NFL & College Scouting – “The trending of Tight End”

In the Pittsburgh Steelers’ win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football, tight end Heath Miller split out right and eluded press coverage with a nifty arm over.  The move gave him just enough separation from the Bengal defender to make the over the shoulder grab for a touchdown and help tie the game (after the two point conversion) just  before half.  The announcers raved about the athletic movement of Miller in the open field and just how unique that was for a tight end in today’s National Football League.

A number of similar examples

Taking nothing away from Heath Miller’s smooth release and almost wide receiver-like catching radius to produce the score, the tight end in today’s NFL resembles more of the Calvin Johnson’s, Vincent Jackson’s and Brandon Marshall’s of the League, and less like trumped up Offensive Tackles.  As gifted as Miller is, and as unique as the move was, it’s not that uncommon to see others at the “Y position” produce in a similar fashion each and every week throughout professional football.  You’ve all seen that.

Ten of the top fifty receivers in the 2012 NFL Regular Season are currently at tight end.  The previous four seasons saw 13 of the top 50 in 2011, 9 of the top 50 in 2010, 12 of the top 50 in 2009, and 9 of the top 50 in 2008.  So to simplify, one out of every five leading receivers in the NFL is a tight end.  Not surprised, I know.

A new demand for the position

Since 2000 about one tight end a year is drafted in the first round, and then NFL General Managers go on a run after the next four or five standouts in rounds 2 and 3.  The financial impact of building a roster kept TE’s out of the upper echelon of first round picks for years.  Market aspects of contract valuing wouldn’t allow for a player that caught 30 or so passes a season, and then came in on short yardage and goal line situations to warrant that kind of investment.  Now NFL offenses of the new decade almost demand the kind of versatility we’re seeing from Heath Miller, Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Brandon Pettigrew.  Even more astounding is the productive accomplishments of a Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, Jeremy Shockey or Todd Heap, all blending seamlessly and thriving in today’s offensive schemes.

The “hybrid” player

The broad emergence of the “hybrid” tight end has all but made the fullback an extinct species.  The athleticism of today’s tight end allows for offensive coordinators to align them out of the backfield or from short motion to take on defenders inside the “B gaps”.  Most TE’s compare favorably to the athletic measurements of FB’s overall.  Consider this, a study done between 2005-2010 looked at the performance of prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine and found the following;

Skill Drill Tight Ends Fullbacks
Short Shuttle 4.39 4.38
Long Shuttle 11.94 12.02
3-Cone 7.19 7.27
Vertical Jump 33.18” 33.35”
Broad Jump 114” 113”
40 Yard Dash 4.78 4.74
Bench Press 20.4 24.08

The relevant attributes of the fullback position (Exceed Peer Average) are 3-Cone, short shuttle, and the 40 yard dash.  The top 3 attributes for tight end are the long shuttle, the 40 yard dash, and the 3-Cone.  The average of the TE’s in the 3 most important skill drills for fullbacks is almost 1/10 faster in the 3-Cone, only 1/100 behind in the short shuttle, and .04 behind in the 40 yard dash.  Yet TE’s are approximately 4 to 5 inches taller on average, 30 to 40 lbs heavier on average, better route runners, and have more reliable hands.

A new trend?

The data in comparison to wide receivers is skewed a bit by the variance in size at the position.  Smaller, quicker, and faster receivers tend to push the overall average down in most of the skill drill categories, while the overall size of WR’s appears to be increasing as NFL scouts look for the next Megatron.

With the new CBA putting a substantial curb on the amount of money necessary to invest in a Top 10 to 15 pick (as compared to recent years past), General Managers may be a bit more willing to defy market trends and select a tight end well before the back end of the 1st round.  By doing so, NFL scouts are likely to find a productive addition that will start in their offense for years to come, and this shouldn’t surprise any analysts on television.

Just pay attention to the trends.  This isn’t your grandfather’s tight end position anymore.