When one thinks of a tight end in the NFL, images of bulky, bruising and blue collar hard-nosed players who help block and occasionally catch come to mind.
The position has long been anything but glamourous—thanks in part to more marketable and marquee players at skill positions such as quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
Future Hall-Of-Famers such as Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears and John Mackey of the Green Bay Packers would bring some attention to the position in the 60’s. San Diego Chargers head coach, Don Coryell and his “Air Coryell” offense would revolutionize the position by introducing the concept of using Kellen Winslow in wide-receiver type-routes.
Other tight ends such as Ozzie Newsome of the Cleveland Browns, Bubba Franks of the Green Bay Packers and Dwight Clark of the San Francisco 49ers would help take the position to new heights.
Fast forward to the present, players such as newly inducted Hall-Of-Famer Shannon Sharpe of the Denver Broncos and future inductees such as Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers and Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons have truly helped in revolutionizing the position to the point where it is now used in various wide receiver and double formations.
In today’s passing era, the tight end is as much an integral part of an NFL offense as a wide receiver—if not more.
Premier pass-catching tight ends such as Kellen Winslow II of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Zach Miller of the Seattle Seahawks, Heath Miller of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys have brought a new dimension to the position.
Other elite players such as Tony Moeaki of the Kansas City Chiefs, Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, Anthony Fasano of the Miami Dolphins and Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers have taken the position to un-seen levels altogether.
With the breakout performances of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in 2011-12, Gronkowski and Graham may have both changed the way tight ends are used and play in the NFL forever.
Gronkowski, 22, a second-year player out of Arizona, would set a new record for receiving yards by a tight end—beating out Graham—with 1,327, and set a new record for most touchdowns by a tight end with 17.
The 6’6, 265-pounder would have 90 receptions and average 14.7 yards per reception.
What makes Gronkowski’s record-setting achievement even more impressive is the fact that he did it in a pre-dominantly two tight-end offense alongside fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez—and Brady’s favorite target—wide receiver Wes Welker, who was second in the NFL in receiving with 1,569 yards.
Graham—like Gronkowski—is also a second year player out of Miami (Fla.), and like Gates is a converted basketball player. Graham would finish second behind Gronkowski—by 17 yards—with 1,310 yards receiving and in receiving touchdowns for a tight end with 11.
The 6’6, 260-pound Graham would have 99 catches for the New Orleans Saints and average 13.2 yards per catch.
Both players have the untapped potential and talent to help the tight end position further evolve due to playing in pass-happy offenses in New England and New Orleans under 5’000-yard passers in Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
What will help both Gronkowski and Graham—beside their age—is the individual talents around them in the likes of Darren Sproles, Wes Welker, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Deion Branch taking coverage away from them both allowing them to roam free in the middle of the field uncontested.
They both have the strength, size and sheer athleticism to create nightmares for opposing linebackers and safeties deep in the playoffs.
Gronkowski and Graham both have the ability to help their respective teams—the Saints and Patriots—dominate in the post-season, don’t be too surprised to see both of them have a hand in it.
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