We saw the beginning of the tight end revolution in 2011. After years of serving as overgrown wideouts and undersize linemen, football finally evolved into a game that understood one of the league’s least glorious positions. Actually, it’s probably fairer to say that the position evolved into something that made the league take notice. Two tight ends — Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski — made their way into the league’s top 10 for receiving yardage. That came after a 27-year stretch during which a tight end appeared in the top 10 just four times. Perhaps more impressively, Gronkowski emerged as arguably the best red-zone receiver of his generation, scoring 17 touchdowns at the tender age of 22. A tight end led the NFL in touchdown receptions for the first time in the modern era. The fact that he was Gronk? Just a bonus. Tight ends are catching a higher percentage of their team’s passes than they have since the early ’70s. The big man is back.
When you start thinking about the great tight ends of the past, though, some interesting careers stick out. Gronkowski set the record for receiving yardage in one season by a tight end, one that was previously held by Kellen Winslow, who went for 1,290 yards in 1980. Like Gronk, Winslow’s breakout season came in his second year, although it was his first full season in the league as a healthy starter. Winslow’s career as a starter was top-heavy; he had an eight-year run, but more than 34 percent of his receptions, 36 percent of his receiving yards, and 44 percent of his touchdowns came during his first two years in the league. Injuries sapped his effectiveness and took him out of the game. The preeminent tight end preceding Winslow’s time in the league was Mike Ditka, who had a four-year stretch at the beginning of his 12-year career that accounts for 58 percent of his receptions, 63 percent of his yardage, and just under 70 percent of his touchdowns. And more recently, Antonio Gates came off the basketball court and onto the gridiron with great success, but a huge chunk of that also came during his first two years as a full-time starter. During those two years, he averaged 85 catches for 1,033 yards with 12 touchdowns; since then, injuries have limited him to an average seasonal line of 66 catches, 888 yards, and eight touchdowns. There are occasional counterexamples, guys like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez, but there’s a disturbing number of elite tight ends who made most of their career numbers at a very young age.
With all that in mind, it’s worth wondering whether Gronkowski and/or Graham are really the signifiers of a new revolution in football. Obviously, they will be the leaders if they keep up their level of play from last year, but how likely is it that they’ll be able to do so? As far as I can tell, there are three key arguments against the rise of the über-athletic tight end becoming a league-wide trend.
Injuries are almost surely the biggest problem standing in the way of Gronkowski and Graham going forward. Gronkowski’s injury record is far more checkered than Graham’s, but it’s the latter who is currently missing time; a minor back injury kept Graham out of last week’s preseason game against the Patriots. Independent of their histories, though, tight ends simply struggle with staying healthy in a way that wide receivers don’t.
To figure out whether that was actually true, of course, I put together a study. I took every tight end since the NFL-AFL merger who had finished in the top 10 in receiving yards at his position during the first three years of his career, and compared this group to every wideout who finished in the top 20 in yardage among his brethren during the first three years of his career. I eliminated the guys who haven’t yet retired, but then I tracked each player’s career to see how they aged and helped their future teams.
First, I found that the tight ends lost a higher percentage of their yardage going forward than the wide receivers did. Looking at the data in terms of how much each positional group “retained” from their first season in the top 10 or 20, tight ends stayed relatively consistent for two years before giving way to wideouts:
Part of that was due to the fact that tight ends were simply more likely to be out of football than the wide receivers were. The effect isn’t enormous, but it’s consistent. This chart considers how likely players in each group were to have caught a single pass or be in football at two-year intervals from their breakout seasons:
As a group, the wide receivers had longer, more productive careers after their early success. The career numbers for tight ends will undoubtedly be boosted when Gonzalez and Jason Witten retire, which might seem to indicate that tight ends are lasting longer in the modern era, but guys like Gates and Ben Coates are recent examples of players who had that weird early arc to their career. Other tight ends renowned for their athleticism, like Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley, have struggled with injuries that have limited them to flashes of brilliance. And then there are tight ends like Cornelius Ingram, the former Florida star, who never even get to make it onto the field thanks to repeated injuries.
One of the key arguments against players like Gronkowski and Graham getting injured is the idea that their athletic gifts make them quicker healers than even the average football player. I’ve written about this before, but it’s a dubious argument. Take Gronkowski, for example. The high ankle sprain1 he suffered during the AFC championship game was supposed to keep a mortal man down for weeks, but because Gronkowski was such a ferocious athlete and a competitor, people genuinely thought he was going to be just fine for the Super Bowl. Gronkowski was shot up with enough pain medication to play, but he was a shell of his usual self throughout the game. After minor surgery in February, Gronkowski was supposed to be back in plenty of time for organized team activities in May, but his ankle precluded him from participating. Before his junior year at Arizona, Gronkowski’s back trouble was initially diagnosed as a strain that would take a week to heal. It eventually became a week-to-week injury before becoming a season-ending injury without Gronkowski ever making it onto the field.
The problem with these arguments is that they become referenda on the players. If Gronkowski plays through his high ankle sprain, then he’s an elite athlete, a warrior, and a tough guy. If he doesn’t, then he runs the risk of being ostracized like LaDainian Tomlinson and Jay Cutler were for their totally legitimate injuries. The reality is that you can simultaneously be an incredible athlete and heal at a rate totally consistent with other NFL players. If anything, the athleticism of players like Gronkowski and Graham might make them more susceptible to injuries by creating opportunities that other players might skip. Maybe Graham goes after a ball thrown at his ankles that another tight end wouldn’t even be able to comprehend catching and, in the process, tweaks his back or takes an unprotected hit to the ribs.
There’s no actuarial table for Gronkowski or Graham. If we’re all lucky, they’ll make it through their careers as healthy, productive players, wowing us as fans until they choose to retire. But there’s something fishy about tight ends, and it has me worried about the long-term future of the athletic marvels who play there.
I think that we all underestimate just how random a single season in the NFL can be. Remember, we’re only looking at 16 games’ worth of data on most players; with the right context, virtually anything can happen in a given season. Need proof? Take these two players and their lines in a given season from the past few years:
You’ll probably recognize Player A as Gronkowski’s season from 2011. Player B? That’s Braylon Edwards in 2007. Just as you have the right to look forward into Gronkowski’s future and see success, Edwards’s 2007 campaign was supposed to be the breakout season of a future superstar. While it was his third year in the league, it was Edwards’s second year as a full-time starter, as well as his second year removed from a major injury (ACL tear), just like Gronk. As the third pick in the 2005 draft, he had every bit the college pedigree and athletic reputation that Gronkowski does. Edwards didn’t get the benefit of having Tom Brady throw passes to him, which makes his breakout season look even more impressive (even if it does make his future after that year cloudier). Since then, though, Edwards has averaged 34 catches, 528 yards, and three scores per year. He had an otherworldly season that seemed to portend success … and then nothing happened. Gronkowski or Graham could be tight end equivalents of Shawne Merriman, who had 39.5 sacks by the age of 23 and then just four in four years since. No, it’s not definite or even likely that they’ll share similarly disappointing career paths, but it’s at least worth being concerned with until they’ve repeated this level of performance for even a second season.
There are certainly reasons to believe that their offensive impact might not be quite as severe in 2012. Graham, for one, was thrown 145 targets last year; it’s always going to be hard to get that kind of attention consistently in an offense with Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, and Devery Henderson all demanding targets. Even if Graham’s target total drops by 15 — basically a blip on the radar of variance — he’d lose about 10 catches and 130 yards from his seasonal line. Gronkowski’s 17 receiving touchdowns suggest a regression for a variety of reasons, with a simple one being that nobody catches that many touchdowns year after year. Since Jerry Rice’s peak, the only player to lead the league in touchdown receptions in consecutive seasons was Terrell Owens, and that was a decade ago. Rice is the only player since the merger in 1970 to catch 15 or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons. As a general rule of thumb, when Jerry Rice is the only player to have done something in modern football history, he remains the only player to have done that thing.
Gronk also has to contend with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who imported star pupil Brandon Lloyd from the Rams during the offseason. McDaniels’s offenses with the Patriots, Broncos, and Rams basically used the tight end as a safety valve and receiver of last resort, but then again, the best athlete McDaniels had to work with at the position was probably Tony Scheffler. The Patriots are also going through some turmoil on their offensive line, which might encourage McDaniels to use Gronkowski as a blocker more frequently. McDaniels obviously isn’t going to ignore Gronk, but those tendencies could produce a decline in his target volume and, as a result, his cumulative performance.
All of this isn’t to say that Graham and Gronkowski won’t be valuable players in 2012. They could each lose 10-20 targets off their totals from a year ago and still have productive seasons. Having that sort of volume, though, is the difference between merely being a very good tight end and having the sort of genre-busting impact those two had in 2011.
The Marketplace Will Adapt
Everyone knows that the NFL is a copycat league. When something new and innovative works, 90 percent of the league’s franchises try to emulate it. Often, they’ll overreact to what’s worked and correct so far in the opposite direction that pursuing that new strategy ends up being unprofitable.
Take the basketball-playing tight end, for example, a model that’s attracted attention once every few years. Tony Gonzalez’s success in the NFL inspired an initial wave of interest in possible converts, and after that died down, a second wave came through once Gates emerged from football obscurity as a top target. Now, with Graham’s success after his time at Miami, you’re beginning to hear about a new generation of undersize power forwards moving into football.
The problem is that those breakout guys tend to be sui generis. Organizations end up pushing players with significant college or even high school basketball backgrounds up their draft boards, producing first-round overdrafts like Greg Olsen and Jerramy Stevens. Coaches dreaming about finding the next Gates for free often end up having wasted their time on Ed Nelson or Jai Lewis.
The environment around those players often changes as well. My colleague Chris Brown wrote about a new rise in hybrid defenders last week, and while he focused on then-LSU defender Tyrann Mathieu, there are already hybrid defenders sprouting up around the NFL. The Giants used them to great effect last year, as safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant — Rolle a former cornerback, Grant an occasional linebacker — helped deal with the matchup problems presented by slot receivers and tight ends.
In the long run, teams end up really missing the point. When they identify a new system that has worked in the league, they go rushing to acquire personnel and implement it with strategies that don’t always work for their teams. Do you remember 2008, when every team in football was running the Wildcat and picking up an exotic two yards per game? Do you remember when the Dolphins2 chose Pat White in the second round of the draft? Now White’s a retired baseball player, and the Dolphins only ran the Wildcat three times last year.3
Recently, teams have begun to see how effective the Patriots’ one-two punch of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has been, and it’s led them to begin investing seriously in their own tight end pairs. The Seahawks gave Zach Miller a huge deal after the lockout to play alongside John Carlson, but when Carlson got injured and Miller was needed as a blocker, they combined for just 233 receiving yards. That didn’t stop the Vikings, though, who wanted to emulate the Patriots by acquiring a partner for promising second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph and another safety blanket for Christian Ponder. They gave Carlson — a player who is 28 and whose numbers have declined with each passing professional season — a $25 million deal with $9.1 million guaranteed. He’s already injured, too.
These organizations end up staying behind the curve by trying to keep up with what the Patriots were just doing. They’re focusing on the wrong thing. The Patriots went after their star tight ends because they were both undervalued assets on draft day; Gronkowski declared for the draft after missing his entire junior year with that back injury, and Hernandez had a reputation as a stoner. The Patriots then modified their offense to play to their young talents’ strengths, and by 2011, they were golden. The lesson to learn there, NFL organizations, is not to go out and acquire two tight ends! It’s to identify undervalued asset types, integrate them into your organization appropriately, and continue to stay ahead of the curve.4 If you want to run your team like the Patriots, you don’t steal what the Patriots are doing now. You steal what the Patriots are going to do next.
So, if the tight end revolution doesn’t actually work out, what will teams like the Patriots do next? My suspicion is that they’ll emulate the success the Saints have had with Darren Sproles and begin to build their offenses around speedy backs who can move around the formation and catch passes out of the backfield, in the slot, and on the line of scrimmage. Backs who are excellent receivers tend to be undervalued coming out of school,5 and if you combine that with the traditionally undervalued population of short players, there should be some excellent opportunities for gathering serious assets without shelling out high draft picks or serious cash. Of course, they can still double up; imagine how much fun the Saints would have if Drew Brees had a Darren Sproles lining up on either side of him in the backfield! Of course, if they come into prominence, defenses will adjust, organizations will begin valuing them properly, and we’ll all move on to the next opportunity for arbitrage.
Or, perhaps, we’ll be living in a world where the likes of Gronkowski and Graham are competing for receiving titles every year. There are reasons to be skeptical of their ability to repeat what they each did in 2011, but you also don’t put up 17 touchdowns or catch 99 passes by accident. It’s unfair for players who transcended their position’s expectations to be told to prove it again, but if Gronkowski and Graham can repeat their performances in 2012, it will be far more difficult to argue that the game hasn’t changed.