Sunday, January 29, 2012

Prototype Tight Ends: The Need for a Defensive Adaptation

        At least once every ten years the NFL finds a way to transform and adapt.  In the 70's, football was a jaw breaking, three yards and a cloud of dust sport.  In the 80s, the West Coast Offense introduced the short pass game and completely changed football.  High flying offenses like the Rams owned my teenage years, and now that receivers are always considered defenseless and sneezing on a quarterback draws a 15 yard penalty, the NFL is truly a passing league.  But 2012 has ushered in another groundbreaking change: the emergence of the tight end.
        Sure, that position has always been around.  It was the spot for the big, stout white guy with the sure hands.  Too small for a lineman, too slow for a wide receiver, the tight end was a player who blocked first and caught passes second.  But with athletes like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis touting freakish athleticism and size, offensive coordinators are cashing in on an almost indefensible match up problem.
        Take a look at where the tight end lines up - right on the tackles hip.  This is a spot reserved for defensive ends and outside linebackers.  If the tight end is in to block, this match up is fine - the pass rusher/run stopper just has to beat the block and  make a play on the ball.
        But if the tight end is running a route, this is a problem defensively, especially for ends and linebackers who play upfield first, all the time.  If the tight end has under 4.5 speed and sky scraper size like Jimmy Graham or Vernon Davis, there isn't a linebacker in the NFL that can keep them from catching the ball.
        What's the logical solution?  Most defensive coordinators would want to match up their most physical corner on them, but that makes defenses extremely vulnerable in the run game.  Tight ends that size will manhandle any cornerback in the league and blow holes wide open for their running back.
        Teams have failed to contain these prototype players all year, and that is why we've seen monster numbers from players like Graham, Gronkowski and Davis in 2012.

Let's look at the statistics:

Rob Gronkowski: 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs

Jimmy Graham: 99 catches, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns

Vernon Davis: 67 catches, 792 yards, 6 touchdowns
(note: we all know about the 49ers offensive deficiencies, and it should be stated that Vernon emerged in the playoffs, catching 4 touchdowns and racking up 292 yards in 2 games.)

        It should also be noted that Jimmy Graham had three touchdowns in the Saints two playoff games, and Gronkowski has caught 3 touchdowns and 232 yards worth of passes in the Patriots run to the Super Bowl.
Add into the mix a second option at tight end like Aaron Hernandez or Delanie Walker and you have yourself a defensive nightmare.  The Patriots actually used Aaron Hernandez as a running back in their two playoff games, and he rushed for just under 100 yards.
        The only logical solution?  We may see the creation of a new hybrid position on the defensive side of the ball.  This player must have it all: size, speed, run stopping and pass defending abilities.  This player must be able to cover like the best cornerback (although even the best corners in the league can't cover these tight ends) and shed blocks with the best linebackers in the league.
        I'm more of a casual observer than an NFL scout, so I'm not sure where these players will come from.  Perhaps they will come from the same crop of athletes that birthed these tight ends.  Either way, whatever coach develops them first will be considered an innovative genius.  That is, at least until the next offensive prototype emerges.

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