Ever since Tony Gonzalez committed to football at Cal, he’s been the standard of what basketball players can do at tight end. The NFL is increasingly dominated by the passing game, and while fielding tall, speedy wideouts is valuable, the real jackpot is fielding big, physical mismatches who can thwart schemes in the middle.
The 2018 Super Bowl included two teams who tortured each other via the 6’6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski and 6’5, 250-pound Zach Ertz. Double them, and the offense can throw to receivers in one-on-one situations. Leave them single-covered, and you have to hope the TE doesn’t run by a LB or catch a pass over an inevitably smaller defender.
So when a 6’6 high school basketball star has 14 TDs over his last two seasons in the Big Ten, then posts a 4.54 40, 4.1-second shuttle, and 41.5-inch vertical leap, it turns some heads. Penn State’s Mike Gesicki should be one of the first TEs taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the freakish leaper might still be undervalued.
He ended up going in the second round, with the No. 42 overall pick, to the Miami Dolphins.
Gesicki had two very different roles in Penn State’s offense.
The 2017 Penn State offense was mostly defined by a different freakish athlete. But the breakthrough success of the 2016 offense was built largely on hitting home runs to WR Chris Godwin or Gesicki. In 2017, the Lions returned two other experienced top targets besides Gesicki, threw more frequently to Saquon Barkley, and could better feature Barkley behind an improving OL.
So Gesicki’s numbers dropped off some. Operating as the No. 2 man in 2016, he saw 71 targets at 9.6 yards per target, pretty explosive for a TE. In 2017, he was targeted 76 times at 7.4 yards per target, albeit with almost twice as many touchdowns.
One more reason: Penn State often kept Gesicki in the backfield to serve as an escort for Barkley in the run game, and many of his targets came off quick routes.
He was effective on those, but he spent a lot of time blocking for Barkley. In that regard, he’s similar to 2017’s No. 17 pick, O.J. Howard.
Howard played mostly as an H-back, throwing blocks on the perimeter for Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Jalen Hurts, while only catching 45 balls for 595 yards and three scores. Then he went to the combine and ran a 4.51 40 and 4.16 shuttle and jumped up 30 inches. NFL teams saw his solid blocking and elite athleticism and bought in. He had 432 yards and six TDs as a rookie.
Gesicki hasn’t received the same level of hype, and if you put on Penn State games from this past season, you’ll see a lot of plays that look like this ...
... or this ...
... or this:
Despite being as relatively unique of an athlete as Barkley, Gesicki regularly served as a table-setter. He was usually fine as a blocker and effective running routes underneath to hold defenders, but flexing him out and working off the matchup problems he could create was not the thrust of the strategy. Watching 2017 Penn State, it’s not obvious you’re looking at a guy who could be the next NFL star TE, whereas Howard had flashes for Alabama, like when they’d suddenly start throwing to him in a Playoff game.
The Dolphins can find plenty of ways to use Gesicki.
A typical knock concerns his blocking. When people imagine the lanky 247-pounder as an in-line TE trying to handle NFL linemen, the picture isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. So if he’s not a great blocker, what’s to be done? Does that mean he’ll be useless?
The answer is no. In the NFL, the pass-game abilities of the TE set up opportunities in the run game. The question people should be asking is, “can Gesicki grow into the kind of flexed-out receiver that opposing teams have to double?” If the answer is yes, he’ll have tremendous value, even if he never becomes an outstanding blocker.
On top of that, the increasing use of the run/pass option in the NFL negates some of the concern. If your star TE can’t make a key block on third-and-2, then have him run a quick route to hold the LB or serve as an option himself.
It’s not that hard to protect a receiving-oriented TE from difficult blocking assignments, if he’s worth it for what he’s doing as a target. When Penn State used Gesicki like an NFL team would, it suggested he’d be worth it.
The Lions often used nub trips formations, with Gesicki an in-line TE opposite three WRs. They often ran him up the boundary seam to force a double team and free up the three WRs to work against favorable numbers. Most teams obliged and doubled him, because he was capable of doing things like this:
The Cornhuskers have one safety on Gesicki, with the deep safety trying to play the middle, and Gesicki uses a route fake to win inside for the TD. He was too good in the red zone to cover solo, but the Cornhuskers were also doubling up on the RB, perhaps failing to realize Barkley was on the bench.
Gesicki also ran wheel routes and flag routes from H-back or flexed-out alignments, many of which became de facto back-shoulder fades:
Gesicki’s ability to run vertical routes, throw head fakes at DBs trying to cover him, and then win the ball in the air are the sorts of things you want to see in a big-time TE. An NFL team could flex him out to run routes up the seams or might line him up as a solo-side WR and throw him slants or fades, if opponents try to handle him with one inferior DB.
There’s really more reason to believe Gesicki might blossom into a great receiving TE than there was for Howard. He’s already done it somewhat consistently at the college level, and he’s one of the best athletes the position has ever seen. Having a mobile matchup weapon who can be trusted to overpower man coverage and create opportunities for other receivers is every NFL team’s prize.