Rookie tight ends making their mark

Posted Oct. 08, 2010 @ 3:53 p.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

It makes perfect sense. They are big, strong and fast with great hands. They have the versatility to block and, if they decide to run a route, a smaller safety or a slower linebacker likely will cover them.

Why not throw it to the tight end? Everybody else is doing it.

The TE position has become a legitimate weapon on offense this decade that teams are taking advantage of. And this season, four rookies are proving this TE renaissance isn't going anywhere.

Through the first four weeks, nine tight ends were ranked in the league's top 40 for receiving yards. At the end of the 2000 season, three tight ends were in the top 40 in receiving yards.

In 1990, only one tight end ranked in the top 40 for receiving yards.

Tight ends have become more than just blockers and occasional red-zone threats. They are coming into the league dynamic enough to play in the slot and big enough to be a top red-zone threat for their QBs.

Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators have embraced the luxury of having an athletic tight end who has the hands and footwork of a receiver, combined with the body of a blocker. Through the first four weeks, a tight end led, or was tied for the lead, in receiving yards on 11 teams. Another four teams had a tight end who ranked second on the squad in receiving yards.

Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, the pioneer of today's tight ends, is still a vital weapon for QB Matt Ryan. He is joined this season by four rookie TEs who are being targeted often by their quarterbacks.

Aaron Hernandez, who sometimes lines up in the slot because of his versatility, led the Patriots in receiving yards through three games. Rookie teammate Rob Gronkowski had two TD catches heading into the Week Four Monday-nighter. When Tom Brady looks to a rookie tight end inside the red zone instead of WRs Randy Moss or Wes Welker, you know that player is legit.

The Bengals, with all of their receiving weapons, have effectively used ­Jermaine Gresham in the red zone. And the surprising Chiefs' leading receiver? TE Tony Moeaki, who leads in targets, receptions, yards and TDs.

Last season, tight ends made their mark on the league, with big seasons from Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Gonzalez. But this new crop of rookies is making the position even better. ­Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew was the only tight end in the top 15 of rookies in receiving yards in 2009. All four of the aforementioned rookie tight ends were in the top 15 in receiving yards among rookies following Week Four.

It's not rocket science. Very few linebackers and safeties possess the combination of size and speed needed to cover these superathletic tight ends; not to mention it's hard to gauge whether or not the tight end will come off the line to run a route. The NFL has very much turned into a passing league, and the teams with dependable, athletic tight ends are taking advantage. When Brett Favre can't get into a rhythm with his wide receivers, what does he do? Constantly throw to Visanthe Shiancoe. With WR Santonio Holmes out of the lineup, Jets QB Mark Sanchez has found success connecting with TE Dustin Keller.

In addition to being a passing league, the NFL is a copycat league. For those teams that have struggled to muster an offense to start the season, take note — get the ball to your tight end.