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Tight ends have evolved into major offensive weapons

Is it OK to call 2011 the "Year of the Tight End"? Sounds cheesy, but I'm afraid it might be true. Take a look around the league. If there is one position that's loaded with young and old talent, it's tight end.

Let's throw out some young names: Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Dustin Keller, Tony Moeaki, and Jacob Tamme. The latter caught 67 passes over the last 10 games of the season. Ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, how about some of the productive vets who are creating mismatch problems all over the place: Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Heath Miller, Tony Gonzalez (still), Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, Zach Miller, Dallas Clark, and Owen Daniels (who Pat Kirwan said looks great in camp). Last season, Daniels struggled to return from a tough knee injury suffered on the poor man's Persian rug at Paul Brown Stadium in 2009. With Andre Johnson commanding a safety over the top and teams determined not to let Arian Foster declare war on them, OD might catch 80 balls.

Eighty catches ... sounds like a lot. Who knows, that may barely crack the top five at this position in 2011. Witten caught 94 last season. Tamme easily would have if he played all year. Pettigrew caught 71, and was targeted 111 times. Look for the 49ers' Davis to have a monster year, with Michael Crabtree on the PUP list and a rookie quarterback in Colin Kaepernick potentially starting. While he may see blanket coverage, he's sure to be targeted quite frequently.

Ditto Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville. Lewis should see much action, especially if Blaine Gabbert ends up starting. Nothing suits a young buck under center better than an experienced one playing on either side of the tackles. Lewis, who I didn't even mention earlier, led all tight ends with 10 touchdowns last season. Gresham should benefit from both Andy Dalton's growing pains and wideout A.J. Green's adjustment to the pro game. Staying in the same division, another guy I didn't mention earlier, Cleveland's Ben Watson, could similarly improve on his 2010 performance with Colt McCoy expected to start from day one. When McCoy started the final three games last year, Watson was thrown at a whopping 24 times.

But forget the specifics. Let's take a gander at the position as a whole, and how it's evolved statistically. Since 2000, the average receptions, yardage, and touchdowns for tight ends across the league are way up.

Stats from all tight end starts, 2000 vs. 2010
Year Catches Yards TDs
2000 1,269 13,551 100
2010 1,739 19,541 155
»241 total starts in 2000 vs. 252 in 2010
Numbers courtesy of STATS, LLC

Even with guys like Finley and Clark missing major time last season, the primary tight ends in 2010 blew away their peers' numbers from 10 seasons ago. The biggest discrepancy? Productivity in the red zone. The starting tight ends 10 years ago scored only 100 touchdowns in 241 starts. Last season's starting tight ends scored 155 times in 252 starts. That's a huge jump. (Are any  fantasy geeks out there still reading this far down the page?)

So now that we've established the statistical spike, what's the root cause? Like anything else, it's tough to attribute the quantum shift from barely relevant to integral in the passing game, but it starts with run-pass ratio. As more coaches like Andy Reid opt to throw 60 percent of the time, the need for a tight end who can catch and block is not as vital. Not to mention, with 53-man rosters in the modern era, clubs have opted for blocking specialists like Chicago's Matt Spaeth.

The propensity for defenses to play the "Tampa 2," or classic Cover Two, indirectly affected tight ends' productivity in the sense that the known weak spot of that defensive scheme is the deep middle. Think about it: safeties split the field, each taking a side. Often they would get led toward the sideline, with middle linebackers having to backpedal to stay with the tight end in the center of the field. Few could. Guys like Gates have made a living there.

With tight ends being targeted more, the body types have shifted as well. Gates and Davis are essentially Terrell Owens and Larry Fitzgerald with a few more biscuits under their belt -- without the loss of athleticism. In fact, Carolina's Greg Olsen ran a 4.39 at the combine a few years ago. They are glorified wideouts, and their training and physiques reflect that.

The pro game has morphed into a play-not-to-lose, short passing game that ultimately plays into the tight ends' hands. And I expect the ball to land in tight ends' hands a lot this season. Fifteen guys could potentially catch 60 passes from the position. So don't be surprised if your favorite team's leading receiver is a little meatier than usual.

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