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The NFL always has been a copycat league. But … cloning?

In a sense, that is the direction NFL coaches and general managers are heading as they scour draft lists and basketball courts in search of taller, sleeker and more athletic tight ends. In fact, as the 2010 season approaches, it’s safe to say no other position in the NFL had a better decade than tight end.

Tight ends are catching more balls, averaging more yards and finding themselves crucial to more game plans than ever before, and this after the position was widely considered expendable, or an afterthought, while offenses were going more wide-open with single-back sets and tight ends who could have doubled as left tackles. Perhaps the ultimate postcard moment for the new era came last January, when agile players like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, Visanthe Shiancoe and Jeremy Shockey were integral parts of postseason berths. It was the year of the tight end — and it solidified the growing trend in the league. NFL coaches and general managers are going into scouting meetings with simple demands: Find long, lean, 250-poundish tight ends who can sprint fast and jump. And if you can’t find them on a football field, head to the gym.

Anyone who’s followed the NFL draft and the effectiveness of pioneering prototype tight ends like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez should have seen the rebirth of the position coming. Witten and Gates came along in 2003. A slew of tight ends with similar builds and backgrounds have ensued. What’s more: We may be only at the dawning of the greatest era NFL tight ends have known.

In the 1990s, nine first-round picks were used on tight ends. Most were blocking types. In the 2000s, 15 first-round picks were used on tight ends. Most were taller pass catchers. While jumping from nine first-rounders to 15 may not seem like a huge difference, consider that besides drafting more tight ends in the first round, including a pair of top 10 picks, GMs also have targeted taller and speedier players in later rounds in search of the next Sharpe, Gonzalez or Gates.

Why? Sharpe (6-2, 230 pounds), then Gonzalez (6-5, 243), then Gates (6-4, 260) had something else in common. They all played college basketball. They established the new mold by using vision, feet and jumping ability to exploit ever-changing NFL rules. From the mid-1990s, the league began making contact and physical play more difficult on defenses. It’s been a gradual process that almost always has benefited receivers. Offensive coordinators began looking for ways to play more wide-open games — especially over the middle of the field with bigger players, as safeties often cheated toward the sidelines. In the 1990s, against teams with lumbering, block-first tight ends, safeties could recover and linebackers could keep up. Now pass-catching NFL tight ends are hip again. With their length and athleticism, more often than not it is difficult for safeties to cover and tackle them. With their size and speed, they often render linebackers all but ineffective trying to keep up.

In 1990 not one of the league’s top 20 receptions leaders was a tight end. The Pro Bowl tight ends that year were Ferrell Edmunds, Rodney Holman, Keith Jackson and Steve Jordan. They combined for 2,348 yards and 15 touchdowns. By 2000, only one tight end ranked among the league’s top 20 in receptions. It was Gonzalez. The Pro Bowl tight ends in 2000 were Gonzalez, Stephen Alexander, Chad Lewis and Frank Wychek. They accounted for a modest bump to 3,084 receiving yards.

But by last season, with the new mold of tight end firmly established and growing, literally, five tight ends ranked among the top 20 in receptions, Clark, Witten, Gonzalez, Gates and Vernon Davis have become dominant players. Three more tight ends ranked in the top 25, at 21st (Kellen Winslow Jr.), 23rd (Brent Celek) and 24th (Heath Miller) in receptions. And 2009’s Pro Bowl tight ends accounted for a whopping 4,160 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns — a more than 56 percent increase in yardage and nearly a 58 percent increase in touchdowns since 1990. Moreover, five NFL tight ends had at least 965 receiving yards in 2009. Of the seven tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, three never even had one season with as many as 965 yards receiving.

Two of the brightest young stars among NFL tight ends, the Cowboys’ Martellus Bennett (6-6, 265) and the Packers’ Jermichael Finley (6-5, 247), played alongside one another on a nationally ranked summer league basketball team in high school. Bennett also played basketball for two seasons at Texas A&M. In this year’s NFL draft, Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham (6-6, 260), drafted 21st overall by Cincinnati, was a summer league basketball star as well. Jimmy Graham (6-6, 250), drafted in the third round by New Orleans, played basketball at Miami before switching to football for one season. And the St. Louis Rams snagged former Arizona basketballer Fendi Onobun (6-6, 252) in the sixth round, after Onobun played one season of football with just two catches at the University of Houston.

“When I was a kid, it was the big, blocking type of tight end … I had those kinds of images of the tight end,” Finley said. “It really now has to do more with guys playing basketball. That’s the big thing … having that ability to have the coordination, to jump and go get the ball, the quickness and the reaction time to always being on your toes. It makes it hard on defenses.”

Also worth noting is that tight ends continue to be among the best values in the game, considering they remain on the lower end of the pay scale compared to other groups.

For a position marginalized when the K-Gun, Run-and-Shoot and five-wide sets were all the rage, Sharpe, Gonzalez and Gates should be considered the Bird, Magic and Michael of their era. They helped save tight ends in the NFL. And now everybody wants to be like them.

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