Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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THE REBUTTAL: A tight end explains the rise of tight ends.
With tight ends gaining prominence in today's game, I thought I would reach out to one of the best playmakers at the position, to get his thoughts on the position and why so many NFL teams are featuring the tight end prominently in the passing game. Here's my one-on-one conversation with Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker:
*Why are tight ends so important in today's game? *
Delanie Walker: "We can run-block and we can also play receiver. When you can find a guy who can do both ... Where he can come down to the end of the line and run-block, but also spread out in the slot or single up to run routes and catch balls, it gives teams a dual threat."
*So many teams are using the tight end as the mismatch guy. What kind of skills do you have to have to create those kinds of problems for the defense? *
DW: "The tight end position has evolved into something bigger. Back in the day, the tight end was mainly just blocking guys, he was basically an extra tackle. Now, you have to have the skills to run routes and catch the ball, while also being strong in the run game as a blocker. But I think the focal point is being able to catch the ball and win one-on-one matchups."
During your time in San Francisco (from 2006 to 2012), you teamed with Vernon Davis to give the 49ers a dominant 1-2 punch at tight end. The New England Patriots now have a dynamic tandem in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. What kind of advantages can an offense create with two dominant tight ends on the field at the same time?
DW: "You can create big advantages. With two tight ends on the field, you will see a base front from the defense with three linebackers. When you have tight ends who can run routes against linebackers, that's a mismatch for the offense ... That's why you're seeing more teams using two tight ends ... When you see two tight ends on the field, you normally think that's a run formation, but we can shift out of it and spread out their base defense. Now, you have one-on-ones against linebackers with good route-running tight ends."
If you could give a young tight end some advice on how to improve his game to become a dominant player in the NFL, which areas would you say to focus on?
DW: "I would tell them to work on route running ... They can always teach you how to block, but if you can run great routes and catch the ball, I think that goes a long ways in this league."
Walker's perspective on the tight end position is in line with the NFL coaches and executives I've talked to in recent years. Several offensive coordinators believe the tight end position is the easiest spot at which to create mismatches, particularly with the basketball player-like athletes currently manning the position. Savvy play callers know how difficult it is for defenses to match up with big-bodied pass catchers with superior size, strength and athleticism on the perimeter. With teams also realizing the challenges "12" personnel packages (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) create on the field, it's safe to say the tight end position is revolutionizing the passing game in the NFL. And that's not to mention the advantages crafty play designers are creating in the run game, with a variety of tight-wing formations and exotic motions used to exploit vulnerabilities on the edge.
After digesting my conversation with Walker, I believe he is definitely onto something when he prioritizes route-running and pass-catching skills over the other traits at the position. As today's game continues to shift toward a pass-heavy emphasis, offensive coordinators are searching for ways to create easier throws for the quarterback, and the natural advantages that athletic tight ends enjoy over linebackers and defensive backs make them the ideal candidates to anchor a passing game. Although the No. 1 receiver will remain the focal point for the majority of NFL offenses, I believe the role of the tight end will continue to grow with more play callers seeing the advantages of targeting a big-bodied pass catcher.