The tight end position in pro football has evolved dramatically from the days when the primary role was to serve as an extra offensive lineman.
Today, the tight end is a multi-dimensional weapon, with the position’s elite players ranking among the most dangerous offensive players in the game.
The tight end’s use as a pass receiver began to expand in the 1960s when players such as the Chicago Bears’ Mike Ditka and the Baltimore Colts’ John Mackey began venturing downfield with regularity to haul in passes. Ditka, in his rookie season in the National Football League in 1961, became the first tight end in league history to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season, finishing with 1,076 on 56 catches, along with 12 touchdowns. Such numbers were unheard of for the position in those days.
Mackey, a little leaner than Ditka at six foot three, 220 pounds, had more speed along with a knack for highlight reel plays. He averaged 20 yards per catch on his 40 receptions in 1965, and in 1966, seven of his nine touchdowns covered 50 yards or more.
Ditka and Mackey were followed by tight ends such as Jackie Smith, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow, who were essentially large wide receivers. Winslow, in particular, was the prototype for today’s top tight ends — topping 250 pounds while possessing the speed and athleticism of the outside receivers. Winslow was one of the prime weapons in San Diego’s “Air Coryell” passing attack, named for head coach Don Coryell.
Winslow was followed in the 1990s by Shannon Sharpe, the first tight end to surpass 10,000 receiving yards for his career, and Sharpe gave way to Tony Gonzalez, who retired after last season with more than 15,000 yards to his credit.
Today’s tops tight ends have taken the position to new heights — literally. While Ditka and Mackey stood six-foot-three, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski is a six-foot-six, 265-pound monster. The Saints’ Jimmy Graham is an inch taller than Gronk and tips the scales at the same weight. Little wonder these guys are causing fits for opposing defences. How do you stop someone who is too fast for linebackers and who overpowers defensive backs? Well, mostly, you don’t. Gronkowski set a single-season touchdown pass record for tight ends with 17 in 2011, and has produced several highlight-reel catches this season among his 50-plus receptions.
Graham was leading all tight ends in receptions with 59 heading into this past weekend. Denver’s Julius Thomas was tied for the NFL?lead in touchdown catches with 12 heading into week 12 of the season.
All three of these mismatch nightmares for opposing defences were basketball players in high school or college, and bring a new level of athleticism to the position. Other top tight ends, among them Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron, also have a hoops background.
The influx of bigger, faster and more athletic tight ends has altered the passing game, with teams making greater use of them as targets in the aerial attack. According to the numbers folks at STATS, NFL tight ends totalled fewer than 2,000 pass receptions in every season from 1994 to 2006. This year, the league’s tight ends are on pace for a fourth straight season of more than 2,300 catches.
It’s no wonder, since trying to defend against these athletic freaks is a major challenge for defensive units. Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer who now serves as an NFL television analyst, said in a recent Associated Press story, “It’s the No. 1 mismatch in the NFL. Even when you’re guarded, you’re not guarded.”
Tight ends will continue to cause headaches for defensive coaches until the NFL starts seeing linebackers with the size of defensive linemen and the speed of defensive backs . . . someone like, say, J.J. Watt, the freakish defensive end of the Houston Texans.
Until then, it’s the reign of the tight ends.