Things can change dramatically in a decade. Just ask an NFL tight end.
In 2003, the men who played the position did not, for the most part, spend much time with the football. That season, tight ends were targeted 1,406 times, catching 903 passes and scoring 68 touchdowns. Except for a few outliers, like Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe, they were valued as much for their ability to throw a solid block as they were for their ability to get their hands on the pigskin.
Ten years later, of course, the numbers painted a strikingly different picture: In the 2013 season, tight ends were targeted a whopping 2,485 times, collecting 1,631 catches and scoring 159 touchdowns. The statistical explosion underlined something that has become obvious to many, including Gonzalez,current star Jimmy Graham and rookie Eric Ebron: The position has undergone a radical metamorphosis.
When I was working for the Dallas Cowboys, we might have thrown to the tight end 20 times per year. (Even the first player to enter the Hall of Fame as a tight end -- Mike Ditka, who caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards as a rookie with the Bears -- was viewed more as a blocker than as a speed guy.) That said, our coach, Tom Landry, did use two-tight end sets; years later, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have great success with two-TE sets powered by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Along the way, guys like Kellen Winslow, Sharpe, Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates proved that the tight end could help power an aerial attack.
Now, with dynamic pass-catchers like Graham, Gronkowski, Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas running wild, tight ends are putting up dazzling lines that rival those of even the most prolific wide receivers. Consider that in three of the past five seasons, a tight end has either led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (Graham did it with 16 in 2013, while Gronkowski did it with 17 in 2011) or tied for the league lead (Vernon Davis had 13 in 2009). Graham's attempt to change his franchise-tag designation from tight end to wide receiver failed, but the broader positional trend is clear.
Today, the prototypical tight end has the ability to catch the ball and make something happen after the reception. Ideally, he'll also be able to block -- though he might not even be up on the line of scrimmage most of the time, as pass-catching tight ends tend to move around quite a bit. The key, of course, is forcing an advantageous matchup with the defense, getting your fast guy to be covered by their slow guy (often a linebacker).
There currently seem to be more tight ends in this mold coming down the pike than ever before. I've identified seven youngsters, all with two years or less of NFL experience, who have the receiving ability to keep the tight end revolution going strong -- beyond the current reign of guys like Graham, Gronk, Cameron and Thomas.
Green might be something of an unknown outside of San Diego, but he's going to be pretty special. As a skinny rookie coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2012, he played sparingly and failed to make much of a statistical dent, managing just four catches for 56 yards in four games. When I saw him at Chargers training camp last year, he'd improved his physical makeup to the point that I almost didn't recognize him. Sure enough, he went on to play in all 16 games -- including 10 starts -- and notch 17 catches for 376 yards and three scores.
The 24-year-old is very, very athletic, a long-striding guy who seems to gain about 5 yards with every step he takes (see: his yards-per-catch mark of 22.1 in 2013). Considering his upward trajectory and Philip Rivers' history of success with the more famous of San Diego's dynamic tight ends -- Antonio Gates -- I expect Green to explode in 2014. He has true Pro Bowl potential.
Ebron broke Vernon Davis' single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end in the ACC in 2013, collecting 895 yards -- and it's no coincidence that he has Vernon Davis-type skills, plus better hands. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound speedster was inspired by Graham's situation to recently argue that his position should be redefined as a "hybrid" or "joker," but regardless of what he's called, he'll be a matchup nightmare. Ebron can play outside, like a receiver, and has enough route-running ability to scare opponents. He figures to rack up yards after the catch.
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Reed (6-2, 237) isn't the biggest guy, and he isn't the fastest guy, but he's a tight end with the ball skills of a wide receiver, and that makes him dangerous. Think of baseball players; while some stagger around underneath a fly ball, Reed is like those who naturally know how to take the best line to the catch.
Concussion issues interrupted his breakout rookie campaign last year, but he still piled up 499 yards and three touchdowns on 45 catches. If Reed can stay healthy, we can expect him to play a major role in Washington's offense.
The second-year pro is a very skilled receiver and blocker who showed as a rookie (36 catches for 469 yards and four scores) that he can really play well in that Eagles attack, which is a good system for tight ends. Ertz's fluidity helps him get loose in the secondary; he's definitely more than just a straight-line speed guy.
Speaking of speed, while his 4.65-second 40-yard dash might not seem fast, can you imagine a 6-5, 250-pounder barreling toward you at that pace? The image should crystallize the matchup problem that many of the tight ends on this list present: stopping a giant who can run as fast as your 5-11 safety -- and jump as high, too.
Seferian-Jenkins had a down year, statistically, in his third and final season at Washington, catching just 36 passes for 450 yards -- but he still holds all of the records for tight ends at the school, in career receptions (146), yards (1,838) and touchdowns (21). At any rate, the dip in production had more to do with the Huskies' desire to run the ball -- which they did, to great effect, with Bishop Sankey -- than it did with any kind of regression on Seferian-Jenkins' part. Furthermore, the strategic shift probably actually helped him, by affording him an opportunity to improve his blocking ability.
Yet another tight end with a hoops background -- something he shares with seemingly countless tight ends nowadays -- the 6-5, 262-pound Seferian-Jenkins is a natural fit for a receiving corps that also includes veteran Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans, both of whom are also 6-5. I think he has Pro Bowl potential.
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Amaro thrived at Texas Tech -- he had 106 catches last season -- basically as an inside receiver; he did not spend much time on the line of scrimmage. The interesting thing about him is that, despite the way he was used, he wasn't afraid to really get in there and block when he was called upon. He's a big target who should haul in a lot of passes with the Jets.
Harris didn't play college football -- in fact, his college, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for whom he played basketball, does not have a football team -- but he's potentially got the makings of another Gates. He has hands, route-running skills and "carry the uniform" speed, plus great strength. The Chiefs kept him on the practice squad last season, but he has great promise.