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Why NFL Tight Ends Get All The Hype

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Journal

Ever since Jeremy Shockey was drafted and Antonio Gates came from nowhere and started doing his Superman impressions, few positions on the football field have been more (over) hyped and heralded than the tight end.

Every guy who has some size, some speed and some hands is looked at as a prospect. Offenses are being built around tight ends like never before. Gates set the single season record for touchdowns for a tight end in 2004 with 13, and Tony Gonzalez set another record with 102 receptions that year. With Gates and Gonzalez making the transition from power forward to tight end, the Final Four tournament has turned into an NFL recruiting event. Vernon Davis was drafted sixth overall this spring. Tight ends were often lucky to get picked by the sixth round before this renaissance. But why is the position getting all this attention?

There are a couple of big reasons why the position is so much more important these days, and they have to do with defenses. Tony Dungy is one of several coaches who is loyal to a cover 2 defensive scheme. If you're not up on NFL playbooks, the cover 2 is essentially a zone defense where only the D-line pass rushes and the rest of the players are responsible for covering their own piece of the field. Like any zone defense, cover 2 creates exploitable spots in the area where two zones meet. The middle linebacker can often be taken advantage of by a seam route that finds him out of place, and the tight end is a natural target of that route.

The bigger reason for the popularity of the position, however, is the 3-4 defense. That defense, with three linemen and four linebackers, is becoming more popular. One way to limit the effectiveness of that defense, and to stop it from running fancy plays, is to put two tight ends on the field (instead of a tight end and two running backs). The linebackers can find it more challenging to find matchups and safeties can be challenged as well. The two tight ends can create more gaps in the running game, too, since there are more blockers on the line.

Because the 3-4 is spreading, teams are looking to have twice as many starting tight ends on their rosters. Last year 11 teams used two tight ends for at least 45 percent of their plays, and that number is sure to grow this season. Hence, the huge demand for good tight ends. Teams aren't just looking for the big blocking bodies anymore, either. Today's tight ends are essentially oversized wide receivers with ridiculous speed and good hands. Good offense is all about creating and exploiting mismatches, and the tight end can create more mismatches than almost anyone on the field. It used to be that the tight end was just a last resort if every other receiver was covered, but now the tight end is a primary target for many teams.

Understanding the tight end can have a big impact on choosing the teams that you will bet on. Gates is the best there is by a wide margin, and Gonzalez, Shockey and Todd Heap are the players everyone knows about. By keeping your eye on some other tight ends that are poised for big years and picking your spots, however, you can have a real edge when their team is playing against a 3-4 or a rigid cover 2. Tight ends have been the difference in a lot of games over the last couple of seasons, and that will certainly be the case this year. Here are five guys we hear less about who could be gamebreakers this season:

Kellen Winslow, Jr., Cleveland - Winslow has had a terrible start to his career, but he is healthy and ready. Young QB Charlie Frye will have a better year this year if he can rely on having a TE to dump to when he gets in trouble. Frye, Winslow and Braylon Edwards have been working hard to build a rapport, and it should pay off this year. Winslow has all the tools in the world, so if he can get his attitude in line, and stay off motorcycles, he could provide the Browns a much needed edge.

Jeb Putzier, Houston - A player has a huge advantage when he is his coach's guy. New coach Gary Kubiak brought Putzier with him from Denver, so you know he'll get lots of attention. David Carr has never really had a decent option at tight end. Putzier catches the ball for long yardage when it is thrown to him. He will figure more prominently in the offense in Houston than he did in Denver, and that should benefit both him and Carr.

Eric Johnson, San Francisco - Sure, Vernon Davis is getting all the attention in San Fran, but rookie tight ends often take a while to figure things out, and Johnson is the real deal. He missed last year with an injury, but he caught 82 passes for 825 yards the year before. Alex Smith needs all the help he can get, and his wide receiver corps sure isn't going to provide it, so Johnson could be a regular target, especially early in the season.

Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville - I know I just said rookie tight ends often struggle, but Lewis has looked great in camp. Vernon Davis got all the attention at the draft, but this UCLA grad was honored as the top tight end in college last season. The Jags have never really focused on a tight end, but then they have had Kyle Brady forever, so it's a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. A high ankle sprain has slowed Lewis down for the last two weeks, but he figures to be a key target for Byron Leftwich when he hits the field.

Zachary Hilton, New Orleans - Hilton started to make an impact in the last half of last season, ending up with 35 catches and almost 400 yards. He's a 6'8" giant who makes an easy target. The biggest boost Hilton (or perhaps any player in the league) got in the offseason is the addition of Drew Brees. Brees obviously got into the habit of finding Gates, so Hilton should see a lot more leather this season.

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