As a game, the NFL is evolving as we speak. It always has, but never at the frenetic pace that is in its current state. For decades, the same tired mantras were repeated – if you stop the run on defense and run the ball on offense, you win consistently. Last year showed that just no longer applies to teams equipped to kick a defense five, six, seven yards a time with a precision passing game.
All one needs to do is look at the state of the quarterback position for all 32 NFL teams. Nine teams have drafted franchise quarterbacks in the last 15 months. Just as many have franchise guys with five or fewer years of NFL experience. Those that don’t have a young prospect find ways to land veterans like Peyton Manning, Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer. Others make deals in hopes of riding a lightning bolt via a trade for a backup from another team – see Tim Tebow, Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Palmer, Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn.
The word is out – passing is where it’s at. And the biggest beneficiary has been at tight end. It’s no coincidence that the Vikings drafted Kyle Rudolph and made John Carlson their only significant free agent investment of the offseason. All one needs to do is look around the league and see that the Vikings are far from alone.
The massive season of New England tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last year was the fruition of seeds that were planted about five years ago in the mindset of the NFL and how offenses are run. There have always been tight ends that have been focal points of offenses. The Vikings have had good tight ends, but not great tight ends – at least not in terms of being offensive threats. Bob Tucker. Stu Voigt. Joe Senser. Steve Jordan. Visanthe Shiancoe. All good, but none, as John Madden has aptly dubbed, were “field-tilters.”
For years, the tight end position has been splattered with playmakers, but never dominated. For years, Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates were offensive juggernauts. Others would follow. The genesis of Sharpe-Coates gave way to the Trapper John homage of Gonzo-Gates – Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. It may be Gates that, when NFL forensic CSI types break down the evolution of the position, is viewed as the Godfather of the latest incarnation of tight ends.
In 2003, Gates wasn’t on the radar of many teams. Why? He wasn’t a football player. He was a basketball star in high school and, when he enrolled at Michigan State, he wanted to play for both Nick Saban and Tom Izzo. Not a bad gig if you can get it. Instead, Saban insisted he play football only. Gates left MSU for Eastern Michigan and flamed out. He resurfaced at Kent State and had his basketball jersey retired but wasn’t viewed as an NBA prospect.
He was on the Chargers’ radar and got scooped as an undrafted free agent. A decade later, a call can be made to whoever it is that makes the busts of Hall of Famers – start the work on Gates. He’s in. No doubt.
What has followed has been an organizational attempt to capture that lightning in bottle – not just at the NFL, but college recruiters of high school multi-sports athletes. The CSI boys have told us that the Gates rock has left significant ripples in its wake. The result has been obvious.
One of the selling points on Rudolph when he was drafted was that he has that same basketball background. So does Carlson. The league took notice and, to varying extents, every team has put its toe in the basketball pool to find the “next Gates.” While it’s always an iffy proposition to find the “next anybody,” several NFL teams have attempted it the last four years and all believe that they have a golden child in their midst.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the prosecution brief to get a conviction from the jury. Gatesgate isn’t a scandal, but it’s a practice that is being exposed league-wide and a valid explanation why the Vikings drafted Rudolph and signed Carlson. The truth (and the proof) is out there.
Check these names out and see if you make the connection.
Rob Gronkowski, New England, 3rd year – The torch was officially passed last year when Gronk blew up the NFL landscape by catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns (17 receiving and one on his only official rush of the season, which actually came on a backward pass. In two years, he has scored 28 touchdowns – scoring numbers many quarterbacks don’t hit, much less blue chip running backs or wide receivers. He is the current flag-bearer of “The Rise of the Planet of the The Ends.” Who needs Randy Moss when you have Gronk? Apparently not Tom Brady.
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans, 3rd year – Graham earned minor distinction as a rookie by being a red zone target of Drew Brees in 2010. But, in his record-setting passing year in 2011, Brees didn’t go to Marques Colston as his main option – or Robert Meachem, Darren Sproles, Devery Henderson or Lance Moore. He went to his second-year tight end. Had Gronkowski not stolen so much of his thunder, Graham would be lauded as the new King of the Tight Ends. It’s hard to believe that, in the minds of casual fans, Graham slid under the radar despite catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns – all of which led a Saints team known for Brees spreading the ball around.
Aaron Hernandez, New England, 3rd year – If you were to tell your offensive coordinator that you want your tight end to catch 80 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns, he might look at you as if you were nuts. Not only did Hernandez get that done last year, he did it in 14 games and as the clear No. 2 tight end option on his own team (behind Gronkowski). There’s a reason why the two of them are the blueprint that is currently being pirated by the rest of the league.
Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit, 4th year – Pettigrew struggled in his rookie season with injuries, but, over the last two seasons, has caught 154 passes for 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. Last year, his receptions (81), yards (777) and TDs (five) were all second on the team – behind only Megatron.
Fred Davis, Washington, 5th year – He has yet to break out as the kind of tight end that people key on, but perhaps no player will be as critical to the success of Robert Griffin III as Davis, whose speed makes him a security blanket quick-hit option if RG3 doesn’t like what he sees from the play call. After splitting time with Chris Cooley, Davis caught 59 passes for 796 yards last year – enough for the Redskins to slap the franchise tag on him to prevent him from hitting the open market.
Jermichael Finley, Green Bay, 5th year – Huge things were expected of Finley in 2010 and he was on his way to getting it done before his season ended in Week 5. It was supposed to be his coming-out party, but it got delayed. Last year, he came back healthy and was one of the big reasons why the Packers rolled through the NFL in the regular season despite a pedestrian running game and the worst defense in the NFC. Finley didn’t get a lot of headlines but finished the year with career highs in receptions (55), yards (767) and touchdowns (eight). More is expected this year as he and Aaron Rodgers get more in sync with one another.
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati, 3rd year – Gresham had a decent rookie year, catching 52 passes for 471 yards and four TDs but wasn’t a critical part of the offense. With rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green joining the team last year, Gresham’s numbers spiked to 56-596-6, which not only represented an increased red zone presence, but adding a yard-and-a-half more per reception. Entering his critical third season, numbers approaching 75-900-8 are not out of the realm of possibility. Dalton and Green get the ink, but Gresham will get the ball.
Dustin Keller, New York Jets, 5th season – Keller made a splash as a rookie when Brett Favre took him under his wing, but he has blossomed into a go-to receiver for Mark Sanchez, who, for the time being, is the Jets’ starter. Keller established career highs in 2010 (his third season), by posting 55-687-5 receiving numbers. He met or surpassed them all in 2011 (65-815-5). Those are likely his starting-goal numbers for this year.
Jared Cook, Tennessee, 4th year – If you don’t know who this guy is, call someone who does. After being groomed over his first two seasons, last year, he averaged 15.5 yards a catch, which is pretty impressive when you consider he caught 49 passes. In 16 games last year, he had at least one catch of 20 yards or more in eight of them and had touchdowns of 80 and 55 yards.
Ed Dickson, Baltimore, 3rd year – He spent two years behind Todd Heap before getting his chance to shine last year. Often lined wide like a blown-up wide receiver, he caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five TDs. Those numbers could jump even higher this year. Ozzie Newsome drafted him and Dennis Pitta for a reason.
Coby Fleener, Indianapolis, 1st year – Andrew Luck was the first player taken in this year’s draft because the Colts stink and are in full rebuilding mode. The only receiver he has any familiarity with is Fleener, his college teammate at Stanford. It will take time for Fleener to post big numbers, but he has as much shorthand built in with a quarterback as any rookie has had in a long time in the NFL – which bodes well for him getting up to speed quickly and become a focus of the offensive passing attack.
Tight end is the new running back in the NFL. The Vikings may not be ahead of the curve, but they’re jumping in the pool head-first – confident that the water is deep enough to warrant a head-first jump in the current status of NFL offenses. Is the tight end going to eventually go the way of the Wildcat? Maybe. But, for now, the Vikings have pushed their chips in the middle on their pocket pair and are confident the results will be as expected.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.