Tight ends have been making quite a splash of late. On Saturday, thanks to big performances from Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis in the early divisional playoff game and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the late game, tight ends actually outperformed wide receivers in terms of both yardage (587-552) and touchdowns (8-4).
(Sunday wasn’t quite as big a day for tight ends, but Owen Daniels, Jake Ballard, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Travis Beckum and Jermichael Finley still combined for 13 catches and 146 yards.)
Graham’s Saints have been eliminated, but Gronkowski, Hernandez and Davis will be featured prominently in the conference championships on Sunday. And don’t rule out an impact performance from Ballard, who was an extremely reliable option in his first season as a starter before injuries took him out of the lineup in late December and early January, or Dickson and Pitta, who combined to catch 94 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns during Baltimore’s regular season.
That being the case, this January has provided a broader football-watching audience with the opportunity to see what Judy Battista of the New York Times calls a “new breed of tight end — direct descendants of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates — who terrorized defenses all season…with their absurd mix of wide receiver speed and power forward girth.”
Gronkowski, Hernandez, Graham and Davis are, on average, 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. Former great tight ends John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome and Sterling Sharpe were, on average, 6-foot-2, 228 pounds.
Recent outlandish performances from the above tight ends are causing some to opine that this is the year of the tight end in the NFL. But based on the age of the tight ends dominating, it might simply mark the beginning of a new era (decade of the tight end?).
After all, Gronkowski broke single-season records for tight ends with 17 touchdown catches and 1,327 yards — and the latter number was only 17 north of Graham’s final tally.
Three tight ends — Graham, Gronkowski and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew — finished the season in the top 10 in receptions, with Hernandez, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez joining that trio to make it six in the top 15. For comparison’s sake, only two tight ends made the top 20 in 2010.
A tight end hasn’t pierced the top 10 in terms of yardage since Gonzalez did so in 2004 (and prior to that, it hadn’t happened since Ben Coates finished 10th in 1994), and yet both Gronkowski and Graham accomplished that feat this year.
Passing records are being broken left and right as the definition of “elite passer” changes by the year. But instead of wide receivers emerging to break their own category of records, it seems a group of freak-of-nature tight ends has arrived to gladly catch the extra passes being thrown to open targets league-wide.
And based on the presence of Gronkowski, Hernandez, Davis et al in the NFL’s version of the final four this year, expect copycats to buy into the philosophy that monster tight ends are a new key to success.
Until, of course, one day, when defenses wise up and start employing their very own beast-sized cornerbacks to counter the phenomenon.