The evolution of the tight end position and Championship weekend

I’ve had a pretty good playoffs so far – while I’ve only gone 4-4 against the spread (thanks to Baltimore not covering the half point), more importantly, I’ve had a pretty accurate feel for how these games were going to play out with only two notable exceptions: last week’s Giants/Packers game, and Tim Tebow’s unexplainable win over Pittsburgh. That makes me 6-2 straight up, and considering God intervened in one of those losses, I’d say I’m sitting pretty.

But there is a dynamic group that has had a far superior playoffs than yours truly: NFL tight ends. The development of the tight end as not just a part of the offense, but a primary weapon, has been taking place for about 25 years now. It’s no coincidence that every significant TE record has been broken twice in the last 11 years, first by Shannon Sharpe, and then by Tony Gonzalez. Chargers TE Antonio Gates already has more touchdown catches than Sharpe, and if he can stay healthy, should surpass the rest of Sharpe’s career numbers, and come just short of Gonzalez. This season, New England tight end Rob Gronkowski shattered the TE single season marks for receiving yards and touchdowns.

The evolution of the tight end can be attributed primarily to two factors that are coming together to create a matchup nightmare for NFL defenses. Today’s NFL tight ends are incredible athletes; long gone are the days of the big man with good hands, that was valued as much for his blocking as his ability to catch passes. Sharpe was a track and field star, and basketball player at Savannah State. Both Gonzalez and Gates played Division I basketball; Gonzalez dominated Villanova in the 1997 NCAA tournament, and Gates never even played football in college. Saints TE Jimmy Graham, whose receiving and TD numbers trailed only Gronkowski and actually had more catches this season, was a star basketball player at the University of Miami who didn’t start playing football until his senior season at the U. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was a track and field star in high school, who was a regional high jump champion while running a 4.4 40 yard dash. The list goes on and on.

Any fantasy football player knows there are more viable tight ends in today’s NFL than ever before: along with the studs listed above, you could add the Eagles’ Brent Celek, Carolina’s Greg Olson, Tampa’s Kellen Winslow Jr., Dallas’ Jason Witten, and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley. Tight ends like Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew have been first round picks over the last couple seasons. So why the sudden emergence of these superior athletes playing the tight end position? Because the NFL’s passing game rules benefit these beasts more than ever before.

Not only are these guys getting more athletic, but teams are searching for athletes to play the position now, instead of finding blockers with soft hands. That’s because the NFL rules now allow receivers, all receivers, to roam through the secondary untouched both before and after the catch. Any contact after five yards is immediately flagged, and head hunting safeties and linebackers now need to be aware of getting penalties and big fines for punishing receivers that have the temerity to operate in the middle of the field. On the other end, quarterbacks stand in the pocket, protected by rules that don’t allow them to be hit high, low, or late. Three years ago, Dan Marino was the only 5,000 yard passer in NFL history; this season alone, THREE QBS (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford) threw for over 5,000 yards, while Aaron Rodgers came just short and didn’t play in the final regular season game. Before 1990, there were sixteen 4,000 yard seasons in NFL history; this season alone, there were TEN.

With the rules allowing offenses to air it out, big athletic players that can run are becoming practically unguardable. Most NFL linebackers can’t run with these former track athletes, and defensive backs aren’t big enough to handle them. If a defender is physical with them it’s a flag; if they punish them for catching balls across the middle, it’s a flag. The irony is the penalty is for hitting a defenseless receiver; the defensive players are the ones being left defenseless against monsters that can run and catch the ball with no fear. Gonzalez and Gates started the trend of basketball players switching over to football. I only expect that trend to continue with players like Graham, now that athletes considering football will not be as wary of being injured.

The wide receivers are increasingly becoming freakish physical specimens for similar reasons – Calvin Johnson, Hakeem Nicks, Larry Fitzgerald, and other big wideouts are becoming more and more dangerous. Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon, cut from the same mold, will be a top 5 pick in the upcoming draft, one year after big receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones went in the top 10.

Last week, Gronkowski caught 3 more touchdowns, Davis had 180 receiving yards and 2 TDs, including the game winner and every big play, and Graham nearly beat the 49ers with his 66 yard TD over All Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. And the top tight ends in this year’s upcoming draft just moved a little bit further up the draft boards.

On to this week’s games:

Ravens at Patriots (-7) (o/u 50)

As predicted last week, the Patriots put Tebowmania to bed before halftime, and the Girl with the Curl (Joe Flacco) was bailed out by the Ravens defense forcing T.J. Yates into three interceptions. New England’s dominant performance and Flacco’s shaky one have led to a consensus that there is no way the Ravens offense can score enough to beat the Patriots this Sunday, in Foxboro no less. But I don’t think Baltimore will have to score 35 points to win this game. The most points that Tom Brady has ever scored against the Ravens is 27; so I don’t see Brady repeating last week’s performance, in which he threw 5 TD passes in the first half alone.

New England played just 3 games against playoff teams this season. Their record? 1-2, with their only victory coming over the fraudulent Denver Broncos that they just pasted in the divisional round. In other words, the only playoff team New England beat this season was the Broncos. The Patriots remind me a bit of the 2009 Eagles that padded their record by beating up on a lousy schedule, and earning Andy Reid a contract extension in the process. Their defense is historically bad, and they can’t run the football. Two of their three losses came to physical football teams (Steelers, Giants) that were capable of jamming their receivers at the line of scrimmage, and pressuring Tom Brady. Sounds a little like the Ravens doesn’t it?

Before these playoffs started, I picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl, mostly on the premise that they are such a bad matchup for New England. That hasn’t changed and I’m not waffling now. I think the Girl with the Curl is very, very good this week against an awful New England secondary.

Ravens 34 Patriots 24

Giants at 49ers (-2.5) (o/u 42)

Last week’s Giants/Packers went exactly the way I thought it was going to; only it was the Packers making mistake after mistake, repeatedly fumbling the ball and the game away. Eli Manning hardly ever had to move his feet and was never pressured enough to make mistakes; one of the few times that the Packers got pressure, Manning responded predictably by throwing a pick. But mostly, Manning was able to stand tall in the pocket and responded by picking the Packer secondary apart.

San Francisco’s defense will not allow the Giants to run the ball, which should put Eli in unenviable 3rd and long situations, when the Smiths (Justin and Aldon) will be unleashed on a questionable New York offensive line. The 49ers will also not make the mistakes that allowed the Giants to steamroll the Packers. San Francisco has less turnovers than anyone in the NFL this season, and that’s largely because Alex Smith has been one of the best decision makers in the NFL. The Giant pass rush will also be disruptive, but while Eli is prone to making mistakes under duress, Alex Smith has shown this season that he understands the importance of protecting the football, and letting his defense and special teams be factors in the game.

Last week, the Packers turned over the ball 4 times, had 8 huge dropped passes, and the Giants scored on a Hail Mary, on which several Packers defenders let New York receivers get behind them. Despite EVERYTHING going the Giants’ way, the Packers were within one score in the fourth quarter. The 49ers will not be so generous; the NFL leaders in turnover margin force mistakes instead of making them.

The Harbaugh Bowl I predicted comes to fruition.

49ers 27 Giants 17

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