The tight end position has only become more and more prevalent to the success of NFL teams over the past decade. What used to normally be a team’s fourth or fifth option in the passing game has all of a sudden become the third, second, or even top option for some of the most successful offenses in the league.
Heck, the position and the guys who are playing have continued to get more and more love from the football, so much so that guys like George Kittle and Travis Kelce have started their own Tight End University summit they put on each year, on top of Nation Tight End Day that is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of every October.
A position that was once thought of as a leaner, sixth offensive lineman with just enough athletic talent to catch a pass occasionally has now turned into a powerhouse role-player who strives to make a difference for their offense both on the ground and through the air.
The great Tony Gonzalez entered the NFL in 1997 and was elite until the day he hung up his cleats. Names like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Jason Witten, and Greg Olsen followed him and got the movement churning further in the 2000s before the position started earning their rightful praise. In 2010, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham both entered the NFL in the same draft class. They proceeded to catch every touchdown thrown their way.
Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz hit their stride through the midway point of the past decade in a way that all three combined to do some wildly historic things by fantasy football standards for tight ends. Now enter the latest batch of futures great. The Ravens’ Mark Andrews and his running mate Isaiah Likely, Buffalo’s Dalton Kincaid, Dallas’ Jake Ferguson, Arizona’s Trey McBride. All of these players have been BALLING for their respective teams in 2023 and it makes it easy to see how the the hype will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
Now for the ACTUAL point of this whole article: The tight end position is being utilized by the league’s best teams and it’s no surprise that most of this year’s playoff-bound clubs employ some of the best of the best.
For starters, let’s take a look at this year’s list of postseason clubs and their respective starters, along with where their regular season receiving yard totals ranked amongst their peers:
- San Francisco 49ers: George Kittle – 65 receptions, 1,020 receiving yards (1st), six touchdowns
- Kansas City Chiefs: Travis Kelce – 93 receptions, 984 receiving yards (2nd), five touchdowns
- Detroit Lions: Sam LaPorta – 86 receptions, 889 receiving yards (5th), 10 touchdowns
- Cleveland Browns: David Njoku – 81 receptions, 883 receiving yards (6th), six touchdowns
- Dallas Cowboys: Jake Ferguson – 71 receptions, 761 receiving yards (8th), five touchdowns
- Buffalo Bills: Dalton Kincaid – 73 receptions, 673 receiving yards (10th), two touchdowns
- Houston Texans: Dalton Shultz – 59 receptions, 635 receiving yards (12th), five touchdowns
- Philadelphia Eagles: Dallas Goedert – 59 receptions, 592 receiving yards (14th), three touchdowns
- Baltimore Ravens: Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely – Andrews: 45 receptions, 544 receiving yards (17th), six touchdowns – Likely: 30 receptions, 411 receiving yards (25th), five touchdowns
- Los Angeles Rams: Tyler Higbee – 47 receptions, 495 receiving yards (20th), two touchdowns
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cade Otton – 47 receptions, 455 receiving yards (21st), four touchdowns
Entering this year’s wild card round, 12 tight ends among the position’s top-25 producers are amongst the 14 playoff-bound clubs, highlighted by the Ravens who have two of them. As stated above, these players aren’t just checkdown options or third-down drive-saviors anymore. They’re bonafide studs who will make plays for the offense on every down and in every situation. That also includes on the ground as difference-makers in the run game.
Exactly half of the top-16 teams in rushing yards per game this season employ at least one of these great tight ends. That’s not a coincidence. The Ravens — the only team with two of the top-25 — lead the NFL in rushing. The 49ers and Kittle are third while the Lions and their star rookie LaPorta are fifth. The Bills (Kincaid) and Eagles (Goedert) are also amongst the top-10.
When tight ends becomes threats in the passing game, they can also help their offense influence defenses without even having to engage defenders directly. When an offense utilizes their star tight end in pre-snap motion, defenses will be forced to adjust as not to get beat. This usually involves split motion, a play design that gets tight ends (and sometimes other players) moving against the grain as the rest of the offensive line. Defenses must respect it which could put them in a bind, allowing a blocker to get a better angle on the play.
Sometimes, however, it just simply muddies up the box and it can lead to some pretty easy touchdowns:
A prime example of how this influence can help an offense is the second play of this clip posted by The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz.
Watch how Miami’s split zone action to get a better blocking angle for the tight while simultaneously pulling a linebacker out of the cutback lane. The running back is greeted by nothing but green grass and a gain of 30 yards.
Look at the difference the split zone action makes in the second clip: improves the blocking angle for the tight end splitting across the formation and holds the backside linebacker. Miami couldn’t get the end and linebacker blocked in the first play. pic.twitter.com/lF3cQO8bB3
— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 8, 2022
When you’ve got one of the elite of the elite, then things really start to open up.
Every defense must find Travis Kelce on every play. Below, watch how much the defense keys on him as he goes on split-zone action only for Clyde Edwards-Helaire to run right behind him for the shovel pass touchdown.
The Chiefs always have the best low red zone designs because they’re bored and want to try shit but this is really fun. It’s like a fake split zone with the tight end heading into the flat and then the RB comes right behind him for the shovel pass. pic.twitter.com/3ax6UgmBJT
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) October 4, 2021
The tight end position has become one of the league’s best pieces of bait. Defenses will always focus on the team’s top wideout or running back. Tight ends start as one of the first players to “get” an opponent’s defense with. Once they burn a defense a handful of times, coaches will make the adjustment. That’s when plays like the one above by the Chiefs come into play. Once you burn them for making their first adjustment, all bets are off. You’ve got that defense in a bag and they’ll be stuck trying to get out of it for the rest of the game.
As I sit tidying this up, I’m looking at the matchups for Super Wild Card Weekend. To my — lack thereof — surprise, every team with the more-productive tight end is favored to win. Njoku and the Browns are favored over Schultz and the Texans, LaPorta and the Lions are favored over Higbee and the Rams, and Goedert’s Eagles are expected to beat Otton’s Bucs. Even in the matchups with two of the top 25 tight ends, it’s the team’s with the tight end are still favored (Bills and Chiefs).
While you’ll see plenty of star wide receivers and running backs up in the headlines throughout this wild card weekend, just remember that for every big run or catch that makes the highlight reel, there was likely an unheralded play by a tight end who helped open that hole at line or cleared out space in the secondary. And if I was any kind of a betting man, I’d say whomever the eventual Super Bowl winner is this year will be spurred on by a big man whose efforts most certainly deserve a holiday of their own.