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The Tight End Revolution

NFL Top 100 2021

George Kittle and Travis Kelce, widely regarded as the top two tight ends in the NFL, both received massive contract extensions in the past couple of days. Kittle got a record-setting extension of 5-years, $75 million. Kelce also received a healthy extension of 4-years, $57 million. It was not long ago that tight ends were primarily thought of as offensive linemen with minor receiving abilities. Are players like Kittle and Kelce among a select few tight ends who make ripples? Or is a tight end revolution beginning?

Dual-Purpose Powerhouses

The Tight End Revolution
Kittle is highly regarded as the best tight end in the NFL right now, even over Travis Kelce. This is because of his ability to both block and receive at the highest level. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Describing tight ends as somewhat of an extension of offensive lineman remains true today. Because they are larger than receivers, they can block rushing defensive backs and linebackers. Coaches will often bring in heavy-set personnel with multiple tight ends when running the ball to overpower the defense with size. However, this has changed in the modern NFL. Multi-tight end sets are no longer isolated to the running game. While not all teams utilize tight ends to their highest potential, the league is starting to come around. In 2019, 14 tight ends had 500+ receiving yards, with three exceeding the 1,000 yards marker. For many teams, tight ends have become cornerstones of the passing offense.

Because the league has historically used tight ends in running situations, the offense can entice the defense into running heavier personnel by putting tight ends in their formation. But, more athletic tight ends can overpower cornerbacks and outrun linebackers, making them an enigma to stop. Some teams elect to use safeties to cover tight ends. While this is the most effective matchup, it can make defensive formations awkward for teams with little safety depth.

Using tight ends also makes the play-action game more effective. Seeing a tight end makes the defense have a running play on their minds, and giving defenders something else to think about can make all the difference. Something tight ends will do to sell the run even more will be to chip the defender who is responsible for covering them. This will appear to be a block and gives crucial separation right off of the line of scrimmage.

Diamonds in the Rough?

The Tight End Revolution
Darren Waller had a breakout year in 2019 after a dismal 2018. With 90 catches for 1,145 yards, he is proof that other elite tight ends could be hidden anywhere. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Even with the tight ends’ ability to block, receive, and fool defenses, they are often under-used. This is mainly because the tight ends who can do all of these things are few and far between. But, George Kittle and Travis Kelce aren’t quite diamonds in the rough. Tight ends like them are becoming more common in the NFL, like Darren Waller, Noah Fant, and Hunter Henry, among others. The versatility of a potent tight end is irreplaceable. It unlocks so much potential for an offense and keeps the defense on their toes. As teams begin to scout more heavily for these players, gems may become more common.

Of course, players like Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, and Tony Gonzalez paved the way for this revolution some years ago. But with them and their predecessors, they were seen as such outliers that many teams didn’t experiment sufficiently with their own tight ends. However, after the Kansas City vs. San Francisco clash in Super Bowl LIV, perhaps teams will be more privy to the impact of a dominant tight end. Who knows – tight ends could become more important to offenses than receivers soon, with their blocking abilities. The tight end revolution is still in its opening stages, but expect to see their usage rates in the passing game continue to climb.

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