The proliferation of the passing game in the NFL has led to a renaissance of the tight end position. Teams are building passing games around the talents of big, athletic pass catchers over the middle of the field. The results have been spectacular.
Last season, seven tight ends ranked among the top 21 in catches. Two tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham -- topped the 1,300-yard mark, ranking sixth and seventh, respectively, in receiving yards. In addition, Gronkowski led the league in receiving touchdowns (17), while Graham finished tied for fourth with 11 scores.
Given the impressive impact and production of Gronkowski and Graham, I thought it'd be interesting to compare them in five critical areas and determine who reigns supreme as an overall player.
Here are my findings:
Graham is the latest former college basketball player to storm the football field. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Graham towers over defenders on the perimeter and routinely utilizes post-up skills acquired from his previous sport to create space over the middle. Graham's exceptional body control, agility and movement skills are complemented by an impressive vertical leap and wingspan that makes him nearly indefensible in isolated matchups. Throw in his 4.56 speed -- the second-fastest time recorded by a tight end at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine -- and it's easy to see why opponents are having difficult time finding a defender (or two) capable of slowing down the third-year pro. Just take a look at the video to your right from the NFC divisional game against the San Francisco 49ers to see his remarkable athleticism on full display.
Gronkowski doesn't boast the multi-sport résumé of Graham, but he is an impressive athlete of his own accord. He dwarfs defenders on the perimeter with similarly imposing physical dimensions (6-foot-6, 260 pounds with 34 1/4-inch arms and 10 3/4-inch hands), but also displays the agility to run past linebackers in space. Although Gronkowski's movement skills aren't as fluid as many smaller NFL players, his ability to stop and start with quickness is uncommon for a man of his size and build.
Graham entered the NFL with only one year of major college football experience, but he has quickly become one of the most polished players at the position. As a route runner, in particular, Graham has become a masterful technician with the savvy and skill to set up defenders with clever head fakes and route stems (weaving to get a defender into a head-up position to create a two-way go for himself). In addition, he has displayed the awareness to break his routes at angles that prevent defenders from stepping in front of the intended throws. Although this is a coaching point that is stressed to pass catchers from the first day of minicamp, the fact that Graham has already mastered some of the nuances of the position at this stage of his career suggests he will remain one of the top playmakers at tight end for years to come.
Gronkowski is a little awkward and unorthodox as a technician, but he has developed into an effective route runner in space. He excels at utilizing his size, strength and athleticism to create separation from defenders. His ability to consistently work free over the middle has made him Tom Brady's favorite target in the red zone. As a result, Gronkowski set a single-season record in receiving touchdowns (17) by a tight end in 2011 and became the first tight end to lead the league in touchdown receptions.
Graham is an outstanding pass catcher with exceptional hands and ball skills. He tracks and adjusts well to errant passes, particularly high balls thrown over the top of defenders. This not only makes Graham difficult to defend in isolated matchups, but also makes him indefensible in the red zone on fades and posts thrown to the back of the end zone. Graham's ability to come down with difficult grabs in the end zone -- like this one -- makes him a coveted commodity for any offense.
Gronkowski displays extraordinary hands and ball skills as the Patriots' top playmaker. He excels at coming down with contested balls in traffic, which encourages Brady to target him on third-down and red-zone situations. He has an uncanny knack for making the difficult grab appear routine, and his consistency hauling in seemingly uncatchable balls is remarkable, considering his size and skill. In looking back at Gronkowski's three-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos in the AFC divisional round, it was his outstanding concentration on the 10-yard touchdown (video to your right) that stood out in my mind. Gronkowski's ability to extend and maintain control of the ball with his fingertips would be astounding for any receiver, but it's particularly jarring for a tight end with his size and build.
In today's NFL, tight ends are not expected to block with the physicality and ferocity of their predecessors. Graham certainly falls into that category, based on the way the Saints have employed him over his first two seasons. He is routinely deployed in a wide alignment, away from the end of the line, or put in motion to allow him to utilize his athleticism to position block (using his body as a shield to keep defenders from getting into the play) on the edge. While he enjoys some success in that capacity, Graham is certainly not a trained killer in the running game.
Gronkowski is the most quintessential throwback tight end. He not only gives you outstanding production in the passing game, but he is a rugged blocker adept at moving defenders off the ball. Gronkowski's combination of size, strength and tenacity overwhelms linebackers at the point of attack, and allows the Patriots to routinely direct their running game to his side. With Gronkowski also showing a willingness to finish in a physical and aggressive manner, it is hard to find another tight end that rivals his effectiveness in the run game.
Graham quietly put up one of the best statistical seasons of any tight end in NFL history. He nearly topped the 100-catch mark and posted a 1,300-yard season, which is a remarkable feat for a tight end. Graham's 18 receptions of 20-plus yards ranked second among NFL tight ends (behind Gronkowski), and his 11 touchdowns placed him fourth in the league in receiving scores. While his statistical production stands out, it is his ability to make timely plays in the clutch that makes him one of the most explosive playmakers to enter the league in some time.
Gronkowski now owns the NFL's single-season records in receiving yardage (1,327) and touchdowns receptions (17) by a tight end, but those numbers don't fully demonstrate his overall impact on the field. He is a game changer at the position, with the size and skill to make impact plays from anywhere on the field. He has shown the ability to stretch the field on vertical routes down the seam, but is most effective as the big target in the red zone. He routinely overwhelms defenders in isolated matchups, and his spectacular production is a testament to his big-play ability. Gronkowski's ability to make catch-and-run plays in the open field sets him apart from others at the position. Watch the video to your right, and take note of Gronkowski's speed and acceleration as he pulls away from defenders on this 52-yard touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs.
It's hard to go wrong with either Graham or Gronkowski as the choice in this debate because both bring exceptional playmaking abilities to the table. Graham is a matchup nightmare with the athleticism of a receiver in a tight end's body. He is just scratching the surface of his immense talent and potential as a developmental player, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.
Gronkowski is equally as imposing with his size, strength and skill. He overwhelms defenders with his ability to take over games as both a pass catcher and a devastating blocker on the edge. With a game that is nearly flawless in every aspect, I have to give Gronkowski the nod over Graham in a debate that is as close as you'll find in the NFL.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks