When I stepped onto the practice field adjacent to Arrowhead Stadium in 1997, I had no idea that my Kansas City Chiefs teammate Tony Gonzalez was on the verge of revolutionizing the tight end position in the NFL. While I was well aware of Gonzalez's exploits as a two-sport athlete at Cal, I wondered how his athleticism, body control and hand-eye coordination would transfer to the NFL. And initially, he struggled to adjust to the pros, failing to log a start in his rookie campaign and having difficulties in practices and games.
Needless to say, Gonzalez evolved into a dominant force on Sundays, largely by relying on the skills that made him a solid college basketball player. With flawless footwork and superb balance, Gonzalez became a master of the "post-up" game in the middle of the field. He shielded defenders away from throws and used his superior reach to snatch balls out of the air in traffic. I watched Gonzalez track and adjust to errant passes like he was snatching rebounds. His aggressiveness pursuing the ball was akin to Dennis Rodman attacking the glass, which is why few defenders were able to impede his progress on "50-50" situations in the back corner of the end zone.
Watching Gonzalez tap into his hardwood background to become a perennial Pro Bowler led me to search for former basketball players when I began evaluating tight ends as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers. While many honed their hoop craft at the high school level, I gave special attention to those who played basketball in college because it spoke volumes about their overall athleticism. In fact, during my time in Carolina, John Fox was a big proponent of bringing in players who excelled at other sports in high school. He expressed a belief that their all-around athletic ability provided an edge against their one-dimensional counterparts.
It's no surprise that most of the top tight ends across the current NFL landscape are classified as hybrids, based on athleticism and unique skills. Many are former basketball players who draw on roundball experiences to help them dominate a league governed by elite athletes on the perimeter. So without further ado, here's the latest installment of my "Bucky's Best" series: the top 10 hybrid tight ends.
10) Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: No longer the dynamic playmaker who terrorized the NFL with his unique combination of size, agility and athleticism, Gates is still capable of delivering big plays in key moments. The 34-year-old is coming off a season in which he racked up 77 catches, including 49 that resulted in first downs. And he still has the ability to bully smallish defenders with "post-up" moves in the end zone. Given his overall effectiveness at his advanced age, I believe Gates remains one of the league's hybrid studs.
9) Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams: An injury to quarterback Sam Bradford kept Cook from fully realizing his potential in Year 1 with St. Louis last season, but the 6-foot-5, 254-pounder flashed enough talent to convince evaluators that he could be a true difference maker as a No. 1 option in the passing game. Cook displays receiver-like speed and quickness on the perimeter, but he's capable of throwing around his big body and moving defenders off the spot. As a result, he is a nightmare to defend in the red zone, particularly on spot and stick routes in the end zone, as evidenced by this video clip. Cook is also capable of blowing past linebackers and safeties on seam routes. It appears the Rams have a sleeping giant poised to break out in 2014.
8) Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers: Since entering the league as an intriguing talent (and first-round pick) in 2007, Olsen has blossomed into a productive tight end capable of aligning anywhere on the field. Although the Panthers don't fully utilize his athletic talents in their conservative offense, Olsen's speed and quickness make him a difficult guard for opponents lacking a dynamic safety. Consequently, Olsen tallied 12 receptions of 20-plus yards in 2013, emerging as the Panthers' most consistent deep threat. Without Steve Smith on the Panthers' roster this season, Olsen's numbers should go through the roof as he becomes Cam Newton's clear-cut top target.
7) Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins: The fourth-year pro embodies the new prototype at the position, with his unique combination of size, speed and explosiveness. At 6-3 and 255 pounds, he's like an oversized receiver, showing sneaky strength and power with the ball in his hands. Clay's overall athleticism and versatility prompts the Dolphins to put him in the slot in various empty formations, allowing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to take advantage of mismatches on the perimeter. (See: this 39-yard touchdown.) While Clay must continue to make strides as a route runner, he is such a tough cover in space that he has already caught my eye as a player who could go from good to great this season.
6) Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears: Coaches and scouts love tight end prospects with basketball backgrounds because their athletic skills are transferrable from hardwood to gridiron. Bennett, a standout high school hoopster who also lettered twice on the Texas A&M basketball team, routinely uses his post-up skills to outmuscle defenders between the hashes. In addition, Bennett possesses enough speed and quickness to stretch the field on vertical routes. Thus, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has a viable option to target down the middle when opponents use Cover 2 to bracket Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside. If Marc Trestman continues to keep his foot on the gas as a play-caller, Bennett could see his numbers spike in 2014.
5) Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos: Another former college basketball player makes his way onto this list after scoring 12 touchdowns on 65 receptions last fall. The 6-5, 250-pounder has quickly developed into a polished route runner, exhibiting outstanding balance and body control getting out of breaks. Thomas has the explosiveness and athleticism to blow past linebackers on fade routes, as evidenced by this video clip. With Peyton Manning prone to favoring a variety of empty formations with the tight end aligned outside of the receiver, the Broncos have the ideal weapon to exploit every conceivable defensive tactic.
4) Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns: Pardon me for the redundancy, but Cameron is another former collegiate hoopster who has blossomed into a Pro Bowl tight end. The 25-year-old is quite an athletic specimen, but his crafty route-running style and remarkable ball skills -- two things he fostered through years of work on the hardwood -- are what really make him unstoppable on the grass. Cameron patiently works through a variety of stems/releases to shake free from defenders, and he attacks the ball like a rebounder, coming down with critical catches in 50/50 situations. Cameron also boasts the ability to expand the strike zone with his raw athleticism, which makes him an even hotter commodity on a team that's seen some spotty quarterback play.
3) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: Gronk is currently recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2013 campaign prematurely, but he clearly deserves a spot on this list based on his spectacular impact when healthy. He is the ultimate red-zone weapon, with the size and strength of an offensive tackle and the agility of a receiver. Consequently, few defenders have been able to slow him down in one-on-one matchups, particularly near the end zone, where the condensed area makes size a huge factor. Need proof? How about 42 touchdown receptions in 50 career games? Of course, recent injury woes have limited his impact.
2) Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: When Davis blazed a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2006 NFL Scouting Combine, coaches and scouts immediately pegged him as a hybrid playmaker with the potential to revolutionize the position with his speed and explosiveness. After some early struggles -- and a little tough love from Mike Singletary -- Davis has lived up to the billing, notching 53 career touchdown grabs, including 13 in 2013. As a big-bodied speedster with outstanding first-step quickness, Davis excels at running down the seams on vertical routes, like on this 52-yard score. His burst and top-end speed are just too much for most defenders, including the safeties and nickel cornerbacks assigned to stay with him in man coverage. If Jim Harbaugh opens up the playbook this season to take advantage of Colin Kaepernick's big arm, Davis could finally top the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.
1) Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: Graham has taken up the mantle in the hybrid tight end movement. The former collegiate hoopster is changing the way offensive coordinators utilize tight ends, based on his success as essentially an oversized wide receiver in the Saints' offense. Graham rarely aligns in the traditional tight end spots; the Saints incorporate him into spread formations, pitting Graham against safeties and nickelbacks in space, as opposed to big, physical linebackers. He feasts on smallish defenders unable to challenge him at the line of scrimmage, using his imposing size (6-7, 265 pounds) and athleticism to post up over the middle of the field. With Drew Brees adept at identifying and exploiting mismatches, it's not surprising Graham has posted 41 touchdowns in just four NFL seasons, including an NFL-high 16 scores in 2013. Armed with a fat new contract that pays him like a wide receiver, Graham should continue to be the standard-bearer in this group for the foreseeable future.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.