Tight ends changing offenses, draft strategy

Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire

Rob Gronkowski (left) and Jimmy Graham (right) are leading the new wave of the way tight ends play in the NFL. Both finished in the top 7 in receiving yards last season with over 1,300 yards.The evolution of the modern-day tight end has made it possible for NFL teams to view the position as much more than an extra offensive lineman who catches the occasional pass. Tight ends have become primary options in the passing game.

Tight ends such as the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (second round, 2010) and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints (third round, 2010) often line up in the slot or at wide receiver because of their ability to make plays.

Six tight ends who lined up in the slot or at wide receiver in 2011 had more than 500 yards receiving (including playoffs). Both Graham (938) and Gronkowski (876) had more than 800 yards each.

No. of 100-Yard Receiving Games
By Tight Ends, Since 2001 Season

There has been a dramatic increase in 100-yard receiving games at the position since the 2001 season. Last season, there were 28 100-yard receiving games by tight ends compared to just four such games in 2001.

Tight ends have also become downfield threats. Since the start of the 2008 season, 30-plus yard receptions for tight ends have progressively risen from 64 in 2008 to 107 last season.

Who among this year’s draft prospects at tight end could blossom into a high-end contributor? ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Todd McShay thinks Stanford’s Coby Fleener “is most ready” to contribute right away (check out the breakdown of the 2012 TE class).

Fleener was effective stretching the field last season, catching 15 of 24 targets (62.5 percent) with seven touchdowns on throws -- from expected No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck -- traveling at least 15 yards downfield. Fleener caught 10 touchdowns for Stanford last season, most of any tight end in FBS.

Fleener, who is 6-6 and nearly 250 pounds, did not work out at the NFL Scouting Combine, but at Stanford’s Pro Day, he ran 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is widely considered a first-round pick.

In addition to Fleener, Dwayne Allen of Clemson and Georgia’s Orson Charles are two other draft prospects that have a “good chance” to contribute as rookies in 2012. There are prospects beyond Fleener, Allen and Charles who could be worth a draft pick, according to McShay. Oklahoma’s James Hanna ran 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a 36-inch vertical leap at the Combine.

The evolution of tight ends, according to McShay, has started to alter the ways NFL teams are evaluating defensive backs as well. Teams might be forced to look for and draft bigger defensive backs as a counter-measure to the more versatile tight end corps in the NFL.