Wide receivers are supposed to be the stars. That’s why they often get the tag “prima donnas” associated with them. But they are getting phased out of the passing game by bigger players, with equal hands, who create mismatches in the passing game. The tight end.
It isn’t what it used to be. In 2002, not that long ago, and a time that still featured some outstanding receiving tight ends, they were a bit player in the passing game. Just 10 years ago they were an added bonus.
Going back to 1992, 3/50 reception yards leaders were tight ends. Shannon Sharpe, Jay Novacek, and Brent Jones placed 43, 44, and 45 that season topping out at 640 yards.
In 2002 still just three of the top fifty reception yards leaders were tight ends. Jeremy Shockey of the Giants led the way (#29) with 894 yards, and had a mere two touchdowns.
In 2011, 14 of the top 50 were tight ends. The Patriots Rob Gronkowski broke the record for yards (1327) and touchdowns (17), which also by the way led the NFL this year, one ahead of Calvin Johnson. Gronk was 6th in yards, Jimmy Graham was 7th with 1310.
Graham was 3rd in the NFL in catches with 99. Gronkowski was 5th with 90, and Brandon Pettigrew finished 8th with 83. 7 of the top 21 in receptions were tight ends.
Their impact was felt in full force this past weekend.
Rob Gronkowski: 10- 145, 3 TD
Jimmy Graham: 5- 103, 2 TD
Vernon Davis: 7- 180, 2 TD
A great tight end used to be harder to find than a great quarterback. There might have been 2-5 in any given year. Now not only are they more common, they are instrumental in a team’s success. Jay Novacek was a nice safety blanket for Troy Aikman. But he wasn’t shredding teams down the middle and was never the top focus of the opponent the way some of the guys today are.
Rob Gronkowski isn’t just breaking records because he is given more opportunities. He is given more opportunities because he’s earned them and deserves them. Other teams can’t match-up with him. He is the go-to-guy!
He is a special player, who can do everything. The “big” WR playing TE also is finding it’s place. A tweener if you will, guys like Aaron Hernandez, JerMichael Finley, and Jared Cook are becoming more common targets for NFL teams to have. Too big and slow to be receivers, but too fast for linebackers and safeties, teams have figured out how to use these players more and more.
You could make a good argument that great tight ends are more important than great running backs. I’ll save that argument for later though.