Last season, tight ends in the NFL took on a much more significant role in offenses around the league. In the past, there were always a handful of elite tight ends, with a huge drop off into the second tier. Outside of guys like Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates – the yearly producers – the tight end position has annually been a wasteland for consistent pass-catching production.
But in 2011, things changed.
A number of young, athletic tight ends broke onto the scene, dominating opposing defenses, which had no answer for this dynamic group of playmakers.
In 2010, tight ends caught 198 touchdowns. That number rose to an amazing 578 touchdowns in 2011, impacting the outcome of NFL games week in and week out. In the blink of an eye, the tight end has become as much of a weapon as the wide receiver, and even more so for teams like the New England Patriots.
TE Jermichael Finley
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
The Pats last year lacked a competitive group of wideouts, so they relied on the two-headed attack of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowksi, riding these two workhorses all the way to the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski was especially dominant. He's an athletic freak who blends size (6-6, 265), speed, quickness and hands. At times he was nearly impossible to cover. He ended 2011 with 90 receptions – a feat accomplished only by five previous NFL tight ends – for 1,327 yards and 17 TDs, both NFL records for tight ends.
In the NFC, the Saints' Jimmy Graham was just as overwhelming, compiling 99 catches for 1,310 yards and eight touchdowns. And in the NFC North, each team will be relying heavily on their tight ends this year.
Minnesota has second-year player Kyle Rudolph, another young playmaker, and signed veteran John Carlson this offseason, giving quarterback Christian Ponder dual options over the middle. Detroit boasts two talented pass catchers in Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew, while the Packers will again utilize the many talents of Jermichael Finley.
The Chicago Bears, under new coordinator Mike Tice, will also be relying heavily on the tight end position this year and could potentially keep four on the roster.
The goal for the Bears on defense is to find a player that can line up across from these playmaking tight ends and limit their production in the passing game. If last season proved anything, Chicago's defense can be dismantled by a top-tier tight end.
For much of 2011, the Bears struggled to stop opposing tight ends. Witness: Week 1, Tony Gonzalez, 5 REC, 72 YDS; Week 2, Jimmy Graham, 6 REC, 79 YDS; Week 3, Jermichael Finley, 7 REC, 84 YDS, 3 TD; Week 9, Brent Celek, 7 REC, 60 YDS; Week 11, Antonio Gates, 4 REC, 63 YDS, 1 TD.
The NFL is a copycat league and many teams this year will be following in the footsteps of New England, utilizing tight ends in the passing game more than ever. This means the Bears need to figure out a way to reduce the impact of opposing tight ends.
This could come in the form of a schematic change – although the Bears, who run one of the more simplified systems in the NFL, are unlikely to overhaul their bread and butter defense. More likely, the club will need to find a defensive player with the same combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism as these new tight ends.
Last year, Chicago's coaches tried out a number of different players in that role – Nick Roach, Craig Steltz, Major Wright, Chris Conte – yet none appeared to have the necessary requirements, both physically and in coverage ability, to keep pace. Yet it's possible they may have found that player in this year's draft.
S Brandon Hardin
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Brandon Hardin, the team's third-round selection, played cornerback in college. He's currently in the process of transitioning to safety with the Bears. Hardin is built like a brick wall, so he clearly has the strength to match today's tight ends. At his pro day before the draft this year, Hardin ran in the reported 4.5 range. When you combine that type of speed with a player of Hardin's size (6-3, 222) you get a defender with all the physical tools to be successful in man coverage against the NFL's big-bodied pass catchers. On top of that, Hardin has experience covering collegiate wideouts man to man, which should translate well to the next level.
When you add it all up, Hardin has the makings of a tight end stopper. Unfortunately, he's learning a new position and could go through some severe growing pains this season. So far this offseason, Hardin has shown a clear lack of experience at safety, especially in zone coverage, which could make Chicago's coaches leery of using him on game days.
Yet down the line, if Hardin can fully grasp his new position, there's no reason he can't face up on these new tight ends and limit their production.
Another possibility on Chicago's roster is linebacker Dom DeCicco, a former collegiate strong safety. DeCicco has the right size (6-4, 230) as well as outstanding athleticism and man-cover experience. He isn't a burner but his quickness and strength should help make up for his speed.
Like Hardin, DeCicco is still learning a new position, so it's unlikely he'll be ready to contribute this year. Going forward though, both players are poised to potentially fill that role of the all-important tight end stopper.
For this season though, the Bears must have a game plan to slow down the numerous top-tier tight ends they'll face in 2012. Without a player ready to man up on these pass catchers, it might be wise to roll coverage over the top, although that strategy leaves the cornerbacks on an island.
It's still unclear what the answer is but if the Bears don't figure it out, they'll again get carved up by this new breed of tight ends.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.