Over the past several years, the NFL has undergone a radical transition offensively, as the league has become much more passing-oriented. Quarterbacks are throwing a wider variety of routes at a much higher frequency, and modern offensive attacks are now capable of controlling possession with a short, controlled passing attack on an almost universal level.
With that transformation in mind, the traditional roles of certain positions have changed. Fullbacks have all but been phased out of offensive game plans; where once they were vital to a good rushing attack, fullbacks are now largely situational players.
At no position has the change in job responsibilities been more radical than at tight end. The NFL has been graced with the presence of some outstanding tight ends over the years, so the receiving tight end is hardly a new development. Never before have there been as many dynamic receiving threats in the league at one time, however, and that number is almost certain to increase in the near future.
2009 Season A Historic One For Tight Ends
Eight tight ends caught at least 70 passes in the 2009 season; that was good for an NFL record, and was exactly eight more than the number of 70-catch tight ends the league sported in 1990 and 1992. Two tight ends caught 70 or more passes in 1994; that was the highest total of any year in that decade. By contrast, at least four tight ends have caught 70 or more passes in each of the last six seasons.
A year ago, the league's elite tight end group - those that caught 70 or more passes - consisted of a legend (Tony Gonzalez), established veterans in high-powered offenses (Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates), and several young players on the rise (Vernon Davis, Brent Celek, Heath Miller). That discounts two tight ends - Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels - that had accomplished the same feat just a year earlier, and might have again had they not succumbed to injury.
That's a fairly large group, and it's all the more fascinating considering just how quickly the back end of that group emerged. But it doesn't stop there - there are several more players on the verge of joining the ranks of the (statistically) elite.
Oakland's Zach Miller, Chicago's Greg Olsen, Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley are all coming off of highly productive seasons, as well. All four have become integral parts of their teams' respective passing attacks, and it would not be surprising to see all four of them catch 70 passes in 2010. Finley, in particular, possesses unique talents that could vault him into the conversation as one of the two or three best in the league at his position.
It's tough to rule out established veterans like Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap from this conversation; both have been Pro Bowl talents in their careers, and while both have been nicked up in recent seasons, their talents - and in seasons past, their production - have been excellent. Both, by the way, have caught 70 passes in a season at this level.
Young Veteran Tight Ends Ready To Emerge
There are several more tight ends flying under the radar a little bit. The Jets' Dustin Keller had an outstanding 2009 post-season, scoring touchdowns in each of his team's three games. He should be a more prominent receiving option for Mark Sanchez entering his third season. Washington's Fred Davis came on strong during the '09 season, and should flourish with Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb - if, that is, a returned-to-health Cooley doesn't steal too many touches.
Keep your eyes on Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, Buffalo's Shawn Nelson and Jacksonville's Zach Miller (yes, another one), as well. All three were 2009 draftees, and all three could have ample opportunities working with young quarterbacks (or, in Miller's case, a veteran quarterback, which is to his benefit). Tennessee's Jared Cook may have been the most uniquely talented tight end in the 2009 draft class, and though he's still battling for playing time in Tennessee, he's got a shot to emerge, as well.
'10 Rookie TE Class Is Potentially Elite
Dazed yet? We've only covered the veterans, folks. Now it's time to talk about an incoming rookie class of tight ends that is widely regarded as the best group the NFL has seen in quite some time, and one that is eventually expected to yield a high number of starters. Several of those names aren't likely to have more than tangential contributions as rookies, but there are a few that could emerge as solid targets right away.
Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham is the obvious front-runner there, as he's got the inside track at the starting job in a Bengals offense that is desperate for help. He'll be particularly useful in the red zone, as the Bengals lack size outside. Kansas City's Tony Moeaki could have an inside track at a starting job, and would become a friendly set of hands for Matt Cassel right away in that event. Ed Dickson and/or Dennis Pitta could have a tremendous opportunity in front of them should Baltimore's Heap falter in his tenth pro season. There aren't a lot of balls to go around in New England, but Rob Gronkowski has elite-level talent and an opportunity to start, as well.
Add in Jimmy Graham (New Orleans), Aaron Hernandez (New England), Garrett Graham (Houston), Clay Harbor (Philadelphia), Fendi Onobun (St. Louis) and hybrid player Dorin Dickerson (Houston), and never before has the NFL been as stocked with as many intriguing, high-upside athletic talents as it will feature this year.
At one point in the not-too-distant past, the tight end position was an inglorious position, one which lacked star power, receiving opportunities, and glamor. In a very short period of time, the elite receiving tight end has transformed from a rarity into not only a fairly common player, but a necessity for successful modern passing attacks. Quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs still get all the ink, but this is a position that, deservedly so, is quickly becoming a part of the glamorous NFL offensive conversation. This is an unprecedented time for the position, and the historic 2009 season might just be the tip of the iceberg.