If you ask most of the men who evaluate NFL talent, they will tell you that this was an exceptionally strong draft for tight ends.
We're not just talking about the ones that only excel at catching passes and are, in reality, glorified wide receivers. We're talking about complete tight ends -- those capable of blocking as well as catching.
Beginning with Cincinnati's first-round choice (Jermaine Gresham of Oklahoma), 19 players at the position were selected, making it one of the more popular spots in the draft. Three teams (Baltimore, New England, and St. Louis) even picked two tight ends apiece.
"Those clubs really took advantage of the draft," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, whose team did not select a tight end because it didn't have a need, but actually considered doing so. "I'm not surprised. It can be such a pivotal position when you're attacking opponents."
Teams clearly are having an increasing awareness of that. Twenty tight ends were drafted last year (although one, Chicago's Lance Louis, ended up at guard). That's double the total from 2005.
There were 15 tight ends selected in 2006, 12 in 2007, and 16 in 2008.
In addition, tight ends have been involved in some key trades the past two seasons. In 2009, the Atlanta Falcons acquired Tony Gonzalez, arguably the NFL's all-time greatest player at the position, from the Kansas City Chiefs. That same year, the Buccaneers picked up Kellen Winslow from the Cleveland Browns.
Earlier this month, Tony Scheffler joined the Detroit Lions as part of a three-way trade involving his former team, the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Lions also have Brandon Pettigrew, a first-round choice from '09 who suffered a serious knee injury as a rookie but is expected to fully recover.
That deal is reflective of the mentality that many teams have regarding tight ends. Scheffler, who is a talented receiver, will work mostly from the slot, similar to the way the Indianapolis Colts use Dallas Clark. Pettigrew will mainly be used as an in-line blocker, although he is capable of contributing as a receiver.
The Patriots used a second-round choice on one tight end, Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, and a fourth-round pick on another, Florida's Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski is more of a complete tight end, capable of blocking and catching, while Hernandez is more of a receiver.
The Rams had the same idea when they spent a fifth-round pick on Illinois' Michael Hoomanawanui, whose blocking and receiving should allow him to be an every-down player, and a sixth-rounder on Houston's Fendi Onobun, a standout receiver, whose blocking needs plenty of work.
"In past drafts, over the past few years, there have hardly been any (true) tight ends," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "This was a great year to get 'dual guys,' that can run block a little bit and also contribute in the passing game."
Among the major reasons that so many teams are aggressively pursuing tight ends is to better handle the pressure defenses are able to apply through creative blitzing. Through that approach, the 2009 New York Jets had the NFL's top-ranked defense and reached the AFC Championship Game. Another strong, blitz-oriented pass rush also went a long way toward helping the Pittsburgh Steelers to win a Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Both teams utilize a 3-4 scheme, to which a steadily growing number of clubs have shifted largely because of the benefits it provides in rushing the passer. To keep those defenses honest, offenses must give them something to worry about in the passing game beyond what they get from wide receivers and running backs.
"Even if you have a tight end that isn't a 4.6 (40-yard-dash) guy, the tight end is a real nice safety valve for the quarterback to have," Devaney said. "If you've got to spit the ball out fast, it's a comfort knowing you've got a sure-handed tight end as a receiver, even if he's not running down the middle of the field. If you have someone like that who knows how to read blitzes and knows how to get open, that becomes a quarterback's best friend."
Tight ends also factor heavily in an offense's ability to generate big plays against two-deep coverage. A tight end with good enough speed and pass-catching skills can force a safety to cover him in the seam or underneath zone coverage and leave a wide receiver one-on-one with a cornerback.
"Absolutely," Dominik said. "A tight end going down the seam or underneath can always find the soft spot (in the coverage). If you get a smart, instinctive guy like we feel like we have here in Kellen and certainly that they feel like they have in Atlanta (in Gonzalez), when they find that soft spot it's a high-percentage pass for your quarterback and a move-the-chains kind of throw. And if the safety comes over to cover him, you can take a shot (deep)."
A tight end can expand options when teams use the "Wildcat" and other formations where the quarterback isn't under center. That becomes an even larger factor near the goal line, where the tight end is always a primary target.
For the most part, when tight ends are on the field, opposing defenses will stick with base personnel and cover them with outside linebackers. However, that becomes risky when the tight end has more speed and athleticism. At that point, a defense has the dilemma of choosing whether to cover the tight end with a linebacker or defensive back, and weigh the positives and negatives of both strategies.
"If you've got a really good, athletic (tight end) there, do you have a linebacker that's good enough to cover him or do you have to go nickel and put a corner in?" Devaney said. "If that's the case, then you're weakening your run defense. That's what (offenses) are looking for all the time."
Said Dominik, "That was the main genesis behind us trading for Winslow last year -- to create those mismatches and give your quarterback higher-percentage passing plays and also be able to take advantage of sometimes being lined up against linebackers who don't have the athleticism that a corner does to cover a wide out."