San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates makes a catch during an NFL football game against Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 11, 2011, in San Diego. / File/AP
Bubba Franks played in three Pro Bowls, after the 2001, ’02 and ’03 seasons.
The former Green Bay Packers tight end wouldn’t have a prayer now. There are too many playmakers at tight end in today’s NFL.
Franks’ Pro Bowls date to less than a decade ago, but look what got him a ticket to Hawaii three years in a row: An average of 40 receptions and only 8.4 yards a catch. He wasn’t fast or particularly athletic. He was a good but not great blocker. He went to the Pro Bowl primarily because he had 20 touchdown catches over those three seasons, though in the most telling stat of all, 17 were for 5 yards or fewer.
It’s a whole different world today, both because the NFL is even more pass oriented than a decade ago, and because of a surge in receiving talent at the tight end position. To wit: Fourteen tight ends are on pace for at least 60 receptions this season; 11 of the tight ends with 15 receptions or more are averaging at least 12 yards a catch; and seven tight ends lead their team in receptions.
More subjectively, there are probably seven tight ends who can be described as difference-makers or players defenses try to take out of the game, including the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates and the Green Bay Packers’ Jermichael Finley, who will face off Sunday. Gates probably has been the league’s best tight end since 2004 — his 68 touchdown catches over that time are 23 more than the next tight ends on the list, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten. Finley, though only second in receptions on the team, has drawn as much defensive attention as any of the Packers’ receivers.
Also in the difference-making group are New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Dallas’ Witten, Washington’s Fred Davis, Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow Jr. and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.
Several others don’t rise to that level of talent but are major factors in the passing game: The New England Patriots’ duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined have 65 receptions for 793 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games; Atlanta’s Gonzalez, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer who at age 35 isn’t the playmaker of his prime; Houston’s Owen Daniels (31 catches, 13.4-yard average); Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller (30 catches, 12.0-yard average); Carolina’s Greg Olsen (30 catches, 12.0-yard average); the New York Jets’ Dustin Keller (25 catches, 14.9-yard average); and maybe Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew, who’s not a big-play threat (8.8-yard average, two touchdowns) but is second among tight ends in catches this season (41).
So it looks like the playmaking tight end is one of the latest evolutions in the passing game and in the athletes who are drawn to football.
As the NFL becomes even more pass oriented, there’s greater demand than ever for big receivers who can challenge the center of the field against increasingly sophisticated coverage-oriented defenses. Teams are playing extra defensive backs more than ever, and playmakers at tight end are a difficult matchup over the middle. Linebackers and most safeties can’t stay with them, and the cornerbacks who can are small.
“(Top tight ends) are never covered, even when they’re covered,” said Ben McAdoo, the Packers’ tight ends coach. “That’s probably the biggest thing. Ball doesn’t have to be perfect, their catch radius is so large. Not guys that run fast necessarily, but guys with the range with those natural hands like Gates has, like Jermichael has, Jimmy Graham down in New Orleans is coming around. The range, you can put the ball — it doesn’t have to be a perfect throw, and it makes it look easy sometimes. That goes a long way in tight spots, third down, red zone, things like that.”
As far as the athletes drawn to the position, the Hall of Fame has only eight tight ends, and five of them played the bulk of their careers in the 1960s and ’70s: Mike Ditka (1961-72), John Mackey (’63-72), Jackie Smith (’63-78), Dave Casper (’74-84) and Charlie Sanders (’68-77).
Two of the other three played primarily in the 1980s: Kellen Winslow (1979-87) and Ozzie Newsome (1978-90).
The only one of more recent vintage is Shannon Sharpe (1990-2003). There also are three tight ends among this year’s class of 105 Hall of Fame nominees, but it’s hard to see any of them getting in: Ben Coates (’91-00), Todd Christiansen (’79-88) and Frank Wycheck (’93-03).
Mackey was the original big-play tight end. He was well within the size range for the ’60s at 6-foot-2 and 224 pounds, and his long speed was new to the position. Mackey ranks only No. 46 for all-time receptions among tight ends (331), but his average per catch (15.8 yards) is excellent for a receiver, let alone a tight end.
Ditka, Smith, Casper and Sanders brought serious receiving skills to the position as well, if not Mackey’s speed.
But the eras of the Hall of Famers suggests there was something of a drought at tight end in the latter ’80s and ’90s. Winslow and Newsome were the exceptions, and Winslow especially set the template for the tight ends now tearing up the league.
There were good tight ends, even if they’re not in the Hall of Fame. To name just a few others since the ’80s: Riley Odoms (1972-83), Russ Francis (’75-88), Mickey Shuler (’78-91), Steve Jordan (’82-94), Mark Bavaro (’85-94), Jay Novacek (’85-95), Brent Jones (’87-97), Wesley Walls (’89-03) and Keith Jackson (’88-96).
But scouts in the later ’80s and ’90s lamented that most of the top tight ends were in the NBA, and it’s probably no coincidence that several of the top tight ends today have strong basketball backgrounds.
Gonzalez, the No. 2 all-time leader in receptions among all players, played in 82 basketball games as a two-sport athlete at the University of California.
Gates, a two-sport standout in high school, was the best player on a Kent State basketball team that went to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 2002. But as a 6-4 and 260-pound power forward, he saw a better future in an NFL game that’s emphasizing receiving far more than blocking at tight end, so after finishing his college basketball career, he signed with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie.
Graham played four years of basketball at the University of Miami before joining the football team in his fifth year — his only previous football experience was as a freshman in high school. In only his second season, he’s become the top receiver for the New Orleans Saints, whose passing game rivals the Packers for best in the NFL.
Even Finley was a basketball player first, and as a senior in high school had committed orally to play for Lute Olson at Arizona, where Finley was only considering walking on in football. Then a week before the national signing date in football, Texas football coach Mack Brown offered a scholarship, and the chance to play in his home state’s illustrious football program was too much for Finley to pass up.
Finley probably illustrates as well as anything why at least some athletes with his background and size are choosing football over basketball. At 6-foot-4½ and 247 pounds, he was just another explosive but undersized inside player as an NBA prospect; in football, he’s something of a freak. Finley also thinks basketball helped make him a better a tight end.
“Aaron (Rodgers) throws the ball so hard, the hand-eye coordination,” Finley said. “The footwork, my feet are so quick, and going up and getting the ball, that’s what basketball is all about. The only thing that’s not basketball is the hitting.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.