There were more than a few Vikings fans who questioned the team's decision to make their only significant free agent investment in tight end John Carlson (five years, $25 million). It was unclear if there was going to be a robust market for a player like Carlson, but the Vikings made a point to get him off the board early in the process.
Granted, Jim Kleinsasser had retired, but Carlson is no Kleinsasser. His forte is as a receiver, not a dominant blocker. The Vikings had already invested a second-round pick in the 2010 draft on fellow tight end and Notre Dame alumnus Kyle Rudolph. While the team had several pressing defensive needs, the talent Rudolph brought to the table was too pronounced to pass up. So why double up on the position when it can be argued that the defensive needs at linebacker and in the secondary are even more pronounced now than they were prior to the 2010 season.
It may be that the Vikings have figured out what is quietly becoming the new revolution in the NFL – the pass-catching tight end in the red zone to finish drives with touchdowns.
Many have made the comparison to the template laid out by the Patriots – two athletic, playmaking tight ends and the lack of a big deep threat receiver. The Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as their two-headed tight end threat (both taken in the 2010 draft) and Wes Welker as a potent slot receiver. The Vikings now have Rudolph and Carlson as their two-headed tight end threat and Percy Harvin as their potent slot receiver. The similarities are there, but the significance of the tight end in the red zone theory goes much, much deeper than that.
The red zone, inside the 20-yard line, is so vital that, not only does the NFL keep statistics on the success rate for touchdowns and scoring of teams in the red zone, NFL Network has dedicated one of its game-day channels exclusively to broadcasting around the league when a team gets into the red zone. It's pretty important to the NFL, because it's a determining factor on the success or failure of offenses.
It's never easy to notice a trend before it truly explodes, but we are in the very early stages of the NFL becoming a tight end-dominated league. For years, there were periods in which two tight ends dominated as far as receiving threats. In the 1990s, it was Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates. In the 2000s, it was Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. As rules changes began to transfer NFL offenses from being run-first type of operations, spreading the ball around in pass-happy fashion became the new normal. Along the way, tight ends with wide receiver speed became the next big thing. Many teams have tried to hit big on the "next Gonzo" or "next Gates" with mixed results. But the tropical storm of tight end red zone production is nearing hurricane strength.
Don't take our word for it. Let the numbers speak for themselves. No player in the NFL has more red zone touchdowns over the last three years than Gronkowski's 21. Next in line is Calvin Johnson with 20. What makes that more impressive is that, when looking at the three-year numbers, Gronkowski has only been in the NFL for two years – and still leads all players in red zone receiving touchdowns.
The reason why the three-year numbers are important is that they amplify how quickly the metamorphosis of the tight end position as it pertains to red zone offense is taking place.
From 2009-11, only five tight ends averaged five or more red zone touchdowns. One of them is Gronkowski (21), who is the new standard-bearer for NFL tight ends. Two of them are Gonzalez (18) and Gates (19) – both of whom are nearing the end of the line of their NFL careers. One is Vernon Davis (16), who has finally started living up to his massive potential. The fifth is Visanthe Shiancoe (15), who is currently out of a job. It didn't appear the youth movement was in full force because only two players viewed as not being on the downhill side of their NFL careers were Gronk and Davis.
But 2011 put a whole new face on the tight end position and those whose job it is to evaluate film couldn't help but notice how many teams are utilizing their tight ends in the red zone to finish off drives with touchdowns, not field goals.
While only five players have averaged five or more TDs over the last three years, last year alone there were 13 tight ends who scored five or more touchdowns in the red zone – Gronkowski (12), Jimmy Graham (8), Jermichael Finley (8), Gonzalez (7), Gates (6), Aaron Hernandez (6), Scott Chandler (6), Brandon Pettigrew (5), Ed Dickson (5), Jermaine Gresham (5), Tony Scheffler (5), Dustin Keller (5) and Joel Dreessen (5).
By the time the three-year analysis of tight ends with five or more red zone touchdowns is done from the period of 2011-13, the number of tight ends that average five touchdowns or more a year may double or even triple.
To put this leap into perspective, last year only one running back (Darren Sproles of the Saints with six red zone receiving TDs) and 16 wide receivers scored five or more red zone receiving touchdowns. Considering how many wide receivers are on the field when a team is in the red zone (two, three and occasionally four), it would seem to make sense that more wide receivers with size, speed and leaping ability would be the most sought-after red zone targets and scorers. But there are just as many tight ends that are primary receivers in the red zone when touchdowns are expected of offenses.
In the span of just a year or two, tight ends have become the go-to receivers when a QB needs a touchdown. For the record, Kyle Rudolph was only targeted six times last year in the red zone and he caught three of them – all for touchdowns. Harvin, on the other hand, was targeted 18 times and caught 11 of them, but only two went for touchdowns.
For those who wonder why the Vikings have invested so heavily in the tight end position in the last 18 months, that may well be answered in simple terms: they watch game film and they see what is working for so many other teams so efficiently.
From the looks of things, the Vikings are enjoying that kind of party, because it's clear they want to be more involved in this growing trend by teaming Carlson with Rudolph as a two-headed tight end scoring threat.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Red zone tight end usage exploding
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