Thanks to the versatility of players like George Kittle tight end is coming into focus as the 21st century’s new "it" position
Since Jon Embree has spent the past 35 years as either a player or coach in the collegiate or NFL ranks, it is unlikely he has spent a lot of time playing fantasy football. The idea of his spending hours poring over player ratings by “experts” is pretty amusing, given his ability to evaluate them himself. Embree deals in reality football, and, more specifically, tight ends.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t completely oblivious to the popular pastime’s machinations. But rather than embrace the stats-heavy philosophy fans prefer, he looks at coaching his position in a way that runs counter to what fantasy owners would like to see.
And he knows it.
Embree played tight end at Colorado and for two years with the Rams, before an injury halted his career. He has coached since 1991 and spent the past three years with San Francisco. He grades his charges a little differently than those who are looking solely for glamour stats.
“I look at it this way: How many third downs did you convert and how did you do in the red zone?” Embree says. “Did you move the chains, and did you help us score? Some people catch 80 passes in a season and average eight or nine yards a catch. If you have nine catches in a game, how many were for first downs? That defines what kind of game you had.
“If you had eight first downs and only 16 yards, that’s a helluva job. If you have three catches for six yards but score three TDs, that’s a great game.”
Some blocking would be nice, too. Embree likes tight ends who block. That’s one of the reasons he is such a big fan of George Kittle, the Niners’ All-Pro/folk hero, whose combination of high production and open-field badassery has endeared him to fans throughout the league. Kittle is the perfect combination of a 21st century downfield practitioner of the position and an old-school, hand-in-the-turf brawler who doesn’t mind being pinned to the tackle and expected to maul a defensive end.
During his three years in the league, Kittle has averaged 72 catches per year (86.5 the past two) for 13.6 yards per reception and has scored 12 times. And though he is different than some of his peers at the position, due to his ability to block — “He was willing to do whatever was needed to be great,” Embree says — the 6'4", 250-pound Kittle is the very model of a modern NFL tight end. He thrives when matched up against smaller linebackers and safeties in the passing game and can’t be caught by bigger defenders charged with chasing him.
Throughout the NFL, teams are turning loose players like Kittle against defenses that struggle to handle them while at the same time having to pay attention to outside weapons capable of blowing holes in the coverage ceiling. Kittle, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, Oakland’s Darren Waller, Zach Ertz of the Eagles and new Cleveland signee Austin Hooper are among the vanguard of new-style tight ends who are no longer simply safety valves for quarterbacks under siege.
And don’t forget that brand-new WWE champion in Tampa Bay. Rob Gronkowski, whom New England traded to the Bucs in April, can do everything a tight end must — when healthy — and at a level higher than just about anybody else in NFL history. Those guys can get up the seam, run deeper routes, accumulate yards after the catch — and still post up to get five yards on third-and-4.
“When you get a guy who can match up in the middle of the field against any linebacker, safety or dime coverage defender on third down, that’s a mismatch,” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan says. “A handful of guys in the league can beat those defenders with no problem. When you have a dynamic athlete like that, it’s great.”
Today’s tight ends are products of a variety of circumstances. An important one is the continued emphasis on passing in the college game — and even the high schools — which has helped the position evolve on campuses from merely an in-case-of-emergency weapon to someone used more frequently and more by design. Freed from run-blocking assignments that require more bulk and make it harder to release into pass routes, tight ends have become super-sized wideouts with greater speed and ball skills superior to those of their predecessors. That doesn’t always allow NFL teams to use them as three-down performers, but there aren’t too many skill players capable of completing all of the traditional duties their positions have required. For instance, some running backs will never be any good in pass protection. Teams use so many different personnel packages throughout a given game, and athletic tight ends allow for flexibility that can put extreme pressure on defenses trying to figure out how they can cover the outside guys, along with a tight end capable of scorching them up the middle of the field.
“Teams are using tight ends differently,” an NFL executive says. “They are doing a better job of looking at the tight end position, and if they have an explosive player, figuring out how to get him the ball.
“Forget the labels. It’s about playmakers.”
Brian Schottenheimer isn’t picking on D.J. Swearinger. He’s just pointing out that if the 5'10", 205-pound Saints safety were trying to cover the 6'4", 250-pound Kittle, he might have some trouble.
“That’s one of the best matchups [the Niners] could see on game day,” the Seattle offensive coordinator says.
There are several situations like that on every Sunday throughout an NFL season. Defenses devote so much attention to the big swingers on the outside that they often end up trying to stop tight ends like Kittle with smaller safeties or slower linebackers. Teams try to find out what the tight end can do and then how best to use him. There are still some excellent blockers at the position, like Trey Burton, who spent the past two seasons in Chicago, and 6'6", 262-pound Jack Doyle of the Colts, who can handle the rough stuff on the line but who also gained a Pro Bowl slot last year as an alternate, thanks to his ability to catch. Back in 2015, Patriots coach Bill Belichick labeled Gronkowski and former Giants tough guy Mark Bavaro as the best run-blockers he had ever coached. And Gronkowski demonstrated his affinity for the job. “I love run-blocking to get the running backs [going],” he says. “It’s just as good a feeling as like catching a touchdown, making a big play in the run game.”
According to Embree, all tight ends should all be able to block.
“Eighty percent of blocking is attitude,” he says. “If you want to, we can teach you. You don’t have to be an embarrassment in that area. It drives me crazy.”
But not every tight end who enters the league has that desire. Many of them have come from college schemes that never required them to get into a three-point stance, much less block opponents with any kind of regularity. When these tight ends arrive in the NFL, they force teams to compromise. “The reality is that you have to figure out what a guy can do and take advantage of it,” the NFL team executive says.
One of the ways teams try to gain that edge is to use three-by-one formations with three receivers on one side and a tight end on the other. This gives the QB a clue about the defense he is facing on a play but also creates a situation where the tight end could be in man coverage, thanks to a high safety’s desire to protect against trouble on the side of the field with three targets. Before, that meant the passer knew he had a last resort. Now, that tight end could be the primary receiver.
And if that man is Kelce or Kittle or Waller or Ertz — among others — the defense could be in big trouble. The Bengals used Tyler Eifert like that during his seven years with the team. (In late March, he signed a two-year deal with Jacksonville.) Though he isn’t known for his blocking, Eifert is a solid receiver and can force defenses to play more nickel when he is on the field. That gave the Bengals plenty of options.
“If they are in nickel, we could find runs that work against that,” Callahan says. “If they stay in base defense, with a heavier front, we could get the tight end on linebackers and can exploit that.”
A single tight end can influence a defense. But these days, using three of them can give an offense flexibility that can lead to significant production and success. That’s a departure from even a decade ago, when loading up at that position meant one thing: a run play was coming. Last year, in part because of a lack of outside receiving talent, the Raiders employed “13” personnel — one wideout and three tight ends with one back — quite often. Although not the ideal approach to gaining yards, coach Jon Gruden used it to help Oakland finish 11th in total offense, without a wideout who caught 50 passes. Thanks to Waller, who grabbed 90 aerials and averaged 12.7 yards per reception, along with Derek Carrier and Foster Moreau, the Raiders were able to put defenses in some tough spots, with the ability to run out of the heavy formations while also using the tight ends’ sure hands to create some interesting passing-game matchups.
The Eagles used a lot of 13 personnel en route to a victory in Super Bowl LII. Ertz, Burton and Brent Celek were often on the field together because Philadelphia was not blessed with a surfeit of outside receiving talent. That year, Ertz led the team with 74 receptions and scored eight times. While he will never be a consistent downfield threat, he is hardly the prototypical safety valve tight end, either.
Embree reports that more advanced pass route concepts are allowing tight ends to be more fully involved in the offense and even letting them head upfield more often. Of course, since they are also used in short-yardage settings thanks to their proximity to the QB, their yards per catch will never be as robust as that of wide receivers, who benefit from schemes designed to get them moving in space. But thanks to tight ends’ ever-improving ball skills, quarterbacks are treating them more like wideouts than ever before.
Take the back-shoulder catch. It was created to help wideouts shake free from tight coverage by stopping short and turning away from the field to corral a pass. It has become so popular that teams have “red lines” on their practice fields, six to seven yards in from the sideline to keep wideouts a bit closer to the hashmark and to give quarterbacks enough room to execute back-shoulder throws. But in three-by-one sets, when tight ends head up the seam, QBs are doing something similar with them.
“In the old days of the NFL, a quarterback was taught that if a tight end was covered, he was to go to the next receiver in the progression,” the NFL exec says. “Now, he looks to see if the defender’s back is turned, and he’ll throw to the [tight end’s] helmet.”
And there’s a good chance he will catch it. The old days of sticking the ball between a tight end’s numbers to guarantee a catch have been replaced by players with an expanded catch radius who have the hands to go get throws that aren’t perfect.
“They are like big receivers who can extend and turn and go over people,” Callahan says. “[New Orleans’] Jared Cook is so big that he’s like a power forward. You’re trying to cover him with a 6'0" defensive back? You have no shot.”
• • •
When Kirk Ferentz and his assistants were recruiting T.J. Hockenson and trying to figure out if he could fit in an Iowa offensive system that requires a lot of work from its tight ends, they spent a lot of time in gyms, watching the roundball bounce.
“He was probably a better basketball player than football player,” Ferentz says.
Part of the challenge for the Hawkeye staff when it comes to recruiting tight ends is that it is largely a developmental position in the program. But the hard work put in by coaches and players definitely pays dividends. Eleven former Hawkeye tight ends during Ferentz’s tenure have been drafted by NFL teams. Although Hockenson was a first-team all-state choice on the gridiron and in 2019 would be chosen eighth overall in the NFL Draft, he still had to redshirt when he arrived in Iowa City.
“Typically, there is a lot of projection in the recruiting aspect for this position,” Ferentz says.
The Hawkeyes are used to looking ahead, simply because the state of Iowa isn’t loaded with five-star prospects. But the tight end spot requires an even clearer crystal ball, due to one big question Ferentz asks of those who want to play the position in Iowa City: “Will they block anyone?” Hockenson, who ended up playing two seasons for the Hawkeyes before declaring for the draft, arrived on campus with a pair of great hands and very little experience trying to get in the way of enemy defenders.
“When he came to camp, he wasn’t a very good blocker,” Ferentz says. “But he tried and had enough toughness and ‘want to’ that we thought he could do it. As long as you have those attributes, you can get it done.”
In 2018, Hockenson and Noah Fant combined for 88 receptions and 13 scores for a 9–4 Hawkeyes team. Both left early for the NFL, a good move since the Lions chose Hockenson eighth, and Fant went 20th to Denver. They joined a parade of Iowa alumni at the position that includes Dallas Clark, who caught 505 passes during his 11-year career (including 100 in 2009), Tony Moeaki, Scott Chandler and C.J. Fiedorowicz. Oh, yeah, the Kittle guy, too.
But not even Ferentz could have imagined Kittle would become the player he is today. Kittle’s father, Bruce, was coached by Ferentz at Iowa, and his mother, Jan, was a standout basketball player at Drake. “She was the athlete,” Ferentz says. And Kittle’s career in Iowa City was rather nondescript. He battled injuries during his first two years on campus and caught a total of 48 passes during his four seasons, but he did average 15.4 yards per reception. Despite Kittle’s performance in San Francisco, it makes sense the Niners waited until the fifth round to choose him.
“I never would have projected him as one of the marquee players in the league, but now I wish I was that smart,” Ferentz says.
Ferentz and his staff are plenty sharp when it comes to creating pro-ready tight ends. And though he prefers the classic versions who line up next to the tackle and can block and catch, he understands that not everyone can do it all.
“Some guys are better suited for the traditional tight end position, and other guys can be flexed off the ball,” Ferentz says. “Other guys can play both ways, but that’s rare.”
NFL teams still want tight ends who can do both, but they understand that the modern college game doesn’t include too many programs like Iowa, which wants its guys to catch passes and block. So, they adapt and compromise. They’ll find players with ball skills and the size and speed to create mismatches and work to use them to maximize their production. If that means using people who play more like big wideouts than conventional tight ends, so be it.
“Coordinators say, ‘A tight end does this best,’ so they feature him in that area,” Schottenheimer says. “They can live with deficiencies in other areas.”
It’s not a bad trade-off.
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2020 NFL Preview.