Welcome to the New Age… Of the NFL Tight End

NO ONE SAID IT CAME AS an epiphany. And certainly no one can say it came as a surprise. But the tight end position in the NFL is definitely changing. No longer do we see the bulky H-back types of the past showing up on NFL rosters. No longer do we see tight ends only having to know how to run their four-yard drags and six-yard outs. No, the tight end position in the NFL is shifting, and it very well might take the whole league with it.

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I GUESS ONE COULD SAY THAT it all started with Mike Ditka. While the position has been around for almost as long as football itself, Ditka was the first at the position to actually catch the ball. Yes, that considered, it was in the form of the receiving equivalent of three yards and a cloud of dust, but it was still receiving. In fact, Ditka finished his career with 427 receptions—Hall of Fame material for that era.

Of course, though, now, Ditka would be considered ancient at the position. Though 427 receptions is still considered a moderately successful career for today’s tight end, it’s certainly not Hall of Fame material. Plus, not to mention the fact that an athlete with a skill set like Ditka’s would be laughed out of today’s NFL Combine (there is a reason why they call it the underwear olympics), likely not even being able to crack a team’s practice squad, no matter how smart or sure-handed he may be. But this, of course, is where the modern tight end comes in.

From Ditka, the position began to experience a slow, but evident, change. If Ditka ventured five yards past the line of scrimmage (somewhat unheard of for the early tight end), predecessors John Mackey and Dave Casper went eight, ten, or maybe even 15. But the position was clearly meant for something else. What use was it in increasingly passing-centric offenses to have a player that didn’t pass protect and didn’t provide a viable receiving option downfield.

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Clearly, the tight end position was meant for something else

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Enter: Kellen Winslow. If Mike Ditka was the founder of the receiving tight end, Kellen Winslow represented the first class of a new breed. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, with 4.6 speed, Winslow towered over defensive backs, and burned linebackers trying to drop back in coverage. He finished his career with over 6,700 yards and 45 touchdowns—impressive numbers for a wide receiver of the time, much less a tight end. Additionally, he carved a path for smaller, more agile tight ends to succeed in the league in a pass-catching, not pass-blocking, role…

… Which, in turn, birthed the modern NFL tight end. Shannon Sharpe ran routes like a receiver and racked up 10,000 career receiving yards. Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates furthered the evolution, pushing the position into wide receiver speeds in power forward bodies. And then there is today. Today’s tight ends could very well be the best athletes on the field (see: Graham, Jimmy), as well as the most potent pass-catchers (Tom Brady’s Rob Gronkowski-led receiving core).

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BUT THE SECRET BEHIND THE tight end position surely doesn’t lie in the players alone. No, if Rob Gronkowski had to line up against Jimmy Graham, we would surely have different results. But the key is he doesn’t. As the league has become more and more centered around offense, most, if not all, of any given team’s athletic assets are on the offensive side of the ball, playing skill positions like running back, wide receiver, and even (gasp!) tight end.

In turn, this has forged offense-defense mismatches on scales never seen before. Think of your new tight end prototype: 6'5", 260 pounds with 4.6 speed. Now think of whatever poor linebacker or safety has to line up against them. The LBs are to slow. The DBs are too small. And anyone else who could potentially cover them are not lining up across from them, but beside them.

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If Rob Gronkowski had to line up against Jimmy Graham, we would surely have different results

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Only now can you see the true dilemma NFL teams face. Assigning one defender to the tight end, under current offense-defense circumstances, almost indubitably creates a mismatch. Assigning two is simply not possible, as all other eligible receivers must be covered as well. Now, of course, this begs the question: Why not just put a Rob Gronkowski on the defensive side of the ball to cover his tight end counterpart?

Now, while this may seem like a simple question, the answer is significantly more complex. Of course, there is no correct response in this case, but the line of reasoning that must be presented here has major implications. See, the offense-defense balance hasn’t always been tilted this way. No, it used to be that defenses dominated offenses, holding games to scores like 10–3 and 7–6. However, with the revolution of modern passing (another reason why tight ends became so much more utilized in the aerial attack), defenses began to fall behind, unable to respond to offenses’ big plays. Plus, this notion of superiority has only been compounded with new contact rules that allow quarterbacks and wideouts to slash defenses, without giving cornerbacks much chance to stop their attack.

However, instead of smarting up and building on defense, coaches saw the offensive revolution as their pathway to greatness, and, as a result, athletes began to be steered towards the offensive positions and away from the defensive ones. This is exactly what has created no “defensive tight ends”, but also gives reason for why Rob Gronkowski can’t be put on defense. See, even if Gronk can take out an offense’s premier tight end, offenses have so much talent that they can just spread the ball to their wealth of other skill position players (see: Aaron Rogers, operating the best offense in the NFL without a top 20 tight end). In turn, this means that Gronkowski would have a minimal effect on stopping prolific offenses, meaning that his incredible abundance of talent would not contribute to the team as much it would if he were on offense.

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SO, WE’VE GONE THROUGH THE evolution of the tight end and why it is so important in today’s NFL, but we have yet to talk about the most important aspect of this whole discussion: What does this mean for the future? There have been tons of positional and schematic revolutions that have came and went without having major, lasting impact on the league. However, that being considered, this case appears to be different.

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The new breed of NFL tight end is here to stay

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For one, as we’ve shown you throughout the article, the evolution of the tight end shows no signs of slowing down. After all, why would our modern, stat-driven game ever regress back to less productive, less athletic tight ends when the new model has proven to be so much better? It wouldn’t. Not in a million years. So, we can safely assume that the new breed of NFL tight end is here to stay.

The impacts on the game will go beyond just a new blueprint for the position, though. As established before, as the position of tight end lures more and more athletic talent (with no counterparts going over to the defensive “dark side”, must I say), the league’s emphasis on offense will only increase. However, it is not just an offensive revolution that will continue—it is also a passing one.

While the new model of tight end might improve on the old one exponentially when it comes to the passing game, when it comes to the run game, the new tight end breed is of no help. Taking freaks of nature like Gronk and Graham out of the equation, today’s pass-catching tight ends are less and less competent in the run game (see: any blocking clip of Aaron Hernandez). Consequentially, what this means is that, while offenses will undoubtedly benefit from the newfound tight end revolution, it will be the passing game that will drive this change, not the run.

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Tight ends will be the drivers of a new offensive revolution—a passing one

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Accordingly, what this means is that, if this rapid evolution continues, tight ends will play a major part in an aerial revolution that has already swept through the NFL at a rapid pace. This means more empty backfields, fewer power sets, and (gasp!) the possibility of the elimination of the concept of a feature back from the league entirely.

Thus, it is easy to see how what might appear to be a seemingly meaningless positional change can lead to an entire schematic rebellion in the sacred NFL. It is a simply undeniable fact now that tight ends are changing. Really, it is only a matter of time before they drag the league with them.

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