The cycle of NFL offensive innovation can often resemble the path of the typical grade 10 English essay. One really smart kid writes something that’s really smart, and then said smart words are passed around the classroom and modified until 26 essays are submitted, and each paper is only slightly different than the original model.
Wash, rinse, and repeat. If the system is effective, then duplicating and repeating it until it’s effectiveness fades makes sense. This is where we’re at in the NFL following the success of dual tight end systems thanks to Jedi pioneer Bill Belichick. The latest student to copy his essay could be Pete Carroll in Seattle following the acquisition of Kellen Winslow Jr. late last night.
After the Buccaneers made it clear to Winslow that he wouldn’t be a part of the young team’s rebuilding process, GM Mark Dominick had then successfully lowered the veteran’s trade value to slightly above the asking price for a 1980 Pinto. The Seahawks became the willing trade partner, bringing in Winslow for a seventh-round pick that could turn into a sixth rounder if the F—ing soldier meets performance-based incentives. The Bucs already had Winslow’s replacement lined up in the form of Dallas Clark, who was signed to a one-year contract shortly after the trade.
Winslow is a replacement too, but more importantly, he’s an upgrade, and hopefully another reliable outlet for a team that’s high on hope, but low on certainties at quarterback. The departed John Carlson combined with Zach Miller–who was signed last summer as a free agent–for just 551 receiving yards from the team’s top two tight ends last year. Winslow easily trumped that production despite receiving passes from the highly inconsistent Josh Freeman in Tampa when he finished 2011 with 763 yards.
There’s never a shortage of criticism thrown in Winslow’s direction, which I suppose happens when you’ve spent a career generally being a jerk. But he still produces, and he does it consistently. On mostly bad teams in Tampa, he led the Bucs in receptions in each of the past three seasons, and over a seven-year career he’s averaged 690.6 yards per season, a number that’s dragged down by his major knee injuries. His 437 receptions since 2004 puts him behind only Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, and Antonio Gates among tight ends during that stretch. He was also the fourth most targeted tight end last year.
Paired with Miller, he’ll now be asked to do something he hasn’t done often before: share. The prominence of dual tight end sets and two TEs who become the focal point of an offense is rapidly rising, largely due to Belichick’s work with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. We’re just less than a month removed from a draft when the Colts spent back-to-back picks on tight ends in the second and third rounds (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen), and Cam Newton made frequent connections with both Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen last year.
Exactly how often dual TE sets are utilized between Miller and Winslow in Seattle remains a guessing game at this point, especially with Winslow’s creaky knees. But with the exception of the oft-injured Sidney Rice, Matt Flynn or Tarvaris Jackson (most likely Flynn) will be throwing to a wide receiver corps that’s still high on upside, and low on experience between the likes of Tate Graham, Deon Butler, and Doug Baldwin.
This is still an offense that will lean heavily on the running game with Marshawn Lynch. But the added threat of Winslow when he’s alongside Miller gives the Seahawks a weapon to capitalize on the seams opened up down the middle by Lynch’s pounding, and also a tool to draw attention away from the young speed on the outside.