As the conceptual aspects of the passing game have evolved in the NFL, so have the players. Small, quick slot receivers have become all the rage, first-down machines with touchdown potential. The biggest chance, however, has come with tight ends.
Tight ends were once relegated almost exclusively to blocking for Woody Hayes-style running attacks, making a minimal effect on the passing game. Tight ends expanded their role in the passing game with the arrival of athletic tight ends like Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez, turning the tight end into an essential option on third down and in the red zone.
The 21st century has brought a whole different level of athleticism to the tight end position. Supreme athleticism at the tight end position allows them to be more versatile, lining up at multiple position and making plays at multiple levels of the defense. Former basketball forwards have become a hot commodity as tight ends, bringing not only incredible size to table, but also the ability to box-out and high-point the ball above defenders, turning the former hardwood warriors into matchup nightmares on the gridiron.
Though he isn’t a former b-baller, Rob Gronkowski has been the best in the league when he’s been healthy. When he’s been on the field, no one else has scored more touchdowns than him, and he looks no different now that he has recovered from forearm and back surgeries. The Carolina Panthers are going to have to find a way to contain him if they want to continue their five-game win streak and confirm their defensive dominance.
No one on the Panthers has the combination of size and speed to cover Gronkowski, so they will likely bracket him with Luke Kuechly underneath and Mike Mitchell over the top to try and take him out of the game. That means the Panthers will have to win one-one-one matchups on the outside with their corners, which will be difficult against Tom Brady.