Today's tight ends honed skills on the hardwood
Denver (AP) — Tight ends are no longer big plodders who might be
mistaken for jelly-belly linemen. They're athletic, fast, powerful and
shifty, traits many of them honed on the hardwood.
Guys like Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron.
With size and jumping ability, they're part of a new breed of tight
ends changing pro football.
"The big thing is we're starting to inherit a different type of athlete
from the college ranks," Denver tight ends coach Clancy Barone said.
"It isn't like the old days when those guys were big, thick,
square-body blockers or guys that maybe played linebacker in high
school and college.
"Now, we're getting guys that were maybe bigger receivers and they got
moved inside to tight end. Maybe a backup quarterback who wants to see
the field in college. So, we're getting more athletic guys who now come
to our league."
Increasingly, the place to find them is in the gymnasium.
"It seems like if you're a 6-foot-6 power forward in college, you end
up going to our league to play tight end," said Barone, who coached the
alpha hoopster-turned-gridiron great, Antonio Gates, in San Diego in
2007-08. "That's the new generation."
Cameron, who played hoops at BYU and walked on USC's team before
concentrating on his football career, has quickly developed into one of
Cleveland's top offensive players and is a big reason the first-place
Browns have won three straight games since trading running back Trent
Graham and Thomas played just one year of college football after
helping lead their schools into the NCAA basketball tournament, Graham
at Miami and Thomas at Portland State. Yet they've quickly joined the
list of elite tight ends with the likes of Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski
and Tony Gonzalez, another former college basketball player.
From March Madness to NFL stardom, they are the vanguards of this
towering tight end trend that's a big headache for defenses in today's
With six TDs in September, unprecedented for his position, Graham was
the first tight end ever selected the league's offensive player of the
month, and on Sunday he matched the NFL record for tight ends with his
fourth straight 100-yard game. He leads the league with 593 yards
Peyton Manning's favorite target in Denver's shootout win at Dallas
wasn't Wes Welker but Thomas, who caught nine passes for 122 yards and
two TDs. That gave him six touchdowns, most by a Broncos tight end
since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe had eight a decade ago.
Thomas, whose 27 catches this season are 26 more than he had in his
first two years combined, when he was bogged down by leg injuries, said
his basketball background helped him navigate the crash course of NFL
He makes split-second decisions, deciphers defenses, anticipates the
action, adjusts on the fly, just like he did on the basketball floor,
where he was a bully on the blocks. Shielding a defensive back to give
the quarterback an opening, he said, is just like posting up a player
under the basket to give the point guard a clear passing lane.
Even those who aren't gym rats are prepping for the pros in college
football's spread offenses, Barone said: "It's hard to find a tight end
in a three-point stance anymore. Everyone's spread out."
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said the tight ends with power
forward in their DNA are a matchup nightmare.
"Because they're so big, they're faster than the linebackers but
they're bigger than the safeties," he said. "It's kind of that hybrid
position that everybody covets right now."
Tight ends have combined for 765 catches, 8,992 yards and 76
touchdowns, the most in all three categories through the first five
weeks of any season in NFL history.
The NFL is a master at countering the trend de jour, but finding a
retort for the transformer tight end is proving difficult, suggested
former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
"That special athlete you're looking for is the guy has the cover
skills who can also come down in the box and play the run but also be
very athletic in coverage," he said.
A super safety, if you will.
"Right," Bruschi said, "the hybrid safety that can be a linebacker and
also play the deep third. How many of those are out there?"
"Yeah, you'd have to look down some depth charts because those guys are
rare," Bruschi said. "LaRon Landry comes to mind. But you need that
hybrid safety/linebacker because of the development of that tight end
position that is now Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski. Everybody wants one
of those guys."
And scouts scoping out the talent on college football fields are also
asking about that big guy rattling the rims over in the gym.
Tight Ends A Different Breed These Days
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