Tight ends move to the forefront of NFL offenses

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2012 - 9:27 AM

A burgeoning group of gifted tight ends, with soft hands as well as brute force, are causing fits for defenses around the NFL.

hide

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

As a high school football player in Cincinnati, Kyle Rudolph marveled at the way Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates ran wild through NFL defenses as pass-catching tight ends. Rudolph saw endless possibilities for his position.

"That's when the position was just starting to change where you flex them out, move them around, treat them like a wide receiver type," said Rudolph, a second-year tight end for the Vikings. "That's all I've ever known as far as the position."

Once employed primarily as in-line blockers and anonymous grunt workers, tight ends have evolved, becoming an integral component of offenses as primary receivers. Teams covet big, fast, athletic tight ends because they create fundamental mismatches for defenses. The new breed is too fast for linebackers, too big for safeties.

Statistics reflect the shift in philosophy. In 1990, no NFL tight end caught 60 passes. Six reached that mark in 2000, and 11 did in 2011, led by New Orleans' Jimmy Graham with 99.

Six tight ends finished in the top 17 in the league in receptions last season.

"That position has dramatically changed," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "They have become almost another wide receiver with so many teams today. It creates some mismatches for defenses trying to match up with linebackers and safeties. All of a sudden, [defenses] have to put personnel on the field that doesn't fit, and it creates problems."

The Vikings face another difficult matchup Sunday in San Francisco's Vernon Davis, who caught seven passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns in their 2009 meeting. Pass-catching tight ends have given the Vikings fits in recent years. Since 2009, 10 tight ends have led their teams in receptions against the Vikings.

"Now there are so many," Frazier said. "Almost every team in the league has a guy who has the capability to be distant from the formation, not just in the box like there once was."

Some teams don't limit themselves to just one. In 2010, the New England Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, draft-day decisions that underscored coach Bill Belichick's longstanding affection for that position.

Belichick provided another blueprint for others to copy in his double tight end model. Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and an NFL-leading 17 touchdowns last season, and Hernandez wasn't far behind (79-910-7).

"You think you've seen it all," Rudolph said, "and then you watch a Patriots game and you see Aaron Hernandez taking a handoff at tailback. The position is forever changed."

Money talks

The value placed on tight ends is reflected in the salaries. The franchise tag that teams use to retain key potential free agents represents the top five salaries at the player's position. The franchise tag for tight ends in 2000 was worth $2.385 million. The tag designation was $7.285 million last season. Granted, salaries at every position have risen significantly in that span, but tight ends clearly are perceived differently in terms of their importance.

"You're seeing that more tight ends have gotten significant contracts," Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. "They're not just another offensive lineman."

Pass-catching tight ends are not a new phenomenon. Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey revolutionized the position by showcasing their receiving skills. Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and Shannon Sharpe changed the job description and opened doors for a new wave who have made their mark primarily as receivers.

"These guys right now are so much bigger than we were, it's unbelievable," Ditka said. "These guys are power forwards in basketball."

Literally in some cases. Graham played only one season of football at the University of Miami. He played basketball for four seasons, finishing his career eighth in school history in blocks. Rudolph, who is 6-6 and 260 pounds, had Division I basketball offers as a prep star.

The preferred body type fits that "power forward" mold. Ditka (6-3, 228 pounds) and Mackey (6-2, 224) wouldn't measure up to players such as Gronkowski (6-6, 265), Gates (6-4, 255) and Gonzalez (6-5, 247).

"Everybody is just getting more athletic," former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said. "I think that's the way it's going to have to go with the linebackers. Some of these big, bulky, thumper-type linebackers, if you want to play on the field all three downs, you've got to drop some weight and become a little lighter, quicker and a little more athletic to cover these guys."

College roots

Vikings tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson credits the evolution to a trickle-up effect from the college game. Spread offenses are the rage in college so fewer teams use a traditional blocking tight end.

"I would have loved to be playing now," joked Johnson, who caught 61 passes in his 10-year NFL career.

NFL teams still require tight ends to block, just not as often. Spielman said the shift in skill sets makes it more difficult when evaluating college players as blockers.

"It's almost impossible, unless they're in an offense where you can sit there and watch them at the line of scrimmage and block," he said. "Rarely do you see them in a traditional [role]."

NFL tight ends line up everywhere now. Next to the tackle, split out wide, in the slot, in motion, even in the backfield. Many teams, including the Vikings, employ two-tight end sets in which both are receivers.

"They're being very creative in how they use them," Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said.

The difference now, Leber said, is that seemingly every team has one -- or two -- tight ends that it uses in that function. It's become the norm.

"It used to be you had pockets of certain teams," he said. "You only had to worry about it when you played those teams once or twice a year. Now it's pretty much every team is trying to find that type of guy. That's the trend. I don't think it's a short-term thing. I think that's the way it's going to be for a long time."

  • VIKINGS VS. SAN FRANCISCO Noon Sunday • Mall of America Field • TV: Ch. 9 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM) • Line: 49ers by 7

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Utah 6:00 PM
Orlando
Charlotte 6:00 PM
Philadelphia
Brooklyn 6:30 PM
Cleveland
Washington 6:30 PM
Miami
Minnesota 6:30 PM
Boston
Toronto 6:30 PM
Detroit
Chicago 7:00 PM
Memphis
Portland 7:00 PM
San Antonio
LA Clippers 8:00 PM
Denver
Oklahoma City 9:30 PM
LA Lakers
Tampa Bay 6:00 PM
New Jersey
Anaheim 6:30 PM
Ottawa
NY Islanders 6:30 PM
Detroit
Boston 7:00 PM
Winnipeg
Dallas 8:00 PM
Calgary
Wilberforce 71 FINAL
Youngstown St 92
Jackson State 27 2nd Half 14:30
Tulane 34
Siena 5:00 PM
Radford
Stillman 6:00 PM
Alabama
Case Western Reserve 6:00 PM
Bucknell
Niagara 6:00 PM
Buffalo
SD Christian 6:00 PM
UC Santa Barbara
Concordia (MI) 6:00 PM
Central Mich
Northern Ill 6:00 PM
Dartmouth
North Florida 6:00 PM
Florida A&M
Hiwassee 6:00 PM
Gardner-Webb
Tennessee St 6:00 PM
Hampton
NC A&T 6:00 PM
Kent State
Central Penn College 6:00 PM
Liberty
Bethune-Cookman 6:00 PM
Mercer
Eastern Ky 6:00 PM
Miami-Florida
Northern Ky 6:00 PM
Morehead State
Northern Ariz 6:00 PM
Norfolk State
MD-Eastern Shore 6:00 PM
Old Dominion
St Marys-CA 6:00 PM
St Johns
Clemson 6:00 PM
South Carolina
Tenn Tech 6:00 PM
Tennessee
Washington-MD 6:00 PM
William & Mary
Furman 6:30 PM
Fla Gulf Coast
South Dakota St 6:30 PM
CS-Bakersfield
Milligan 7:00 PM
Lamar
LSU-Alexandria 7:00 PM
ULM
Southern Utah 7:00 PM
Loyola-Chicago
Chattanooga 7:00 PM
Middle Tennessee
Seattle 7:00 PM
Minnesota
Lipscomb 7:00 PM
Princeton
Winthrop 7:00 PM
SE Louisiana
Dickinson State 7:00 PM
North Dakota
New Orleans 7:05 PM
Southern Ill
TX-Pan American 8:00 PM
Creighton
Colorado State 8:00 PM
Denver
Alabama A&M 8:00 PM
Marquette
Ark-Pine Bluff 8:00 PM
Texas Tech
Eastern Wash 9:00 PM
California
Idaho State 9:05 PM
Utah State
Arizona 10:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 10:59 PM
Chaminade
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Ohio Valley 33 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
East Tenn St 48 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 61
Cal-Irvine 44 FINAL
Purdue 69
Campbell 63 FINAL
Stetson 76
Louisiana 1:00 PM
Alcorn State
Jacksonville St 62 2nd Half 7:59
Charleston Southern 25
Denver 27 2nd Half
Wright State 37
Texas State 2:00 PM
Bethune-Cookman
Blue Mountain 8 1st Half 9:38
Central Arkansas 21
Albany 3:00 PM
Pepperdine
TX-San Antonio 3:00 PM
Houston
Yale 3:30 PM
Bucknell
Northern Colorado 3:30 PM
Fla Gulf Coast
Belmont 4:00 PM
Mercer
Massachusetts 4:00 PM
Georgia State
George Mason 4:05 PM
Winthrop
Portland State 4:30 PM
Princeton
UCLA 5:00 PM
Samford
Mobile 5:00 PM
Alabama State
Nicholls 5:30 PM
Texas Tech
Toledo 5:30 PM
Nevada
UMass Lowell 5:30 PM
(13) Duke
St Marys-CA 6:00 PM
Virginia
McNeese State 6:00 PM
Rice
McMurry 6:00 PM
Houston Baptist
NJIT 6:00 PM
Seton Hall
(6) North Carolina 6:00 PM
Maine
Lafayette 6:00 PM
Stony Brook
Siena 6:00 PM
Binghamton
Longwood 6:00 PM
Clemson
Savannah State 6:00 PM
Florida State
(19) Syracuse 6:00 PM
(9) Baylor
Buffalo 6:00 PM
Manhattan
Ohio U 6:00 PM
La Salle
Canisius 6:00 PM
Michigan
Davidson 6:00 PM
NC State
Northern Ky 6:00 PM
Delaware
Saint Louis 6:30 PM
Austin Peay
(25) DePaul 6:30 PM
(2) Connecticut
Florida Atlantic 7:00 PM
Long Beach St
Miami-Florida 7:00 PM
Tulane
Miss Valley St 7:00 PM
Memphis
Ark-Pine Bluff 7:00 PM
UAB
Bowling Green 7:05 PM
Illinois State
Arkansas State 7:05 PM
Missouri State
ULM 7:05 PM
Wichita State
(16) Oregon State 8:00 PM
Southern Ill
Utah Valley U 8:30 PM
Montana
Pacific 9:00 PM
New Mexico St
No Dakota State 9:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Utah State 9:00 PM
Sacramento St
Bethesda (CA) 9:00 PM
Fresno State
LSU 9:30 PM
UC Santa Barbara
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 preseason     
Aug 8 - vs. Oakland 7 pmX10-6
Aug 16 - vs. Arizona 7:30 pmX30-28
Aug 23 - at Kansas City 7 pmX30-12
Aug 28 - at Tennessee 7 pmX19-3
2014 regular season     
Sep 7 - at St. Louis NoonX34-6
Sep 14 - vs. New England NoonX30-7
Sep 21 - at New Orleans NoonX20-9
Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta 3:25 pmX41-28
Oct 2 - at Green Bay 7:25 pmX42-10
Oct 12 - vs. Detroit NoonX17-3
Oct 19 - at. Buffalo NoonX17-16
Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay NoonX19-13 ot
Nov 2 - vs. Washington NoonX29-26
Nov 9 - Bye
Nov 16 - at Chicago NoonX21-13
Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay NoonX24-21
Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina NoonX31-13
Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets NoonX30-24 ot
Dec 14 - at Detroit 3:25 pmX16-14
Dec 21 - at Miami Noon
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago Noon

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Will Christian Ponder ever be a full-time starter in the NFL?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close