A position in evolution

Posted Apr 17, 2012

The tight end position in the NFL has become one where receiving is replacing blocking as their primary responsibility, and the tight ends in the 2012 draft class are benefitting from the change in philosophy.

The opinions and analysis contained in this feature represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of the Seahawks' coaching staff and personnel department.

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When Ozzie Newsome retired in 1990 after 13 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, many felt he had taken the tight end position about as far as it could go.

The seven-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s. He played in 198 consecutive games. He caught 662 passes for 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns. He wouldn’t just block, he’d knock your block off. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, and still is considered by some to be the greatest to ever play the position.

But Newsome also is one of the first to admit that the position has evolved into something completely different from his playing days.


This is the fourth in a series of articles previewing the three-day NFL Draft. Today: The receivers. Thursday: Offensive line.
Previously: The Seahawks’ take on the draft; the quarterbacks; the running backs.

The Draft
Round 1: Thursday, April 26, 5 p.m.
Rounds 2-3: Friday, April 27, 4 p.m.
Rounds 4-7: Saturday, April 28. 9 a.m.

Seahawks picks
First round: No. 12 overall
Second round: No. 43
Third round: No. 75
Fourth round: No. 106
Fifth round: No pick; to Bills in Marshawn Lynch trade
Sixth round: No. 181
Seventh round: Own pick, No. 219, traded to Lions for Tyler Polumbus; No. 225, from Raiders in Aaron Curry trade

Seahawks Draft party: Thursday, April 26, CenturyLink Field Event Center, 4 p.m. More information available here.

“Tight ends can be a weapon,” Newsome, now the general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Tight end is a position now that people have to defend when they show up on Sundays.

“I get some thrills out if it. I just think that two years ago it was a great draft for tight ends and people took advantage of that.”

Now, tight ends are taking advantage of defenses on a weekly basis.

Last season, 13 tight ends either led their team in receptions or finished second. Six of the Top 20 pass-catchers in the league, and 13 of the Top 50, were tight ends. Two of the Top 7 players in receiving yards were tight ends, and 14 of the Top 50.

The Saints’ Jimmy Graham (99 for 1,310) and Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski (90 for 1,327) led the way, but the list of tough-to-cover tight ends also included the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions for the position; Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew, Cowboys’ Jason Witten, Patriots’ hybrid Aaron Hernandez,  Buccaneers’ Kellen Winslow II, 49ers’ Vernon Davis, Jets’ Dustin Keller, Chargers’ Antonio Gates, Eagles’ Brent Celek, Redskins’ Fred Davis and Bengals’ Jermaine Graham. Each had at least 56 receptions.

What in the name of Chuck Knox is going on here? Pete Metzelaars, who played for the Knox-coached Seahawks in 1983-84, once offered, “The tight end can go an entire season in Seattle and the only thing he’ll catch is a cold.” 

But then this isn’t Knox’s NFL anymore.

And what about the tight end class for the April 26-28 draft?

“I think the tight end class is a bad class,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “That’s not good, given Gronkowski and Hernandez and what we’ve seen in the NFL. Everyone is looking for the next guy.”

That’s why so many teams are taking a long look at Stanford’s Coby Fleener, even though Mayock does not have a first-round grade among the tight ends.

“I have three second-round grades,” said Mayock, who includes Georgia’s Orson Charles and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen with Fleener. “The tight end class is a rough one.”

Especially for teams that want to get in on the tight-end trend, or those looking for another to pair with one they already have to give them the kind of 1-2 knockout punch possessed by the Patriots – who selected Gronkowski (second round) and Hernandez (fourth round) in 2010. Last season, they combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 24 TDs – including 17 by Gronkowski, which is a league record for the tight end position. 

“I would say it’s evolved,” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the combine. “People have played tight ends in space; everybody’s just doing it more.”

And those tight ends are doing more with it. Gronkowski (1,327) and Jimmy Graham (1,310) each surpassed the league single-season record for receiving yards set by Kellen Winslow in 1980.

“There was a point in my career, from an offensive philosophy standpoint, where I just got away from playing the 260-, 270-pound tight end that had been able to block a defensive end and do those types of things,” McCarthy said. “We have common threads from a philosophical standpoint that we look at, how we play on offense, and we believe tackles should block defensive ends.

“We’ve gone to the more athletic tight end. If you look at our tight ends last year, we had five tight ends on our roster and we’re looking to move those guys around, having them do things with job responsibilities that they can have a higher rate of success than blocking a 260-, 270-pound defensive end. We’re playing those guys in space more.

“I’ve always felt the tight end gives you the best flexibility.”

Not to mention unprecedented productivity.

“The guys that played in the NFL last season – the Jimmy Grahams, the Gronkowskis of the world – have really done our class of tight ends a favor this year,” Fleener said.