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Ever-evolving tight end position truly changing the game

INDIANAPOLIS -- The coaches never knew what to do with him.

When Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez arrived at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High School in 1990, he began as a running back (but another kid was faster). So he moved to fullback (that lasted one game). Then linebacker (nope). Then, safety (try again).

Finally, Gonzalez's coaches put him in the only place his tall, strong, fast body seemed to make sense, even though football had yet to fully embrace the concept of a playmaker at the position: They tried him at tight end.

"They figured I was a fast, bigger guy," Gonzalez said last week at the Pro Bowl. "So they said, 'We're just going to throw it up in the air, and we'll have you run corner routes and stuff like that.' That's where it all started."

If you go down the line of the league's finest tight ends -- the few players either in the Hall of Fame or headed there -- you'll find similar stories. Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe both created a new expectation for the position. Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten have helped write another chapter.

Now, we're seeing an influx of success at the tight end position like never before -- a trend that has fueled the Patriots' offense to the Super Bowl behind the brutalizing combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It begs the question: Is tight end becoming football's most important skills position?

"You think about all of the guys who came into the league," said Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowler for the Chargers. "From Sharpe and Winslow to my era to now, offensive coordinators are starting to realize that position is just as important as any position on the football field."

It's a bold statement, but even if it isn't true yet, it might soon be. Consider this: In 2011, five of the 15 players with the most receptions in the NFL were tight ends. Never before in NFL history had that been the case. If you go back to 2003 and earlier, you'll be lucky to find one -- and occasionally two -- tight ends cracking the top 15.

"When I first got to Kansas City, the tight end [Keith Cash] had caught 14 balls the year before," Gonzalez said. "I thought I was just going to follow suit, catch maybe 25 or 30 per year. But once they started giving us nods, spreading us out, using us like wide receivers, that started to change."

Not only has the passing output evolved, so has the versatility and creativity of the position.

Look how Hernandez has been used out of the Patriots backfield like a running back. Check out the 49ers' Vernon Davis streaking down the sideline like a wide receiver. Look at the Saints' Jimmy Graham throwing a nasty block like an offensive linemen.

They are abnormally big people with abnormally fast feet and abnormally sure hands. So how long is it going to take before we start to consider them ... normal?

"They've become a hybrid person on offense," said Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who will be tasked with slowing down Gronkowski if his sprained ankle doesn't do it for him. "Eventually, you've got to find the answer on defense."

The domination of the 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end does indeed beg general managers around the league to search for a defensive counterpart to match up against this evolved offensive position. Consider how Giants coach Tom Coughlin suggested his team would contain Gronkowski if he's able to play on his bad ankle Sunday: "Get a ladder, probably."

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All joking aside, the resolution isn't easy. For now, teams simply need to manage their way through games by employing their biggest corner or safety -- sometimes even in nickel packages -- to cover the massive bodies. That can often lead to obvious mismatches, which was the case when the Patriots destroyed Denver. The Broncos had no answer for Gronkowski, putting rookie Chris Harris on him as their only real option. The tight end caught 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't know if there is a response to it," Gonzalez said. "That's the beautiful thing about it. What are you going to do? If you can find those big safeties, great. But that's going to be tough to do."

Gates said he has definitely noticed more challenging coverages since he first entered the league, mostly because teams are looking to shape their roster with bigger safeties by selecting them much earlier in the draft. He pointed toward Chiefs safety Eric Berry, selected fifth overall in 2010, as a prime example.

"Those guys are running 4.4 or high 4.3s at strong safety now," Gates said. "They're trying to find the bigger, stronger, faster safeties. With the tight ends in this league now being bigger and just as sure-handed as receivers, things might change accordingly."

But for now, given the production of the position this year, it hasn't changed enough. And as a result, tight ends around the league are collectively being utilized more than ever before. No longer are teams experimenting with just using tight ends in passing routes. They're trying them in all different places on the field. As this evolution continues to take place -- something that we should expect to see very clearly during Super Bowl XLVI -- many of these young players are recognizing just how far the position has come. Now, it's time for them to take it even further.

"I told Tony [Gonzalez] that in a couple years, I'm going to owe him quite a bit," said Graham, the Saints' second-year tight end who just enjoyed a breakout campaign, finishing third in the league with 99 receptions. "I'll take him on vacation somewhere, all expenses paid, for paving the way for me. He's really been one of the key pieces in the evolution of the tight end.

"It feels like it keeps stepping up a little by the year. It's cool to see what Gronk and Hernandez have done -- to be a part of that is special."

Special. And seemingly unstoppable.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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