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Cosell’s Take: Modern tight ends present new opportunities and challenges

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Kellen Winslow forced NFL teams to defend him in different ways. (Getty Images)

The word “value” is constantly used at this time of year. It seems to take on some kind of transcendent meaning as it relates to the NFL Draft. We don’t speak about selecting good football players that will likely improve teams; rather, we debate where players get chosen, as if the overall objective is to “manipulate” the draft.

I love when I hear analysts say after a pick that that particular team could have selected that player later, that they “reached” for a player who did not have the necessary “value” to be picked where he was. Really! According to whom? Apparently some analysts have every team’s draft board and evaluations at their disposal. I’m not on that e-mail chain. I missed that memo.

All this is prelude to a discussion of the tight end position in the NFL, and its evolving impact on offensive concepts. Let’s use 1995 as our initial starting point. Two tight ends were selected in the first round in that draft: Kyle Brady of Penn State by the New York Jets with the ninth overall pick, and Mark Bruener by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 27th pick. Both Brady and Bruener were traditional line of scrimmage tight ends; they were better blockers than receivers. In 13 seasons in the NFL, Brady caught more that 40 passes only twice. Bruener, in 14 NFL seasons, never caught more than 26 passes in a single season, and that was his rookie year. In fact, he ended his career with only 152 total receptions.

The larger point is this: Brady and Bruener would not likely be on team’s draft boards in 2013. If they were, they would be late round addendums far more than serious discussions. They certainly, and this I can say without hesitation, would not be first-round considerations. None of this is meant to denigrate either Brady or Bruener; instead, it speaks to the changing nature of NFL offense over the last decade and a half. And by extension, the shifting premiums placed on different positions, one of them clearly and definitively being the tight end position.

It’s important to go back a little further in NFL history to truly understand the genesis of the receiving tight end. Don Coryell coached the San Diego Chargers from 1978-86. In 1979, the Chargers drafted Kellen Winslow with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Initially, Winslow was utilized the way in which all tight ends of the time were deployed: run blocking and short-to-intermediate routes originating from their conventional line of scrimmage alignment.

Winslow’s remarkable athletic talent was being held back by the traditional limits of the position. Coryell, always an unconventional and alternative thinker, saw the limitless possibilities of removing Winslow from the line of scrimmage and aligning him all over the formation. We know the results. Winslow became an innovative and distinctive player in the evolution of NFL offense, and Coryell clearly expanded the thought processes of football in a creative and imaginative way.

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Aaron Hernandez presents a modern-day prototype at the tight end position. (Getty Images)

Obviously, Hall of Fame talents like Winslow do not come along every year, or even every few years. And perhaps more importantly, coaches that are willing to step outside conformist and standard thinking are rare, for the simple reason that coaches tend to coach what they know, what they themselves have been exposed to throughout their careers. New ideas and concepts take time to grow and mature. They necessitate the ideal combination of coach and player, a coach that sees the game in an expansive way, and a player that has the multi-dimensional skill set to execute the plan.

As we fast forward to 2013, it is evident that tight ends that can align all over the formation are now staples of NFL offenses. How good was Antonio Gates in his physical prime, before foot injuries deprived him of his outstanding movement? I can remember watching tape of Chargers-Broncos games beginning in 2004, when Champ Bailey was traded to Denver, and seeing Gates split wide, one-on-one versus Bailey, and winning. If you have the right player, like Gates, Jimmy Graham or Aaron Hernandez, you can dictate all kinds of problems for defenses with formations, receiver distribution and location, shifts and motions. Two tight end personnel packages become very difficult from a matchup standpoint, primarily because one of the tight ends is so athletic and versatile in his alignment capability.

The San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints, and the New England Patriots provide arguably the best examples of this. We saw all season how difficult it was for teams to match up to the 49ers' two-tight end personnel with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Davis was the wild card with his speed and vertical route running ability. He aligned in multiple positions, on the line of scrimmage, and split from the formation, both in the slot and wide, outside the numbers. He could beat linebackers, safeties and corners. His movement ability allowed the 49ers to maintain a power running profile, and yet still have an explosive element in their passing game.

Think of it from a defensive coordinator’s perspective. When the Saints align with one back, two tight ends (one of whom is Graham), and two wide receivers, how do you match up with defensive personnel? Do you stay base, and take your chances with the multiple issues you face if Graham splits outside the numbers? Do you go nickel, essentially treating Graham as a wide receiver? That presents another set of problems that need to be addressed and solved. Believe me, I can tell you from conversations I have had with coordinators that I am just scratching the surface when it comes to the conceptual and personnel issues they deal with in these situations.

We have seen countless times the issues the Patriots cause defenses with Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski on the field together. As good as Gronkowski is, it’s Hernandez that poses the more dangerous threat. Why? Because he, like Gates, can win one-on-one versus corners, especially nickel corners. That’s where the problem arises. You match up to defend the pass, and you still face mismatches in man-to-man coverage. And we haven’t even factored in the running game, which the Patriots consistently utilized effectively with Stevan Ridley to hurt nickel defenses.

The question, then, becomes, what is the value of a versatile, movement pass receiving tight end in today’s NFL? It is now fashionable to speak of the devaluation of the running back position in both the league, and by extension, the draft. Is the athletic, pass catching tight end trending the other way? Is he now increasing in value? Doesn’t it make sense to draft those players higher than might have been the case years ago? The reasoning is really unassailable when you logically think about the direction in which the NFL is moving. The reality is, it is more difficult conceptually to defend “12” personnel – one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers – than it is “11” personnel – one back, one tight end, and three wide receivers.

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Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert is the best "joker" in this draft class. (Getty Images)

This brings us to the 2013 tight end draft class. As we consider the players, don’t get caught up in traditional definitions and attributes of the tight end position. That’s particularly true when you evaluate Jordan Reed of Florida. Reed is this year’s version of Hernandez; he’s not quite as flexible and dynamic with the ball in his hands, but Reed has similar traits. He was smooth and fluid as a route runner, deceptively quick and fast, and he showed excellent run-after-catch ability. He ran wide receiver routes from plus split alignments. Many will say that he’s not a great in-line blocker, and that’s true, but is that ultimately relevant. When you study the impact that athletic receiving tight ends have had in the NFL in recent years, predominantly in two-tight end sets, you conclude that it’s a player that has tremendous value.

The same can be said for Gavin Escobar of San Diego State. He’s a very smooth athlete for his 6-foot-6, 254 pound frame. He aligned all over the formation in the Aztecs offense, a movable chess piece, or “Joker” as I call it. His speed was deceptive due to his size and stride length. There’s no question he’s a vertical seam threat in the NFL. And what really stood out was he caught the ball very easily; he was a natural catcher with very soft hands. When you carefully look at Escobar’s size and movement, you see similarities to Graham as a rookie in 2010, when he was a prospect, not yet a star.

Neither Escobar nor Reed will be the first tight end selected later this month. That distinction will likely belong to Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. Most importantly in this advancing era of athletic tight ends, Eifert fits the “Joker” profile: he showed the ability to beat corners on vertical routes outside the numbers, and he exhibited outstanding body control and flexibility tracking the ball in the air, traits usually exclusive to wide receivers.

Stanford’s Zach Ertz, while not quite the overall athlete Eifert is, also was utilized in a wide receiver role, with success. One vivid example was the beautiful skinny post he ran against a California corner for a touchdown. At times, Ertz reminded me of Jason Witten when he came out of Tennessee in 2003. Remember, Witten was a third-round pick, the 69th player selected. Ertz will be selected well before that in this era of increasing tight end worth.

The overriding point is this: athletic receiving tight ends have more value than they have ever had in the NFL. Will the 2013 draft reflect that new reality? It should, but nothing is certain in a constantly evolving NFL world.

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