Never in the NFL has having a dynamic pass-catching tight end been of greater importance than it is now. Fresh off the “year of the tight end” in 2011, having a mismatch piece who can scream down the seam and outleap and outmuscle defenders near the goal line is no longer a luxury; all of the best passing offenses in the league have at least one.
Which helps explain why, while Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were assaulting the record books in New England and New Orleans, respectively, the AFC South, largely a ground-and-pound division with the exception of Peyton Manning’s Colts in recent years, was, for the most part, left out in the cold as the TE position was revolutionized last season.
The division’s best club, the Texans, received solid production from the position, with the tandem of Owen Daniels and Joel Dreesen, now with Manning in Denver, combining for over 1,000 yards and nine TDs. But the other three teams were inconsistent at best and, on the heels of our "Players in the Crosshairs" feature, I thought it would be interesting to highlight the entire position group in the AFC South as one that will be under the microscope in 2012.
Following the departure of the underrated Dreesen, head coach Gary Kubiak has a big void to fill in his offense that features a large number of two-TE sets. Daniels, whose numerous injuries the past several seasons have prevented him from regaining his 2009 Pro Bowl form, was solid but not spectacular in ’12. “OD” should see more red-zone opportunities with Dreesen out of the picture, but a player to keep an eye on is FB James Casey. Casey this season will spend as much or more time in-line, in motion or split out wide as he will leading the way for the two-headed monster of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Blessed with the best set of hands on the club, Casey could be primed for a breakout season at the perfect time: his contract expires after the 2012 campaign. He was just starting to flash as a receiver against the Saints last season before suffering a pectoral injury, one that cost him his starting job. Casey will be hungry to clamp down — and expand — his role this season.
In Jared Cook, the Titans boast the division’s tight end most similar athletically to the new poster boys, Gronkowkski and Graham. The 25-year-old finished last season on a rampage, piling up 335 receiving yards and a score in Tennessee’s final three games. But Cook, who, at 6-5, 248 pounds, runs in the 4.4's and has a 40-inch vertical leap, was noticeably absent in a number of other contests, held to two catches or fewer in nine games. If Cook can ride the wave on which he ended last season and sustain it for 16 games, he could become a household name by season’s end. If his inconsistency lingers, don’t sleep on fifth-rounder Taylor Thompson, a converted defensive end. Thompson is drawing rave reviews in Nashville for his impressive size and speed, not to mention his natural hands and route running for a player who hasn’t played the position since high school.
What on earth happened to Marcedes Lewis in 2011? After receiving a new deal in camp, did he simply take the money and disappear? Was a lack of chemistry with a rookie QB at the root of his struggles? Did Lewis simply play over his head in a contract year in 2010, when he hauled in 10 TDs after finding the endzone just seven times in his first four seasons combined? Only Lewis can answer those questions, and the Jaguars need his play on the field to speak for itself in 2012. Blaine Gabbert is now surrounded with a dramatically improved WR corps, but a massive intermediate and red-zone target like Lewis repeating his ’10 production would be a godsend for a club trying to find out if its perceived franchise QB is, well, actually a franchise QB. Every offseason I make it a point to mention the intriguing upside of Jacksonville’s No. 2 TE Zach Miller, a tremendous athlete whose second home has been in the training room. Like Lewis, he will have an opportunity to sample the sweet taste of redemption in 2012.
Lastly, the team with the newest and shiniest toys with which to work: the Colts and their second- and third-round rookies, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. New coordinator Bruce Arians wants to run the offense through his young, athletic tight ends, and he hopes he has found his version of “Gronk” and Aaron Hernandez. We all know Fleener’s previous rapport with top overall pick Andrew Luck, but Allen is a player who has opened some eyes while Luck and Fleener have been away from the team, wrapping up their studies at Stanford. One team observer said Allen compares favorably to former Colt Marcus Pollard. He is bigger and bulkier, but carries himself in a similar way on the field. Pollard had some productive seasons working with Manning, and Luck has his safety valves firmly in place in Fleener and Allen.
As offenses continue to trend toward pass-catching TEs who can be a focal point, the AFC South has plenty of intrigue and untapped potential at the position. Who knows, maybe the next big thing is right under our noses.