INDIANAPOLIS – There is no doubt anymore what direction the offense in the National Football League is headed, and that’s further away from the physical ground attacks. Everyone is taking to the air more, which means the role of the tight end has changed significantly.
Old film from the 1980s of the New York Giants’ Mark Bavaro bowling over linebackers while opening holes for Otis Anderson and Joe Morris has been replaced with images of San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints streaking down the middle. Then you have New England’s Rob Gronkowski becoming a touchdown machine and reaching double digits with regularity.
No matter the scheme, the need for today’s tight end to be a viable threat in the passing game as a receiver has increased. Being able to block in the running game and more importantly, as a pass protector and downfield blocker still is critical, but the emergence of players like Graham has altered somewhat where those skills rank in the minds of scouts and general managers evaluating college prospects.
There seems to be a good mix in this year’s draft class of body types at the position that should satisfy the different tastes of the league’s coordinators, but the trend seems to be in the Gronkowski mold in terms of height. San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar measured at 6-foot-6 and 254 pounds upon arrival in Indianapolis, Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert was 6-5, 250, Stanford’s Zach Ertz is 6-5, 249 and Levine Tolilolo of Stanford is 6-8, 260.
Ertz had Andrew Luck as his quarterback while he backed up Coby Fleener at tight end and then he became the feature guy last year as a junior. He led the nation among tight ends in receiving yards with 898 and caught six touchdown passes. He takes pride in his in-line blocking and run blocking, but he has a clear vision of what kind of player he wants to be at the next level.
“I think Jason Witten is somebody that I’ve kind of looked toward the past couple of years because he truly is a complete a tight end,” Ertz said. “He’s a very good run blocker and a very good pass catcher and I think that’s something I try to emulate. I feel like I can do both jobs. At Stanford we were a run first offense and started with the power running game and as a receiver, that stuff kind of came more naturally, but I look forward to doing both.”
If there is one NFL head coach who has a truly unique understanding of the position and how it has evolved, Rob Chudzinski of the Cleveland Browns is that guy and he is in his first year on the job. He won two national championships with the Miami Hurricanes as a tight end from 1986-89 and has an offensive coordinator in Norv Turner who had the athletic Antonio Gates as his tight end in San Diego.
Chudzinski has coached tight ends at both levels since 1996, starting at his alma mater and then moving up to the NFL with the Browns and San Diego Chargers. He advanced to the role of offensive coordinator in Cleveland and then with the Carolina Panthers in 2011 and 2012 and realizes the shift that has taken place at the position he once played.
“The tight end position has evolved over the last 10 years or so and even longer than that and has become a critical part of a lot of offenses,” Chudzinski said. “I’ve been real fortunate to be around some tight ends that are special guys and certainly when you have that type of guy who’s versatile, you can split him out and you can do different things with him for your offense. He can block, he can catch, you can use him on third downs and you can use him on first and second downs. It’s a real weapon.”
The Patriots happen to have a real productive tight end tandem with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who came out in the same draft together. Hernandez brings an entirely different look to the position than his teammate at 6-1 and 245 pounds. New England has been able to utilize him more like a slot receiver because of his speed and quickness as well his sure hands, so his success has opened the door for other prospects with similar builds.
Among the tight ends in town this week hoping to follow in Hernandez’s shoes is fellow Florida Gator tight end Jordan Reed. He measured in at 6-2, 235 and originally was recruited to Gainesville as a quarterback. He also played some wide receiver before settling at tight end in 2012 and will be competing against the likes of Tennessee’s Mychal Rivera (6-3, 242) and Ohio State’s Jake Stoneburner (6-3, 252). These guys also still have to separate themselves from the bigger tight ends that happen to possess the same skill set and Ryan Otten out of San Jose State is one of those players at 6-5 but only 230 pounds.
“I feel like the position is changing a little bit, guys are more versatile and are able to do more things and I feel like that’s one of my biggest strengths,” said Otten, who caught 47 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns as a senior. “I can line up all over the field, create mismatches and make plays down the field. I feel good about the passing game, I just need to continue to get bigger, stronger, put on some more weight and keep working on my in-line blocking.”
So no, the blocking aspect of the tight end position will never completely go away and these prospects are smart to keep working on that skill. But with each 100-yard receiving game by Davis, Graham, Gronkowski and Hernandez, the profile for these players will begin to look more and more like that of a wide receiver.