Don’t Look Now But Tight Ends Are Revolutionizing the NFL

By Cody Swartz

The 2011 season has commonly been referred to as the Year of the Quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers set the new mark for passer rating at 122.5 and threw 45 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Drew Brees shattered the records for passing yards and completion percentage. Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford each topped 5,000 yards in the air and averaged 40 TD passes apiece. Eli Manning and Cam Newton had seasons that traditionally would put them in the thick of the MVP race, and in all, 10 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards.

What was equally as impressive though was the underrated year of the tight ends, and it was never more evident than in tonight’s Divisional Round contests. Vernon Davis caught the game-winning touchdown pass in San Francisco’s big win over New Orleans, setting a playoff record for tight ends with 180 yards. Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, including a big 66-yard play across the middle to give the New Orleans Saints a late lead.

Just hours later, Rob Gronkowski caught 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns, tying a playoff record for receiving scores. Aaron Hernandez caught four passes for 55 yards and a score, while running the ball four times for 59 yards. As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Hernandez lined up at fullback, running back, flanker, wide receiver, slotback, and tight end – just in the first two series.

The days of the tight end staying back to block ended when playmakers like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez emerged at the turn of the century, but now the day is here when tight ends are taking over the NFL. Even with all due respect to a tremendous player like Jason Witten, the new breed of tight ends – Graham, Gronk, Hernandez, Davis, Antonio Gates – are speed guys, players with the abilities of receivers to stretch the field, former basketball players that can line up wide, and draw double coverage a la Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson.

Brady is an absolutely phenomenal quarterback, but I don’t envy Denver’s defensive coordinator in having to game plan to stop Gronkowski and Hernandez. Gronk is a physical freak of nature, a player who set the single season record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end (17), added one more on a rush, and oh by the way caught three more in the playoff game. Hernandez lines up at every conceivable spot on the field. Just as Bill Belichick has used Troy Brown and Julian Edelman as defensive backs, he now apparently has turned Hernandez as his offensive utility man.

Graham was a former basketball player, as all great tight ends seem to be. He played just one year of football at the University of Miami but performed well enough to be picked in the third round of the 2010 draft. He showed glimpses of brilliance late in 2010 and broke out with 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, breaking the previous record for yards in a season by a tight end. His 4.53 speed makes him fast enough a team can’t just put a linebacker on him to try to stop him; Patrick Willis all but couldn’t contain Graham in today’s contest.

Meanwhile, Davis – who was picked sixth overall in the 2006 draft – is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. He ran a 4.38 at the NFL Scouting Combine, the fastest time a tight end has ever recorded. That’s elite wide receiver speed. Davis caught seven passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns today, adding the go-ahead score with nine seconds left. And he did most of his work on a team that doesn’t have great wide receivers. Michael Crabtree still hasn’t developed into the NFL superstar he was projected to be, and Ted Ginn, Jr. is a bust. The Saints could key on Davis all they wanted, and he still put up the game of his life.

It’s no coincidence the new tight end is evolving as the fullback is dying. Most teams used their fullback on around 20-30 percent of snaps during the 2011 season, leaving more slots on the field for teams to line up with multiple tight ends. The Patriots struck gold when they picked both Gronkowski and Hernandez in the 2010 draft, and more teams will assuredly try to emulate them in the future.

More and more tight ends are going in the first round – Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow, Marcedes Lewis, Dustin Keller, Brandon Pettigrew, and Jermaine Gresham. Teams are putting more stock in the position. Nearly every team to make the NFL Divisional Playoffs had a strong group of tight ends, and more and more teams are utilizing the two-tight end set.

The Patriots are the standard of excellence with Gronkowski and Hernandez, but more teams are copying their pattern: Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen on the Houston Texans, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis on the Washington Redskins, and Ed Dickson and Tony Pitta on the Baltimore Ravens. Gone is the day when a tight end was essentially a sixth offensive linemen primarily used for blocking and the occasional reception. Four teams had multiple tight ends play at least 50 percent of their snaps in 2011 many more had two tight ends each on the field for over 40 percent of the plays. Just four teams (Arizona, Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Oakland) used a tight end for fewer than 50 percent of their snaps.

Tomorrow’s Giants-Packers game will almost certainly be impacted greatly by the play of Jermichael Finley and Jake Ballard – two players who fit the mold of modern-day tight ends in that they are big, strong, fast, and all-around playmakers. Both the Texans the Ravens employ multiple tight ends on a high percentage of snaps, as noted, giving both young quarterbacks even more weapons than would have been present 20 years ago on an NFL offense.

Quarterbacks will continue to get the credit in the NFL for wins and losses, and rightfully so since they are the most important member of the football team. But they better be extremely grateful for the new style of tight ends revolutionizing the league, as these players lead to higher-scoring games and all around better numbers from the offense.

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