Gronk and Hernandez are ushering in a new era of offensive strategy

The Spotter's View: The Year Of The Tight End

This week I’ll be headed down to Baltimore for an AFC North match-up between the Ravens and Bengals on Monday Night Football. These are two playoff teams from a season ago that have many similarities. Stout defenses, shared coaching trees, strong running games and emerging quarterbacks to name a few. But perhaps the most significant shared trait between these two division rivals is also at the heart of the latest offensive evolution currently taking place in the NFL.

Of course, I’m talking about the Tight End position. Here’s The Spotter’s View:

It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago, Kellen Winslow took what was primarily a sixth lineman’s spot and, using his freakish athletic ability, mutated it into the role we know today – a hybrid position where receiving skills are valued on par with the ability to effectively zone block. Or pass protect. Or even double at the point of attack. Winslow was the first but he certainly wasn’t the last. As time passed, guys like Ozzie Newsome, Todd Christensen and Ben Coates started to build on the foundation set by Winslow. Then came Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.

With each passing generation, the bar was set higher for the Tight End position. It’s the way that evolution works. Things improve, they become better suited for their roles. Or perhaps the roles change altogether because the thing itself is so dynamic that the previous mold doesn’t fit anymore. That’s what’s happening in today’s NFL. Another seismic shift of sorts.

If we go back to the 2010 NFL Draft, we’ll see the tipping point with regards to the Tight End position. After reading these names, you’ll likely come to the same conclusion as me – we’re now living in a new offensive era. Here are the top seven Tight Ends chosen in the 2010 NFL Draft and their respective career numbers:

  1. Jermaine Gresham, CIN                 21st                          108-1,067-10
  2. Rob Gronkowski, NE                              42nd                          132-1,873-27
  3. Ed Dickson, BAL                                 70th                             65-680-6        
  4. Tony Moeaki, KC                                     93rd                             47-556-3
  5. Jimmy Graham, NO                                95th                          130-1,666-16
  6. Aaron Hernandez, NE                            113th                         124-1,473-13
  7. Dennis Pitta, BAL                              144th                            41-406-3

Gresham is one of two dominant TEs playing this week on Monday Night Football. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

As you can see, there are three players on this list that will be playing on Monday Night. But why is this significant from a historical standpoint? Well, for starters, this draft class will likely produce four of the top five receiving tight ends in the history of the league. Gresham, Gronk, Graham and Hernandez will all need to keep this pace for another 5 or 6 seasons and avoid any major injuries but – in the end, they could all get there. They’re that good. Throw in the fact that Moeaki’s numbers from above are from only his rookie season (he missed all of last year with a knee injury) and the point becomes undeniable. This group from 2010 is reinventing offensive football as we know it.

Think about it…Gonzalez and Gates dominated the TE world for a decade or so. Shannon Sharpe, the five years before that. Then a myriad of guys like Christensen and Coates and Keith Jackson. Throw in some others if you like, but even on the outside we’re looking at seven or eight dominant receiving TEs in a thirty year period. The 2010 class alone has a chance for four or maybe five of those types of guys to emerge. Why?

Well, I think the first reason is pretty simple and ultimately it’s responsible for the other reasons. There are just more 6’5″, 260 lb athletes that can flat out run in the world today. Nobody looked like LeBron twenty years ago. The same can be said of Gronk or Graham (save for Winslow who fits this mold and really was the only one of his kind for a 30 year stretch).  The TEs today are just a different animal. They’re big and they can catch. They’re fast and they can block. Guys like Jackson or Mark Bavaro were “or” types, not “and” types. Jackson could catch “or” Bavaro could block. You see? And guys that could do both (see: Coates) were not the explosive game changers that we see today. So reason #1 is simply the emergence of more bigger, stronger and faster athletes.

Ed Dixon is the other.

Reasons 2-10 are how those athletes are deployed and what it means for opposing defenses. It’s like steroids in baseball: the cheaters cheat, the testers devise tests to catch the cheaters and then the cheaters outwit the tests. It’s a never-ending cycle. The same cycle happens in the NFL with regard to game-planning and strategy. Back in the 60’s, when teams operated out of two-back sets and pounded the ball, the great defenses were led by hard-hitting, run stuffers like Dick Butkus and Chuck Bednarik. As things opened up and the passing game became paramount in the 70’s and 80’s, defenses countered with pass-rushers like L.T. and Reggie White. As they spread further into the new millennium and 3/4 WR sets became the norm, then cover guys ruled the landscape – Prime and Revis.

Now we’re into this hybrid type, versatile TE era where massive bodies can play in-line on one snap and be spread out-wide as a flanker on the next. And they can do this without being a liability in either situation due to reason #1. Bavaro couldn’t do that. Jackson either. So how do defenses respond? This is a new wrinkle that may not have an answer. The versatility of these TEs – the size to outmatch smaller corners and safeties, the speed to outrun linebackers…it leaves defenses in a bind. It’s why from the above list of the 2010 TE Draft Class that five of the six teams featured on it made the playoffs last season.

Obviously, that’s not the only reason but when you consider the advantages of having such a versatile athlete at TE – you can see how that one reason impacts all the others. Versatility equals a personnel advantage, quarterbacks given the freedom of a “check-with-me” offense can capitalize on the personnel advantage and the TEs can chew up smaller DBs in the run game or eviscerate slower LBs as receiving targets. Give advantages like this to deadly accurate passers like Brady and Brees and whattya get?…

The Year Decade Of The Tight End.



Tags: Aaron Hernandez Baltimore Ravens Cincinnati Bengals Dennis Pitta Ed Dixon Jermaine Gresham Jimmy Graham Monday Night Football Rob Gronkowski The Spotter's View Tight End Tony Moeaki

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