Tight end position better than ever in NFL

Tight ends over the last two years have set the standard for the position, and they are on a record pace this year.

When Larry Donnell charged into fantasy football conscientious, including his own, with a three-touchdown performance in Week 4 for the New York Giants, the initial question asked was this: “Who is this guy?”

Fantasy football owners likely didn’t have to trade to get the New York Giants tight end – although they would have been buying at the high price. Heck, even Donnell admitted he didn’t start himself in his own fantasy league.

But Donnell’s performance wasn’t as much an aberration for tight ends as a testament to their growing popularity, not just in fantasy football leagues but in the reality league of the NFL. Tight ends are becoming increasingly more viable targets for their quarterbacks. They are hardly the afterthought they once were.

In fact, Donnell isn’t alone at his position as a three-touchdown performer this year. The other two to do that are a little more well-known. Antonio Gates had three touchdowns and 96 yards for the San Diego Chargers in a Week 2 win over the Seattle Seahawks, and Julius Thomas had three touchdowns and 104 yards for the Denver Broncos in their season-opening win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Tight ends being an integral part of the NFL passing game is here to stay more than ever.

Through Week 5, tight ends have contributed 752 catches for 8,194 yards and 72 touchdowns – all of those numbers on pace to be the highest tight end totals for any season in NFL history.

“This game has always been about matchups,” NFL Network analyst and former head coach Brian Billick said. “You hear coaches say it every week: Where are my best matchups? Well, your best matchup today is likely a tight end against a linebacker or safety. To have a talent that can stretch the field like a legitimate receiver but also be a point of attack in-line blocker, that’s why everyone covets one of those guys.”

They appear to be faster than ever, and their numbers are better than ever. It’s more than just a stats-building exercise, too. Teams that have a tight end catching multiple touchdowns in a game this year have a 9-1 record.

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has already established himself as one of the game’s best pass-catching tight ends, but Thomas, who leads all players with seven touchdowns this year, could become the first tight end in NFL history to lead the league in total touchdowns for a season. At least that’s the pace he is on.

But it’s not just the touchdowns. Tight ends are on a record pace for catches (2,533), receiving yards (27,600) and touchdown catches (242) this year at the position. Last year, tight ends set the record for receiving yards (27,284) and receiving touchdowns (236) at the position. The year before, they set the record for receptions (2,401) at the position.

Some of the career achievers at the position are still making an impact, too. Gates’ 92-yard, three-touchdown performance in Week 2 proved that he’s still got it, and he now has 92 touchdowns catches, second-most for a tight end (Tony Gonzalez holds the tight end record at 111).

Just last week, Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys became the third tight end in NFL history to reach 10,000 career receiving yards (Gonzalez leads the way with 15,127 and Shannon Sharpe had 10,060).

Cleary, the tight end has arrived on the red carpet.

“I’ve never seen this many tight ends this good at one particular time,” said Sharpe, one of eight tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We’ve never seen the position this dominant. This is the golden age of tight ends.”

Graham leads NFL tight ends with 34 catches and 376 yards. Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz is the position’s leader for average per catch at 16.2 yards (minimum 15 catches) and has six catches for 20 yards or more. Meanwhile, Thomas’ seven touchdowns lead that category.

The tight end position has arrived, more than ever in the NFL, and it’s often the first option in the end zone.

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