While this is an NBA blog, I couldn’t resist talking about this revolution that is hitting the NFL, the revolution of the Tight End.
Tony Gonzalez, arguably the greatest tight end of all time, is the godfather of receiving tight ends and was one of the original catalysts for this shift in positional emphasis. Antonio Gates joined in and has taken it again to new levels. But this new generation of young, athletic, receiving tight ends will surely change the way the NFL Draft is scouted.
Long has the tight end position been seen as anything but crucial nor critical to a team’s success. This has always baffled me, as the skill and talent levels required to play tight end in the NFL is as high as any other position on the field. They need to block at the line of scrimmage, pass and run block in open field and run their own separate routes. More often than not they are as big as any of the lineman, they weigh more than their opposition linebackers and run as fast as their opposition cornerbacks. In my opinion they are the greatest athletes on the team.
The Patriots raised some eye brows in the 2010 NFL draft, taking Rob Gronkowski in the second round, then following that up by selecting Alex Hernandez in the fourth round. Those eye brows remained raised as Gronkowski stampeded his way to tight end single season records for touchdowns and receiving yards this season, just his second year in the league. In his two seasons thus far in the league, he has amassed 132 receptions, 1873 yards with 27 touchdowns at an average of over 14 yards. That is just freakish.
Don’t ignore his lesser known but equally good teammate Hernandez. He hasn’t become the household name Gronkowski is, but Hernandez has the same skill set and astonishing numbers. In his two years he has 124 receptions, 1473 yards with 13 touchdowns with an average of about 12 yards. In my opinion Hernandez is the better athlete of the two.
Jimmy Graham, a standout basketball player at the University of Miami gave way to the obvious pressures that come with attending that particular college and swapped allegiances to football following achieving his degree. He was taken in the third round of the famous 2010 draft and has been this seasons biggest and best surprise. Graham emerged as Drew Brees’ favourite target, registering 99 receptions for 1310 yards, both franchise records. He also pulled in 11 touchdowns.
We just saw Jimmy Graham and opposite tight end Vernon Davis set alight the NFC Divisional round clash between the Saints and 49ers. Vernon Davis has been one of the most productive tight ends in the past half decade, making his way to a bunch of pro bowls. He near single handedly pulled the 49ers out of the abyss against the Saints earlier today, finishing with 7 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game winning score with less than 10 seconds to go.
Whilst all four of these great, athletic, young tight ends are at the very top of their positions offensively, all four are just as good off the ball. Each are very strong blockers, have great awareness and given the freedom they have been given with option plays, clearly their play recognition is just as sound.
It beckons the thought that the NFL Draft is going to change forever because of these four young men, and the pioneers of Gonzalez and Gates that trailblazed their paths before them. Tight end was never seen as a position that warranted a first round pick, purely because the so called ‘experts’ say it is not a position of significant importance.
I am surely not the only one that is disgusted and embarrassed by the whole scouting process. These kids come out of college, where the vast majority have set their respective competitions alight, and are forced to experience months and months of unfair and unwarranted scrutiny, of premeditated mental and physical questioning and attacking and a nation’s focus upon what they can’t do, rather than what they can and have done. ESPN has largely glorified this process, with vampires like Mel Kiper jnr, and for the life of me I cannot understand why this is a necessity. How often do they even get it right? Tim Tebow is playing in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Patriots as I write this, the same guy nearly every scout in America said couldn’t and wouldn’t succeed in the NFL. Sure he is a unique case, but just in the last decade, Jamarcus Russell, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington, among others, have failed miserably when all were deemed future stars. Tom Brady went in the 7th round because these same ‘experts’ said he couldn’t play.
There is a reason quarterbacks love tight ends so much. Not just because they are too big for corners to cover and too fast for linebackers to cover. That is indisputable. Quarterbacks need to be tall to see over their offensive line, over their defensive line counterparts and into the backfield where his receivers are. For every big receiver a team has, there is at least 2 or 3 smaller, quicker receivers, usually working through the slot. This makes it more difficult for the quarterback to locate them. Yet when you have a 6’6+ 250lb+ 4.5- 40 running giant trudging across the middle of the field, you are going to not only see him easier, but want to give him the ball.
Tom Brady is 6’4. Gronkowski is 6’6 and Hernandez is 6’2. Their eye levels are going to be on much more of the same level than that of 5’9 Deion Branch or 5’8 Wes Welker. Drew Brees is a short quarterback by average, so having 6’7 Jimmy Graham flying around is going to always take a lot of his attention.
The easiest thing for the best teams with great quarterbacks to do early in the draft has been to draft lineman. It keeps the quarterback happy, but more importantly it keeps the quarterback safe. However I predict a shift in this thinking. Hernandez, Gronkowski, Davis and Graham have changed everything. Everyone has taken notice of the revolution. Expect more teams to jump on board.
If you can have a guy as big and as good a blocker as a lineman, stronger and heavier than a linebacker, faster than a corner and with better hands than a receiver, why on earth would you wait until the middle or later rounds to draft one of these freakish creatures.
Forget Mel Kiper jnr, just watch the Patriots, 49ers or Saints play on Sunday and you tell me where these guys should be taken.