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Tight ends deserve the love, too

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Posted June 30, 2010 @ 9:09 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

The position has gone from vogue to passé and might now be back in again.

But why don’t tight ends get the true recognition they deserve?

Tight ends are two- and sometimes three-way warriors, multifaceted players whose responsibilities are as varied as almost any other on the field. It’s a unique position, one that requires the strength to block in-line and the finesse to run patterns and catch passes. Tight ends often spend time in practice with both the receivers and the offensive linemen, not to mention the special teams.

And they are enjoying a renaissance — even if people aren’t recognizing the greatness of the current crop of talent. We might be looking at the finest group of athletes to grace the position in NFL history.

Really. The statistical evidence is overwhelming.

Tight ends are producing in the passing game like never before. Ten tight ends had 60 or more catches last season, and 11 had more than 600 yards receiving. Eleven more had six or more touchdowns.

A decade earlier, only three tight ends had 60 or more catches, four had more than 600 yards and only five had six or more scores. A decade before that, in 1989, tight ends collected only one 60-catch season, three 600-yard seasons and only one player with six or more TDs.

The tight end of yore was mainly a blocker, really an undersized tackle, and used in the passing game primarily as a surprise red-zone threat and occasional chain mover. Now, more than half of the teams likely could claim they have a tight end who is one of their better three receivers.

Wide receivers might be the game’s divas, but tight ends are underappreciated stars.

Dallas Clark finished fifth in the NFL in receptions. Jason Witten was ninth. Antonio Gates had more receiving yards than DeSean Jackson, Roddy White and Brandon Marshall. Clark had more than Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston and Chad Ochocinco. Witten had more yards than Calvin Johnson, Anquan Boldin and the Panthers’ Steve Smith.

Want more? Sure thing. Vernon Davis led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 13, the same number as Lee Evans and Hines Ward combined. Visanthe Shiancoe tied for fourth in TDs. Clark was tied for seventh in the NFL with 10 TDs.

“I feel like there are some amazing athletes at the position,” Shiancoe told PFW. “You see guys who are bigger than linebackers, running (as fast as) receivers. We’re big and fast, and we impact the game in a major way.”

Look back to the playoffs for more evidence of this renaissance — and just how deep the position has become.

Packers TE Jermichael Finley had a monster game in the loss to the Cardinals and now is being talked about as a breakout star. Dustin Keller scored in all three of the Jets’ playoff games and buried the Bengals and Chargers with big TDs. Clark, not Reggie Wayne, was the player the Saints worried most about in the Super Bowl.

Tight ends change strategy. Because of their effect in both the passing game and the run game, they can be lined up in multiple spots — on the line, off the line, in motion, split wide, in the backfield. It used to be that seeing two tight ends on the field clearly dictated a run play, but Joe Gibbs started using two-TE formations in the 1980s and threw a lot out of those formations, which had a major effect on how teams call plays and use personnel.

Nowadays, some teams carry four tight ends and use more than one on the field at the same time quite often, and it can really tax a defense to find matchup solutions for such big, agile men. Do you put a safety or a linebacker on them? Do you play man or zone?

Or, if you’re the Jets and you’re smart, do you recognize how great certain players are and double-team a tight end when it’s called for, as they did at times against Gates in the playoff game? There were even a few snaps when the Jets put Darrelle Revis, the best cornerback on the planet last season, on Gates. By the way, he still had eight catches for 93 yards in the loss.

“I think we’re starting to get the respect on the field,” said Eagles TE Brent Celek, who had career-best marks of 76 catches, 971 yards and eight TDs last season. “Maybe not as much (with the general public), but people who follow the NFL know we’re a big part of the game.”

Fantasy football has made the game more popular and accessible. Fans are more sophisticated now than ever. They scour the Internet for information, even now in June. They want to know the intricacies of the cover-2 defense, the West Coast offense and every new, emerging trend in football. The popular Madden video games certainly can claim some responsibility for this, and announcers — many of them ex-players — are much better at sharing some of the secrets of their trade. So why more educated fans don't appreciate the work of this intriguing position as much as they should is surprising to me.

Part of that is because, despite this generation’s offensive explosion, many tight ends still spend the majority of the time at home, blocking. It’s the dirty work that often goes unnoticed, even with the most fancy replay technology. You almost never read the story about Tony Gonzalez making a great seal block on Michael Turner's long run or head to the water bubbler looking to talk about Dan Graham cracking back on the linebacker on Knowshon Moreno’s touchdown.

That’s too bad. That's half of what they do and what they do well.

“(Blocking) isn’t always talked about as much, but it’s clearly a huge part of (a tight end’s) game,” Celek said. “It’s the part of my game I have worked the hardest on improving.”

But the good news is that I don’t think the TE flourish is going anywhere. With the NFL featuring more and more 3-4 defenses around the league, look for offenses to counter with more two-TE sets. Why? A few reasons. One, offenses can try to outflank the defense by putting six or seven men on the line against the defense’s three, four or five. Plus, tight ends are typically bigger than fullbacks and are better-equipped to handle blitzers up on the line. Offensive lines can slant protections more easily, too, when there are more men up on the line of scrimmage. And putting a talented tight end on the side of the field where a quality rusher is forces the defense to react accordingly.

Tight ends are ultimate two-way weapons and even great countermeasures to the hip, new defensive trend in the league. They can run like slower receivers and block like lesser offensive linemen, but combined, those skills add up to potent players. They are counted on to play special teams and will be asked to take on a heavy offensive burden with incredible versatility — one week they are cover-2 busters, running seam patterns in the soft part of the defense, and the next they are slobberknockers, clearing way for the run game to flourish.

So why don’t tight ends get their due?

“I think we’re starting to,” Shiancoe said. “The more of us that do well, the more people take notice.”

It’s about time. Enjoy the golden age for this underrated position.

 

For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.

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