MINNEAPOLIS — As a high school football player in Cincinnati, Kyle Rudolph marveled at the way Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates ran wild through NFL defenses as pass-catching tight ends. Rudolph saw endless possibilities for his position.
“That’s when the position was just starting to change where you flex them out, move them around, treat them like a wide receiver type,” said Rudolph, a second-year tight end for the Vikings. “That’s all I’ve ever known as far as the position.”
Once employed primarily as in-line blockers and anonymous grunt workers, tight ends have evolved, becoming an integral component of offenses as primary receivers. Teams covet big, fast, athletic tight ends because they create fundamental mismatches for defenses. The new breed is too fast for linebackers, too big for safeties.
Statistics reflect the shift in philosophy. In 1990, no NFL tight end caught 60 passes. Six reached that mark in 2000, and 11 did in 2011, led by New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham with 99.
Six tight ends finished in the top 17 in the league in receptions last season.
“That position has dramatically changed,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “They have become almost another wide receiver with so many teams today. It creates some mismatches for defenses trying to match up with linebackers and safeties. All of a sudden, (defenses) have to put personnel on the field that doesn’t fit, and it creates problems.”
The Vikings face another difficult matchup Sunday in San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, who caught seven passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns in their 2009 meeting. Pass-catching tight ends have given the Vikings fits in recent years. Since 2009, 10 tight ends have led their teams in receptions against the Vikings.
“Now there are so many,” Frazier said. “Almost every team in the league has a guy who has the capability to be distant from the formation, not just in the box like there once was.”
Some teams don’t limit themselves to just one. In 2010, the New England Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, draft-day decisions that underscored coach Bill Belichick’s longstanding affection for that position.
Belichick provided another blueprint for others to copy in his double tight end model. Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and an NFL-leading 17 touchdowns last season, and Hernandez wasn’t far behind (79-910-7).
“You think you’ve seen it all,” Rudolph said, “and then you watch a Patriots game and you see Aaron Hernandez taking a handoff at tailback. The position is forever changed.”
The value placed on tight ends is reflected in the salaries. The franchise tag that teams use to retain key potential free agents represents the top five salaries at the player’s position. The franchise tag for tight ends in 2000 was worth $2.385 million. The tag designation was $7.285 million last season. Granted, salaries at every position have risen significantly in that span, but tight ends clearly are perceived differently in terms of their importance.
“You’re seeing that more tight ends have gotten significant contracts,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “They’re not just another offensive lineman.”
Pass-catching tight ends are not a new phenomenon. Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey revolutionized the position by showcasing their receiving skills. Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and Shannon Sharpe changed the job description and opened doors for a new wave who have made their mark primarily as receivers.
“These guys right now are so much bigger than we were, it’s unbelievable,” Ditka said. “These guys are power forwards in basketball.”
Literally in some cases. Graham played only one season of football at the University of Miami. He played basketball for four seasons, finishing his career eighth in school history in blocks. Rudolph, who is 6-6 and 260 pounds, had Division I basketball offers as a prep star.
The preferred body type fits that “power forward” mold. Ditka (6-3, 228 pounds) and Mackey (6-2, 224) wouldn’t measure up to players such as Gronkowski (6-6, 265), Gates (6-4, 255) and Gonzalez (6-5, 247).
“Everybody is just getting more athletic,” former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said. “I think that’s the way it’s going to have to go with the linebackers. Some of these big, bulky, thumper-type linebackers, if you want to play on the field all three downs, you’ve got to drop some weight and become a little lighter, quicker and a little more athletic to cover these guys.”
Vikings tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson credits the evolution to a trickle-up effect from the college game. Spread offenses are the rage in college so fewer teams use a traditional blocking tight end.
“I would have loved to be playing now,” joked Johnson, who caught 61 passes in his 10-year NFL career.
NFL teams still require tight ends to block, just not as often. Spielman said the shift in skill sets makes it more difficult when evaluating college players as blockers.
“It’s almost impossible, unless they’re in an offense where you can sit there and watch them at the line of scrimmage and block,” he said. “Rarely do you see them in a traditional (role).”
NFL tight ends line up everywhere now. Next to the tackle, split out wide, in the slot, in motion, even in the backfield. Many teams, including the Vikings, employ two-tight end sets in which both are receivers.
“They’re being very creative in how they use them,” Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said.
The difference now, Leber said, is that seemingly every team has one — or two — tight ends that it uses in that function. It’s become the norm.
“It used to be you had pockets of certain teams,” he said. “You only had to worry about it when you played those teams once or twice a year. Now it’s pretty much every team is trying to find that type of guy. That’s the trend. I don’t think it’s a short-term thing. I think that’s the way it’s going to be for a long time.”