Finding that indispensable tight end

No tight ends are expected to be picked in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, a challenging situation for teams looking to stay in step with the league's increasing reliance on the position for big production. Those teams are going to have to find that help in the later rounds, but last year's draft would seem to indicate it can be done.

The New England Patriots remade their offense in midseason and ended up scoring a league-high 518 points. The centerpiece of their transformation was the tight end position and two rookies chosen after the first round: Rob Gronkowski in the second and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.

Gronkowski and Hernandez were together on the field for 631 of the Patriots' 986 offensive plays in 2010, and the Patriots scored 37 of their 56 offensive touchdowns with two or more tight ends in action. Gronkowski and Hernandez were most dynamic in the red zone, combining for 16 touchdowns.

Fifteen of the 19 tight ends drafted in 2010 had at least one reception last season, and only Jermaine Gresham of the Bengals was a first-round pick. Eight of the 15 caught at least 10 passes and combined for 34 touchdowns.

Mel Kiper's latest mock draft has only two tight ends off the board through the third round: Kyle Rudolph of Notre Dame (second round) and Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks (third round). Tight ends who could be chosen later include Rob Housler (Florida Atlantic), Julius Thomas (Portland State) and Jordan Cameron (USC).

Housler is a more traditional tight end prospect with 4.55-second speed in the 40 and downfield impact that saw him total five receptions of 30 yards of more, which ranked second among all FBS tight ends.

Thomas and Cameron represent a different approach in how to identify an NFL tight end prospect, an approach teams needing help at that position could consider: Find a basketball player.

Thomas was Portland State's leader in yards per reception (15.6) in 2010, which was his only season on the football team. That came after he had led the Portland State basketball team to its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, becoming the school's all-time leader in field goal percentage along the way.

Cameron has a similar background. He transferred to USC from BYU, where he played basketball. His pass-catching stats at USC -- 16 receptions, 126 yards, one touchdown -- didn't impress many people, but his 4.59 time in the 40 did.

Those two could follow in the footsteps of two of the most prolific tight ends of the past generation: Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Gonzalez played basketball and football at Cal and was a first-round pick. Gates was an undrafted free agent from Kent State, where he played only basketball.

The tight end has become a major part of the passing game in the NFL over the past decade. In 2001, tight ends accounted for 15.8 percent of all receptions and 14.2 percent of all receiving yards. Last season, tight ends accounted for 21.5 percent of receptions and 20.7 percent of receiving yards.

Just as remarkable, the dependability of tight ends has remained high even as they have seen their opportunities to touch the ball increase. Over the past three seasons, tight ends' reception percentage -- the number of catches they made compared with the number of times they were targeted -- has been a fraction better than 65 percent. Wide receivers over that same time span had a reception percentage of 58.5 percent.

The pool of talented tight ends is deep and spread throughout the league. Twenty-four tight ends had at least 40 receptions in 2010, compared with 10 in 2001. Both the Patriots and Lions had two tight ends with at least 40 receptions last season.

There have been 159 tight ends drafted since 2001, including 39 in the two most recent drafts. A rush of athleticism and versatility at tight end over the past 10 years has made filling the position an increasingly important decision at the draft and has given offensive coordinators new options for their game plans. These new-breed tight ends are pressuring the deepest parts of defenses.

Gresham, the only tight end picked in the first round in 2010, produced an astonishing 77.5 percent of his receiving yards after catching the ball, the highest percentage in the league among tight ends with at least 10 receptions. In Detroit, the Lions saw 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew emerge as an offensive force. He doubled his rookie-year production and ended 2010 with 71 catches and 722 receiving yards, second-best on the team in both categories.