The evolution of the tight end position

If we were to dissect an NFL game plan, examine the personnel groupings and the multiple formation alignments, one thing would stand out: the tight end position. It has evolved to a point where an offense can align in a three wide receiver look with their pro personnel (2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE) on the field to engineer mismatches.

Whether through pre-snap movement, a stacked wide receiver look, aligning certain players out of position, etc. It is all done for a reason—find a way to create explosive and productive plays.

Innovative play callers like Mike Martz did it back when he was the head coach of Rams with RB Marshal Faulk. Align him in the slot, use motion to move him from the backfield and get him in open space where he could beat a safety or a linebacker. It is the same reason why play calling today—creative play calling—requires athletes.

And, that has filtered down to the tight end position.

Think of a Antonio Gates in San Diego, Dallas Clark in Indy, Jermichael Finley in Green Bay, Todd Heap in Baltimore, Gonzalez, Witten and so on. Players that can align as the backside “X” receiver in a 3x1 set and matchup against an undersized corner in the red zone. Or, removed from the core of the formation where they draw a one-on-one matchup against a SS. And, let’s not forget about what they can do down the middle of the field vs. Tampa 2 football teams against a Mike Backer. A situation the offense expects to win.

They are more than the traditional “on the line” player who puts his hand in the dirt and is only a part of the blocking scheme in the run game. These players are now weapons in the passing game.

Look at the Bengals, a club that wanted to make upgrades to their offense and create open space for WR Chad Ochocinco while adding weapons for QB Carson Palmer. Their first round pick: TE Jermaine Gresham from Oklahoma. A player that projects as a productive threat at the NFL level. You need the tight end to be productive to expand your offense and spread the field.

This is an issue from a defensive perspective when we use a player such as the Packers’ Finley (a special talent at the position) . Green Bay as an offense will use a wide variety of alignments—much like we see from New England—to position players in those favorable matchups. With Finley, the Packers can draw those situations inside and outside of the numbers--and they are tough to stop.

The route combinations run today are the same concepts I studied as a rookie safety back in 2000. Those won’t change. But the way an offense can stretch the field has because of the tight end--and it will continue.

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