You’ve seen the reports.
“Titans TE Jared Cook will argue he’s a wide receiver.”
“Packers TE Jermichael Finley will push for the wide-receiver franchise tag.”
Over the last few years, tight ends have transformed from extensions of the offensive line into giant, athletic matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Coinciding with that transformation has been the move of tight ends from their normal hand-in-the-dirt position to the slot, and even out wide against the opposing team’s top corners.
That being the case, it’s become apparent that more and more “tight ends” may actually have a point during franchise tag, and even long-term extension, negotiations. The real question is – which ones? Today, I’ll examine.
Note: Included in this study are tight ends who played 200-plus snaps during the 2012 season. The five tight ends examined at length are those who played the lowest percentage of their snaps as an in-line tight end. All snap data is provided by ProFootballFocus.com Premium Stats.
Leave it to me to get this article started with the least exciting name on the list. Unfortunately for those of you who do not rival my enthusiasm for backup tight ends, Scheffler was the tight end who spent the least amount of his snaps in line during the 2012 season.
Having spent 65 percent of his snaps in the slot, and another 17 percent out wide, Scheffler can safely be labeled as a wide receiver.
Consider that, of Scheffler’s 83 targets this past season, only 10 came after he had his hand in the dirt. The bulk of his targets (64 to be exact) came when he was lined up in the slot. He caught a pathetic 33 of those targets for 345 yards. Scheffler’s only touchdown came on one of his two receptions while lined up wide right.
Injuries to Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, as well as, immaturity issues with Titus Young forced the Lions to use Scheffler as a pass-catcher more than they would’ve liked to. It didn’t work out well. The Lions figure to add bodies to compete with Burleson and Broyles this offseason, pushing Scheffler back into a dozen or so snaps-per-game behind Brandon Pettigrew.
No tight end played a higher percentage of his snaps in the slot (67 percent) than Jared Cook did during the 2012 season. Cook was in-line a bit more than Scheffler, but didn’t see much action out wide, working primarily on the inside.
Interestingly, Cook lined up to Jake Locker/Matt Hasselbeck’s right on 70 percent of his snaps. He saw 37 of his targets in the right slot, as opposed to only 14 in the left slot.
The league-wide catch rate is lower and the average depth of target (aDOT) is higher in the slot than it is in-line. That isn’t the case for Cook. He caught an impressive 71 percent of his slot targets, but did see a good chunk of said targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, Cook had a massive 12.4 aDOT on his in-line targets, but caught only 4-of-12 targets for 56 yards. All four of Cook’s touchdowns came while lined up in the slot.
Despite a limited role over the last few seasons, Cook has proven that he is a major force as a pass-catcher when given the opportunity. Assuming he’s re-signed by Tennessee, Cook figures to finally land an every-down gig in 2013.
The 2012 season was a bit disappointing for Jimmy Graham owners. Targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns were down. Drops were way up. Injuries may have been to blame for the step back, but at age 26, Graham certainly remains one of the top, young pass-catching tight ends in the game.
One of the primary reasons Graham has been such a force as a pass-catcher over the past two-and-a-half seasons is his heavy usage as a wide receiver…but his snap distribution did change quite a bit from 2011 to 2012.
Consider that Graham lined up in-line on only 28 percent of his 2012 snaps, which was way down from a 48-percent mark in 2011. Graham caught an impressive 22-of-25 targets (88 percent) while in-line this past season, which is significantly better than his 55-of-91 mark (60 percent) when in the slot. In 2011, he caught 41-of-60 targets (68 percent) when in-line, compared to 45-of-63 (71 percent) from the slot. It’s worth noting that Graham’s aDOT was up from 2011 to 2012 when in-line, and down when in the slot. Eleven of Graham’s 15 drops during the 2012 season came while in the slot.
Another area we saw a massive change in Graham’s usage was out wide. He lined up wide on 13 percent of his snaps, which was only down slightly from 17 percent in 2011. The big changes, however, came in the target and touchdown departments. Graham was targeted on nine percent of 90 pass routes while out wide in 2012, hauling in 8-of-14 targets (57 percent) for 103 yards and zero touchdowns.
Keep that ‘zero touchdown’ stat in mind as we compare to his previous season. Graham was targeted on 29 percent of 130 routes while lined up wide in 2011. He caught 22-of-38 targets (58 percent) for 236 yards and six touchdowns. That means Graham went from scoring just under half of his touchdowns from outside in one year to scoring zero in that spot one season later.
Graham continues to work as Drew Brees’ favorite target and that doesn’t figure to change any time soon. Even in a “down” year, Graham managed 85 catches, 982 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2012. Healthier and with Sean Payton back in charge, it’s fair to expect even more production in 2013.
He was a mainstay on fantasy rosters, but I feel like Greg Olsen’s strong 2012 campaign flew a bit under the radar. He caught an exceptional 69-of-96 targets (72 percent) for 851 yards and five touchdowns. Olsen was in the game on a whopping 98 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps. In fact, he played every offensive snap in 10 of the team’s 16 games.
Although he only lined up in-line on just over one-third of his snaps, Olsen was extremely productive from the position. He caught all but four of his 25 targets for 296 yards and three of his scores. A majority of his targets (54 percent to be exact) came while in the slot. It was here that he racked up 34 receptions on 52 targets (65 percent) for 376 yards and the other two touchdowns. Olsen only dropped four passes on the year, all four of which came while in the slot.
Olsen lined up to Cam Newton’s right a bit more than he did his left (57:43 split), but the target split between the two sides was even more severe. Olsen actually blocked quite a bit when lined up in the left slot, running only 22 percent of his routes from the position, compared to 40 percent from the right slot. Olsen was dominant when to Newton’s left, however, catching 22-of-28 targets (79 percent) for 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
With Steve Smith past his prime and Brandon LaFell as his only other real competition for targets, Olsen will continue be featured in the Panthers’ passing attack.
Despite spending eight games as the team’s No. 1 tight end (necessitated by Rob Gronkowski’s injuries), Hernandez still finishes as the tight end playing the fifth-lowest number of his snaps in-line. Instead he worked the slot 41 percent of the time, was out wide 19 percent, and worked from the backfield on another five percent. His slot and in-line snaps were up slightly from 2011, both at the expense of lining up out wide, which was down 10 percentage points from 2011.
Although Hernandez only lined up out wide 127 times during the 2012 season, he was targeted 30 times. He caught an impressive 22 of those balls for 215 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hernandez actually scored one of his five touchdowns after lining up in the backfield. He saw only six targets when lined up next to Tom Brady, hauling in five for 32 yards.
Hernandez wasn’t quite as impressive in the slot. He caught only 29-of-49 targets (59 percent) despite a low 7.8 aDOT. Although a majority of his targets came while in the slot, he scored only once from the position. Hernandez’s catch rate was also low when in-line. He hauled in only 10-of-17 targets (59 percent). Some of the blame can be put on a fairly-high 8.9 aDOT, not to mention that the sample size here is awfully low.
Having only appeared in 12 games, Hernandez’s overall production was down in 2012. On a per-game basis, however, he continues to work as one of Brady’s top receiving options in arguably the league’s best offense. With New England potentially looking at an overhaul at the wide-receiver position, Hernandez will be in for a massive share of the targets in 2013. An 80-900-7 line over 16 games is a fairly safe bet.
Among the 67 qualified tight ends on our list, Bills backup Lee Smith lined up in-line on the highest percentage of his snaps (96 percent). Ben Watson (93 percent), David Paulson (93 percent), Matthew Mulligan (90 percent) and Brandon Pettigrew (90 percent) weren’t far behind.
Entering the 2012 season, there was some debate about how the Colts would use their rookie tight ends. Coby Fleener was in-line on 89 percent of his snaps. Dwayne Allen was in-line 76 percent of the time, spending another 12 percent of his snaps in the backfield.
The fact that Aaron Hernandez played quite a bit in the slot did not stop the Patriots from using Rob Gronkowski there, as well. “Gronk” was in the slot on 45 percent of his snaps, spending another 51 percent in-line.
If Tony Gonzalez retires, the Falcons need more than just a blocking tight end to fill his shoes. Gonzalez lined up out wide on eight percent of his snaps, spending another 44 percent in the slot.
Jermichael Finley’s “position” is one that’s often up for debate. He was all over the field in 2012, spending 53 percent of his snaps in-line. He was in the slot one-quarter of the time, out wide on 15 percent of his snaps, and in the backfield on the other six percent.