initial doubts, has had the longest career of all Oregon's recently drafted tight ends, one year shy of the 10 seasons Thomason spent in the league. Peelle is sure-handed and also a physical blocker.

"In some systems the tight end is a glorified offensive tackle, or a glorified wide receiver," Osborne said. "It's hard to find guys that can do both."

Oregon has done an outstanding job of finding players who fit in that latter category, the latest being Dickson, who is poised to become the next Oregon tight end to reach the NFL.

A POSITION OF STRENGTH

Oregon tight ends drafted since 1998

Year Name Round Team

1998 Blake Spence Fifth New York Jets

1999 Jed Weaver Seventh Philadelphia Eagles

2002 Justin Peelle Fourth San Diego Chargers

2003 George Wrighster Fourth Jacksonville Jaguars

2007 Dante Rosario Fifth Carolina Panthers
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Title Annotation:Football Oregon; Ed Dickson is likely to be the first player taken from Oregon or Oregon State when the NFL draft begins
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 20, 2010
Words:783
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