NFL

Focus on tight ends only growing

Watch highlights of the Saints' victory over the Falcons.
Watch highlights of the Saints' victory over the Falcons.
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Because of the body type and multifunctional skill-set, tight ends are quickly becoming the NFL quarterback’s best friend.

Tight ends can be broken up into two categories. The traditional tight end, commonly referred to as the “Y” in most offenses, often patrols the short to intermediate section of the field in the passing game. But, most important, he blocks the point of attack as an in-line blocker in the running game or secures the edge in pass protection by assisting the tackles with the speed rush on either edge of the line of scrimmage.

Then there is the more sexy “flex” tight end option that is a major factor in the passing game, often running routes from a variety of alignments on the field. The flex tight end might line up in a traditional wideout alignment outside the numbers, or he might line up as a flanker off the line of scrimmage, or, in some cases, he might even join the running back in the backfield, where you would normally see a traditional fullback.

This type of tight end will stretch the field vertically with go routes, deep corners or posts but will also go across the middle of the field with slants, digs, curls etc. The flex tight end is the player that is becoming more and more common in today’s NFL.

You know by now that the Colts selected Andrew Luck with the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but what you may have forgotten is that they used their very next two picks on tight ends. Coby Fleener, Luck’s teammate from Stanford, and Dwayne Allen were the 34th and 64th picks respectively and were the first two tight ends to be drafted this year. Fleener is the “flex” option of the two, with Allen more in the mold of a traditional tight end. They will be Luck’s security blankets for years to come.

Two years earlier, in the 2010 NFL Draft, it was the New England Patriots that brought the two tight end personnel grouping into the new era of the NFL. The Patriots first took Rob Gronkowski in the second round and then circled back to select Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round. The Patriots became very successful using both Gronk and Hernandez in tandem and from a variety of alignments to create mismatches in the defensive secondary. The NFL is a copycat league, so a trend was sure to follow.

Fast forward to Week 10 of the 2012 NFL season, and you get a great sampling of that trend. Twelve different tight ends scored touchdowns Sunday. Three of them — Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen — each had a pair of scores. Two weeks removed from making 18 catches against the Giants, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hauled in a team-leading eight catches on Sunday. Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph also led his team in receptions, as did Gonzalez and Graham.

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Much in the way the Patriots try to create mismatches with their tight ends, the Falcons and Saints use their former basketball-playing tight ends to put them in favorable positions in which they can block out a defender like an entry pass into the lane or a high fade as if they were going up to pull down a rebound. Gonzalez and Graham seemed to be playing a game of “anything you can do, I can do better” as they went punch for punch on Sunday. When it was all said and done, the Falcons-Saints game became the first in NFL history in which opposing tight ends both had more than 120 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Gonzalez finished with 122 yards on 11 catches for Atlanta; Graham had seven catches for 146 yards for New Orleans.

It was a historic day for Gonzalez, as he achieved a number of personal accolades. He became the second tight end in league history to have three or more games with at least 10 receptions, 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He became the eighth player, and the first tight end, in NFL history with 100 career touchdown receptions. He later added a second to make it 101 touchdowns for his career.

His first catch of the game was his 1,200th reception, pairing him with Jerry Rice as the only players to reach the 1,200-catch mark. Even with all the personal achievements, it will be the rare drop that will haunt him. With 12 seconds remaining, Gonzalez dropped a quick out that would have been a fourth-down conversion to keep the Falcons' hopes alive for at least two more plays. It was the first outright drop I can recall from Gonzalez in recent memory.

So while Gonzalez sets the pace for future tight ends, plenty of others are quickly become their own quarterback’s favorite target. And while the NFL is becoming more and more reminiscent of the college spread offenses, the role of the tight end is clearly not diminishing. If anything, it is thriving.

The Colts' draft shows that they buy into the theory.

Tagged: Falcons, Colts, Patriots, Saints, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Andrew Luck

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