By Jeff Berlinicke
At least Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden usually has little use for tight ends because the cupboard is mostly empty, at least as far as players with experience.
Even at Gruden's previous stops as head coach with the Oakland Raiders and offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, his tight ends were expected to do little more than block. With a three receiver set and usually a fullback alongside the main back, that was the role and, while it was fulfilled adequately by Ken Dilger last season, Dilger was allowed to take the free agent route. He cancelled a visit with the New York Jets in April and is contemplating retirement. He had 39 catches last season, but stayed largely in the shadows. Last season's backup Dave Moore is back for another season, but he's been in the league 13 years and caught only three passes. He was re-signed in April and is the most experienced tight end on the roster, but that's not saying much.
Tight end is a position that has been largely devalued in the NFL in recent years after the period in the late 80s – early 90s when tight ends were in vogue throughout the league. Since then, with multiple receiver formations the position has turned out few who can be primary targets. As of today, the Bucs have six tight ends on the roster, including Moore, and five have NFL experience including Anthony Becht who will likely step into the starting role after coming to the Bucs as a free agent who started 78 of the past 80 games for the New York Jets. He is a lot like Dilger; a blocker who can catch in the clutch. He had only 13 catches last season, but at 6-5, 272, he brings size as well as solid hands. He was considered the highest ranked tight end among the 2005 free agent crop.
Becht is in Tampa for his blocking ability, but the Bucs may have gotten a steal in the third round of the draft with Alex Smith, a sure-handed tight end out of Utah. Smith was a runner-up for the 2004 Mackey Award given to the nation's best tight end and is more of a receiving threat than Becht. He had 107 catches during his three years at Utah where the Utes throw early and often. At 6-5, 258, he also brings size and some speed.
While Becht and Smith seem to have positions nailed down, the only real threat for a roster spot may come from Will Heller, a third-year player out of Georgia Tech. Heller was an undrafted free agent in 2003, but has held onto his roster spot with his special teams play. He's another big guy with blocking ability, but it will be his special teams play that earns him a roster spot if anything.
Look for Becht to get the opening day nod while Smith picks up his pass routes, gaining more playing time as the season progresses. If Smith picks up the offense, Gruden may have to reevaluate his position on throwing to tight ends.
Becht, Smith Battle For Starting Job
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