Remember the days of settling for a Howard Cross or Jed Weaver at the end of your tight end mandatory league draft or just completely ignoring the position in your flexible roster drafts, save for one or two exceptional players?
For many seasons, the tight end was to fantasy football lineups what the appendix is to vital body organs, a useless mass occupying space with no constructive purpose that you hope won’t become a problem down the road requiring painful removal from your roster.
But the winds of change have breezed through the position in recent years due to an array of developments propelling the tight end position as a whole to new heights of relevance in fantasy football circles.
In 2000, only one TE, Tony Gonzalez, had over six touchdowns (nine). He was also one of only three at the position to catch 70 receptions or more, leading the league with 93 grabs. Freddie Jones (71) and Frank Wychek (70) finished well behind Gonzo and were clearly in a class below the Kansas City superstar.
By contrast, 2004 saw exponential growth for the position as nine tight ends registered six or more scores with San Diego’s Antonio Gates leading the way with an NFL record-breaking 13 touchdowns (all while sitting out week 17). The number of tight ends with 70 or more receptions doubled 2000’s numbers with six, including three players with over 80 catches, Gates (81), Jason Witten (87) and Eric Johnson (82) behind Tony Gonzalez’s league-leading effort (102).
There are several reasons for the statistical ascendance at the position. For starters, the evolution of the athlete has played a pivotal role. From the knuckle-dragging bruiser of the 1960’s and 1970’s that thought smash-mouth first, ask questions later to the graceful power forward in shoulder pads we watched streak down the field with regularity in 2004.
Tony Gonzalez’ hoops exploits at the University of California and occasional flirtation with pro basketball are well chronicled. And by now, most of us are well informed of Antonio Gates’ leap from leading his Kent State Golden Flashes to the Sweet 16 in his final year with the school to changing sports and morphing into a tight end with the help of the John Madden video game, which he credits for giving him a crash course in acquiring a base knowledge of NFL defensive coverages during the off-season before reporting to Chargers training camp as a rookie.
Commenting on Gates’ success last season, Redskins coach Joe Gibbs told the USA Today in an April 21 st article this year, “Anytime somebody has success doing something, we’re all copycats. There are a lot of tight ends running around in that NBA Draft.”
Gates and Gonzalez are not alone amongst their contemporaries when it comes to diverse athletic pedigrees. Not only did Todd Heap earn three varsity letters in basketball at Mountain View High, he appeared in 11 games for Arizona State during his freshman year, averaging 1.3 rebounds per game before fully concentrating on the gridiron. The Colts’ Marcus Pollard played basketball only at Bradley. Jason Witten averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds per game for Elizabethon High in Tennessee. Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr., Randy McMichael, Jeb Putzier and L.J. Smith were all accomplished hoopsters on the high school level. In fact, L.J. Smith was considered a blue-chip prospect out of Highland Park High School by several Division One programs, including Florida State.
This new generation is not just limited to basketball either. Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark, in addition to starring in basketball and football, also found time to garner four varsity letters in track and five in baseball. Tennessee’s Ben Troupe competed on his schoolboy wrestling and tennis teams while San Francisco’s Eric Johnson perfected his overhand smash on the volleyball team before heading to Yale.
For decades the tight end position was typified by the plodding, glorified offensive tackle accused of impersonating a skill position player that would be the last option on the quarterback’s check-down menu. Then San Francisco’s Super Bowl success under Bill Walsh shifted the ball control model of the NFL in favor of the position as the tight end, running five to ten yard outs, became an indispensable escape valve for quarterbacks executing the designed rollouts required in the West Coast offense . Walsh’s profound imprint on NFL offenses grew as numerous coaches from his staff went on to create their own derivatives of Walsh doctrine as they became head coaches throughout both conferences, and in doing so elevating the role of the tight end in every corner of the league. New breed tight ends, Brent Jones, Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe highlighted the increased functionality of the position as offensive coordinators started to tinker with their new, more athletic, toys, using them in a myriad of formations and patterns.
The salary cap era enhanced the tight end’s worth further as teams fighting to keep their payroll under the cap ceiling, started throwing their franchise quarterbacks into the fire in their rookie year rather than allow the traditional two to three year incubation period to nurture development at a controlled pace. The tight end became the vital confidence-building safety valve that would enable these rookie signal-callers to piece together chain-moving drives to win ball games in the cap-induced, win-now environment that pervades today’s NFL.
Michael Vick swears by his 262 pound Pro Bowl TE Alge Crumpler, especially in 2004 when Vick had to play in the West Coast offense for the first time under new head coach Jim Mora, Jr.. With Peerless Price failing to fulfill his No. 1 receiver role, Crumpler has stepped into the breach as Vick’s go-to-guy with his catches increasing every season since his 2002 rookie year, culminating with 2004 totals of 48 receptions for 774 yards and six scores, a 16.1 yards per catch average.
Antonio Gates emergence all but saved Drew Brees career in San Diego, turning the former struggling third year man on the cusp of being run out of town into a Pro Bowler in his fourth season. Eli Manning leaned on Jeremy Shockey in his first year after replacing starter Kurt Warner and has publicly implored Shockey to leave his Miami training facility to conduct his off season workouts in New York so they can further build their on-field chemistry and route-timing.
The NFL’s recent strengthening of the defensive holding and pass interference rules, designed originally to set outside receivers loose downfield, has unexpectedly provided an even bigger boost for tight ends and their offensive numbers.
With defenders not able to touch route-runners after five yards, today’s larger and faster tight end models are running unimpeded downfield against overmatched linebackers in their short to medium range patterns while leveraging their traditional size advantage over the safeties even more on deep seam routes over the middle. A true “pick your poison” dilemma for defensive coordinators.
The popular Cover Two defensive scheme, constructed to slow the speedy outside deep threat by playing the safeties wider , further plays to the tight ends strengths as the middle of the field presents a yawning chasm for large-and-in-charge ends like Gates, Gonzalez and Crumpler to frolick freely for chunks of yardage. Once in the red zone, the prototypical TE will wedge his 6’6” 265 pound body against a 5’11” safety in a lopsided game of keep away on corner post routes.
This scenario has defensive coordinators going outside the proverbial box to try to contain this outbreak.. Last season marked the first time fans saw defenses assigning their shutdown corner against an opposing teams tight end, the ultimate sign of respect toward the position, most notably Denver’s Champ Bailey covering Tony Gonzalez for the majority of plays in the Broncos early season win over the Chiefs last year. Shockey and Heap both started to see similar coverages as well.
The increased athleticism blended with the pervasiveness of the West Coast offense in today’s game plan’s and the recent rules changes that hinders the defense’s ability to slow oncoming receivers have all combined to create the perfect storm for the tight end’s rise both on the field and in the realm of fantasy football.