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May 6, 2010
Tight ends becoming popular picks in NFL
They kept coming off the draft board at a record pace, from Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham in the first round (21st overall) to Miami's Dedrick Epps in the seventh round (235th). It seemed as if NFL teams couldn't get enough tight ends.
In the recent draft, a record 21 tight ends were selected. Four teams - Baltimore, Houston, New England and St. Louis - drafted two apiece.
In this day and age of spread offenses in college football - where coaches use four- and five-receiver sets - how are NFL teams finding so many pro-worthy tight ends?
Actually, it's because of ... well, the spread of the spread.
College coaches have begun using tight ends in a variety of ways, from having them line up in the slot to putting them in motion to lining them up in the backfield. In recent seasons, the NFL has begun to follow suit.
Gresham (6 feet 5/261 pounds) and former Arizona star Rob Gronkowski (6-6, 264), the second tight end picked in April, are the rare tight ends who have the size to be in-line blockers as well as the athleticism to split out as a pass catcher. Every team wants one of those types.
But the market has expanded to include the athletic, pass-catching tight ends often featured in spread offenses. Think of this newer breed of tight end as a beefed-up wide receiver. The spread offenses that have proliferated in the college game over the past decade have been a haven for the development of this new type of tight end.
NFL teams no longer want clunky, slow-footed, one-dimensional fullbacks taking up a roster spot. More and more NFL teams are going to two-tight end sets because it allows for more versatility and is more difficult to defend than traditional alignments.
"The fullback position is becoming kind of extinct in this league," Detroit Lions tight ends coach Tim Lappano says. "Teams are looking for the multi-dimensional tight end, a guy who can play in-line next to a tackle, a guy who can play in the slot, a guy who can play outside, a guy who can play in the backfield. Those guys have more value than just the old plow-horse fullback guys."
How many pure fullbacks were picked in the 2010 draft? One, Kentucky's John Conner, who went in the fifth round to the New York Jets.
"You saw a record number of tight ends picked partly because that is where the league has gone - the athletic, all-around kind of player who gives you value on special teams and gives you more value on the field rather than that straight-ahead fullback who is a lead blocker," Cleveland Browns scout Bob Morris says. "The league is going away from that guy."
Lappano calls the new breed of tight end "quarterback-friendly receivers. They are big targets, they are long, and you don't have to make the perfect throw."
The key reason NFL teams love these athletic tight ends: It's all about getting a better receiving threat on the field - not necessarily to pass but to give the threat of the pass to open room for the ground game.
"By having a two-tight end, two-receiver formation that you can run out of, you also can split out one of those tight ends and have a mismatch on a linebacker," Morris says. "That is the value of those guys.
"And if a defense is worried about the pass, that naturally will open room to run the football."
Former Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez was cited as an example of this new breed. Hernandez, who won the Mackey Award as college football's top tight end in 2009, lasted until the fourth round of the draft - reportedly because of off-field issues. But when he was drafted by the Patriots, observers immediately called him a fourth-round steal.
"Aaron Hernandez is a good example," Lappano says. "He can play down next to a tackle, but in the spread, he also not only is in the slot but also is outside against the corner. Those are multi-dimensional tight ends who play all over the field. They have a lot of value."
More and more college coaches are noticing the trend, too.
"In this day and age, if you can get a matchup on a linebacker with the athletes that are playing tight end in college, like Aaron Hernandez - where they split him out - that's what you want," University of Houston co-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury says. "The possibilities are endless when you have a guy who is that fast and that big and can run routes like that."
Multi-tight end sets give offenses an edge against defenses that are increasingly personnel-oriented. With multiple tight ends, offenses can be flexible.
"I think what the NFL likes is they get to see tight ends do a lot of different things [in college]," says new Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who ran some prolific attacks as Troy's coordinator before leaving to work for new Red Raiders coach Tommy Tuberville. "They get to see them line up as a wideout, line up with their hand down, line up as an 'H back.' … In your traditional offense, you don't get to see a tight end do all of those things. In a spread attack, you will."
Brown says Texas Tech wants tight ends who can run and catch. They also must show at least some ability to be physical in space. Brown believes a tight end can be taught how to block.
"We would like a guy who is 6-3 or better, a guy with the frame to be 230 or 240 pounds," he says. "We are looking for small forwards. That's what we are looking for. You want basketball players."
Two recent draftees are great examples. Fendi Onobun played basketball for four years at Arizona before transferring to Houston and playing tight end last fall. He was picked in the sixth round by the Rams. Like Onobun, Miami's Jimmy Graham played hoops before finishing his career as a tight end with the Hurricanes and getting picked in the third round by the Saints.
New Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes is one of the nation's top spread-offense minds, building some dynamic attacks as coordinator at Arizona before moving to Ruston. He knew having a tight end such as Gronkowski made calling plays easier for him in Tucson.
"Rob Gronkowski changed our offense," Dykes says. "We built the whole thing around what he could do. We thought he could single-block any [defensive] end in the Pac-10 and also run routes and get open."
Again, it gets down to matchups. Having multi-dimensional tight ends causes headaches for defenses. Dykes can flex out a tight end, who becomes a tough matchup for a corner by either throwing a block or catching a screen. Dykes also can line up his tight end inside to block a linebacker or run a route.
"It isn't as easy to figure out what you're doing with your personnel groups and you are less tendency-oriented," Dykes says. "You become unpredictable in your personnel groupings.
"A defense will have calls based on personnel groups. It becomes more difficult to game plan and you put the defense on its heels instead of them being the aggressor. It's all about gaining an advantage."
And few players are better suited to do it than tight ends.
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.