The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
Sometime near the middle of the second round, Dwayne Allen got hungry again. The first 60 or so picks of the 2012 draft had crawled by, and a frustrated Allen — surrounded by extended family at a relative’s house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — retreated to the kitchen for another plate of spaghetti.
Draft day wasn’t supposed to go like this. Allen’s reasoning for leaving Clemson a year early was largely because he’d accomplished his goals: All-ACC, consensus All-American, John Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in college football. But it was also because upon submitting his papers to the draft board, he received a first-round grade. One 4.9 combine 40 later, here he was, midway through the draft’s second day, dulling his pain with pasta.
Before the draft began, Allen was already confident that tight ends would fall out of the first round entirely. He’d seen the numbers Stanford’s Coby Fleener had put up during both the combine and his pro day and expected him to be the first tight end chosen, but Allen figured he wouldn’t be far behind. “I thought it would be more likely that I’d go in the top 15 of the second [round],” Allen says. “A lot of places had me ranked in the top 35 guys in the country, so I felt comfortable knowing that I was going to be anywhere from 32 to 47, with the latest possibly being 55 to Atlanta and me coming in to eventually replace Tony Gonzalez.”
The 55th pick came and went. Eight spots later, the New York Giants were on the board when Allen’s phone rang. It was the Colts, owners of the third round’s first pick, and also the team that had selected Fleener one round earlier. For many, it would be the moment of a lifetime, a dream realized. Allen wasn’t so grateful. “I’m sitting there frustrated and disappointed about the potential earnings I’d lost,” Allen says. “I was distraught and upset. When I got the call — ‘Hold on for Mr. Irsay’ — I was actually pretty rude.”
“I was just looking at it from the standpoint that these guys just drafted a tight end that just so happens to be college teammates with the starting quarterback. You know in pick-up football you have an all-time quarterback? I thought I was coming into this place to be all-time blocker.”
Just a few minutes of conversation with Allen reveals a lot: He’s self-aware, self-deprecating, and, most of all, honest. When Allen arrived at Clemson, he was a highly touted recruit who struggled while waiting his turn. “He was a nonconformist,” Danny Pearman, Allen’s college tight ends coach, says. “He was bright, he was intelligent. He was very athletic, but he also beat to his own drum. He’s a question asker — ‘Why? Why this way?’” His reaction to being drafted by the Colts was similar to his experience at Clemson — full of doubts about where he fit in the larger plan. But whereas his issues in college lasted two seasons, his worries about his role in Indianapolis lasted until the next morning. “It took me probably the night of sleep after the draft to realize what a blessing it was — first of all, to get drafted, but also to get picked in a class with Andrew Luck,” Allen says.
Talks with Bruce Arians, then the Colts’ offensive coordinator, only further alleviated his reservations. There would be a place for both Allen and Fleener in Indianapolis’s new offense, Arians told him. When the season began, it was clear that not only did Allen have a role, he had the more substantial one. The Colts used their rookie tight end in every way imaginable: as a pass catcher, an inline blocker, even at fullback. Last season, there were stretches when he was the sort of all-time blocker he’d worried about becoming on draft day. The difference is that now, it’s a role he relishes. “I’m going to do the dirty work, and I don’t have a problem doing the dirty work,” Allen says. “I’m going to stick my face in against those run-stopping defensive ends. I’m also going to hold up in pass protection against some of the premier pass rushers in this league, and I take pride in that.”
It’s a transition that allowed Allen, a rookie, to have one of the most impressive all-around seasons for a tight end in the league last season. News came yesterday that Allen will miss the rest of the preseason with a foot injury, but Chuck Pagano is confident the Colts will have him back to start the season. When they do, they’ll be getting a player on his way to leading the next generation of great, complete tight ends.
Allen doesn’t tread lightly when discussing his first two seasons at Clemson. “I was a prick,” Allen says. “I was one of those four-, five-star recruits that come in with a big head. Special teams? I ain’t playin’ no special teams. I was that dude.” Allen redshirted as a freshman, and his first season with an opportunity to play happened to be Dabo Swinney’s first as head coach. Allen never considered an alternative to opening the season as a starter. When fall camp began and senior Mike Palmer took the majority of reps with the first team, Allen was incredulous. “I was just like, ‘What is it? I block better than this guy, I run faster, I catch better. Why can’t I start over him?’” Allen says. “Well, Mike was just reliable, Mr. Consistent, and the coaches trusted him.”
Trusting a 19-year-old Allen was more difficult. Commitment to his schoolwork faded in and out. He was often late to meetings. “Most of the time it was reactions to situations,” Pearman says. “He would be frustrated with the outcome of something, and he’d rant and rave.” The season was full of closed-door sessions about accountability and attention to detail, in every facet of Allen’s life.
Allen laughs about it now, doing his best impression of Pearman’s North Carolina drawl in recalling the scolding he took that first season: “’Dwayne, what the hell are you doin’? You’re not a fucking franchise tight end. You better get your ass in special teams. You better get your ass in the trenches.’ He would always say that to me, but that dude is one of my biggest fans.”
There are some players who struggle because they lack aptitude. Allen’s issue was engagement, and Pearman welcomed the challenge. “He was a lot of fun to try to tame,” Pearman says.
By his redshirt sophomore season, the closed-door meetings had slowed. Allen’s grades had improved. He was on time. His football education would come next. In Clemson’s first five games that year, Allen caught 18 passes. “I was one of the better receivers, receivers, in the ACC and was getting some national notice,” Allen says. “But then, the last six games, I might’ve caught like eight balls. I knew it was going to happen that way. At the halfway mark, I knew the offense was going away from me.” It was at that point that Allen decided to shift his focus. Before the season began, he’d made it a goal to finish the year as an All-ACC player, and with the ball going elsewhere, the path to recognition came as a blocker. With only 33 catches at season’s end, Allen was named second-team All-ACC. Allen laughs when considering whether it’s a job he would’ve accepted a year earlier. “Definitely not,” he says.
The next year, Allen’s accolades again outpaced his reception total. With only 50 catches, he was named the John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s best tight end, again a product of his reputation as a complete player. When Pearman thinks about that final season, though, what happened during games is secondary. “It was interesting watching him interact with and trying to lead some of the freshmen that had gone down the road and screwed up like he had,” Pearman says. “He was pretty honest in explaining to them, ‘It took me a year and a half to figure this out. Don’t be like me. Fix it now.’ He was honest about it. That’s one thing about Dwayne, he’ll be honest about it.”
Growing up, Allen was a basketball player first, just like one of his early football idols. “I’d go out there every Friday night and try to put on a show, emulating whatever Antonio Gates did that previous Sunday,” Allen says. “As my knowledge of the position evolved, the guy I followed evolved.”
The first name Allen mentions is Jason Witten, the tight end gold standard. One of Clemson’s assistants was on Tennessee’s staff when Witten was a Volunteer, and when Allen slipped to the third round, he was reminded that Witten took the same tumble, taken five spots later than Allen in his respective draft.
Allen doesn’t have Witten’s 6-foot-6 frame, but in his first season, his imitation was no less obvious. As an inline blocker, Allen was valuable in both the run game and as extra protection (which the Colts desperately needed) in the passing game. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Allen is never going to be a dominant blocking tight end, and he occasionally struggles with the minor technical details (notably keeping his feet under him as he makes contact), but he has a combination of ability and will that not a lot of talented pass catchers possess. The above play is from the Colts’ win over Cleveland in Week 7, and it’s one instance when Allen does look dominant. With the defensive end lined up on his outside eye to the play side, Allen not only gets the defender turned — he drives him all the way to the other hash mark before finishing the block.
Like Witten, who was clocked at 4.65 in the 40 a decade ago, Allen’s impact in the passing game is never going to be a product of running by safeties down the seam. As a complement to the downfield threat of Fleener, Allen’s role will be in finding and attacking the soft underneath spots in the defense, especially on third downs. What he lacks in speed, Allen more than makes up for with his hands. The above catch against Green Bay is one of the best you’ll see from a tight end — in midair, reaching back, between two defenders.
Allen finished his rookie season with 45 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns, but there’s reason to believe (pending a return to health), that he’ll be even better this year. One of the Colts’ first moves this offseason was to trade for former Eagles fullback Stanley Havili. Without a fullback on the roster last year, the task often fell to Allen. “Which I was OK with!” he quickly clarifies. “But hey, if I don’t have to take those beatings — and that’s exactly what it is, those are beatings — I’m a happy man.” Joining Havili in his first year with the team is former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who will have the same job in Indianapolis. With the Cardinal, Hamilton often employed sets with up to three tight ends, and with him calling the plays for Colts, both Fleener and Allen should be regular targets in the passing game.
Allen knows this isn’t college, that the NFL is more serious than anything he’s ever done. “On this level, I’m a professional, but I’m still human,” Allen says. “I need someone to remind me about the little things: my footwork, my hat placement, my hand placement. Not just my route running and catching. Those are things I know I need to work on.” That desire, and knowledge of self, is what separates the 23-year-old Allen from who he was at 19. Four years ago, Dwayne Allen didn’t want to hear that he’d never be a franchise tight end, but if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t already be one.