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

Team Irvin 32 FINAL
Team Carter 28
Miami 96 FINAL
Chicago 84
Oklahoma City 98 FINAL
Cleveland 108
Dallas 106 FINAL
New Orleans 109
Indiana 106 FINAL
Orlando 99
LA Clippers 120 FINAL
Phoenix 100
Minnesota 100 FINAL
Atlanta 112
Detroit 110 FINAL
Toronto 114
Milwaukee 95 FINAL
San Antonio 101
Boston 111 FINAL
Golden State 114
Washington 117 FINAL
Denver 115
Houston 99 FINAL
LA Lakers 87
Team Toews 17 FINAL
Team Foligno 12
South Florida 53 FINAL
Connecticut 66
Boston College 64 FINAL
Georgia Tech 62
Virginia 50 FINAL
Virginia Tech 47
Indiana 70 FINAL
Ohio State 82
Stony Brook 61 FINAL
Binghamton 54
Cincinnati 56 FINAL
UCF 46
Maine 70 FINAL
Hartford 61
Monmouth 64 FINAL
Manhattan 71
Fairfield 67 FINAL
Marist 73
Rowan 48 FINAL
Princeton 96
St Bonaventure 48 FINAL
Rhode Island 53
Duke 77 FINAL
St Johns 68
Saint Peters 69 FINAL
Siena 55
Drake 40 FINAL
Wichita State 74
Vermont 61 FINAL
UMass Lowell 50
Seton Hall 57 FINAL
Butler 77
NJIT 72 FINAL
South Alabama 55
Northern Iowa 54 FINAL
Illinois State 53
Louisville 80 FINAL
Pittsburgh 68
UMBC 55 FINAL
Albany 69
Niagara 64 FINAL
Iona 87
Notre Dame 81 FINAL
NC State 78
Belmont 63 FINAL
Tennessee St 55
Creighton 50 FINAL
Villanova 71
Northwestern 67 FINAL
Maryland 68
Washington 56 FINAL
Utah 77
Senior-North 34 FINAL
Senior-South 13
Seton Hall 99 FINAL
Georgetown 85
St Johns 69 FINAL
Villanova 81
Arkansas 58 FINAL
Florida 72
Maine 56 FINAL
UMBC 42
Vanderbilt 55 FINAL
Alabama 52
Lafayette 60 FINAL
Lehigh 65
UCF 61 FINAL
SMU 57
Utah 51 FINAL
Washington 63
James Madison 73 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 53
Delaware 56 FINAL
Drexel 61
Hofstra 56 FINAL
William & Mary 57
Hartford 58 FINAL
Albany 82
Binghamton 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Towson 63 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 71
Wake Forest 80 FINAL
(17) Florida State 110
Georgia Tech 68 FINAL
Virginia 62
(22) Georgia 51 FINAL
(5) Tennessee 59
Drake 79 FINAL
Evansville 62
Iona 80 FINAL
Canisius 62
Fairfield 33 FINAL
Monmouth 59
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Penn State 76
Wisconsin 71 FINAL
Michigan State 77
Ohio State 79 FINAL
Purdue 71
Northern Iowa 57 FINAL
Indiana State 55
Butler 58 FINAL
Xavier 54
Creighton 93 FINAL
Marquette 75
Providence 42 FINAL
DePaul 90
Northeastern 77 FINAL
Elon 80
(2) Connecticut 96 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Oregon 78 FINAL
Arizona 81
Bradley 46 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 45
NC State 49 FINAL
(23) Syracuse 66
(7) Maryland 84 FINAL
Indiana 74
Illinois State 35 FINAL
Missouri State 58
Colorado 68 FINAL
Washington St 73
Tulane 45 FINAL
South Florida 64
(14) Kentucky 83 FINAL
Missouri 69
(9) Oregon State 68 FINAL
(13) Arizona State 57
Vermont 63 FINAL
UMass Lowell 72
Iowa State 58 FINAL
(8) Texas 57
Southern Ill 61 FINAL
Wichita State 80
(15) Duke 74 FINAL
(12) North Carolina 67
Miami-Florida 55 FINAL
(4) Louisville 68
(21) Minnesota 61 FINAL
(25) Rutgers 66
California 72 FINAL
UCLA 57
(11) Stanford 71 FINAL
USC 60
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 NoonX37-35
Dec 28 - vs. Chicago NoonX13-9

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who will win the Super Bowl?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close