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Tight End Evolution

Patriots players highlight change at position in NFL


Cardinals tight end Todd Heap (86) makes a catch Sunday against Seattle.

Maybe, in a different NFL time and place, Todd Heap could have fit into an offense like a Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, if he had taken his receiving talents someplace other than the defensively-dominated Baltimore Ravens back in 2001.

These are details that don't matter much anymore, though. What does matter is the direction the tight end position has evolved, which is different, Heap said, than those days more than a decade ago.

"It's about the matchup now," the Cardinals' tight end said. "Whether a defense goes nickel personnel or regular personnel, you have to make sure they are wrong no matter what they pick."

More and more tight ends are emerging to make a defense look really bad if they are wrong.

Three of the four best seasons posted by a tight end in terms of receiving yards per game have come in the last two years, when the Chargers' Antonio Gates (78.2 yards a game) had his 2010 season surpassed by the Patriots' Gronkowski (82.9) and the Saints' Graham (81.9) in 2011.  

The Cardinals will see the preeminent tight end team in the league Sunday when they visit New England. Gronkowski scored 18 touchdowns last year. Aaron Hernandez might be a Pro Bowler if he played for another team.

There's a reason the Cardinals drafted Rob Housler in the third round in 2011, a tall, athletic tight end who in theory could create matchup nightmares of his own.

"It puts stress on the defense," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of the tight end, and for much of his New England tenure, the position has been a top receiving threat. The arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker shifted that a bit, but then Gronkowski and Hernandez arrived and the Pats became tight end-centric.

Gronkowski had 90 receptions for 1,327 yards last season, leading a tight end explosion throughout the league. Besides Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez and Gates, a handful of others remain 1,000-yard threats in today's NFL: San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez, Dallas' Jason Witten and Washington's Fred Davis.

"Those guys are involved in most every play – run, pass, pass patterns, protection," Belichick said. "They are really a key in every play. If they are good players and if they are versatile and can do more than one thing, then it just makes it harder for the defense to defend when you can run behind them or throw to them or get them down the field, as well as in the shorter areas.

"A good, versatile tight end can present a lot of problems to the defense."

Gronkowski doesn't have much use discussing his amazing 2011 season – "Everything that happened last year doesn't matter anymore," he said – but the Patriots went right back to their tight ends in their season opener, with both Gronkowski and Hernandez catching touchdown passes (as did Graham for the Saints.)

"I feel like, absolutely, tight ends are more of athletes now," Gronkowski said. "They can go out, run, and catch a ball and everything. It's basically overall teams are looking for tight ends and they are coming out of college now ready to go."

The Cardinals don't use the tight end as much in their scheme – like Heap's early days in Baltimore, scheme does make a difference – and Housler is still trying to find his niche. But on the Cardinals' game-winning drive late in the season-opening win against Seattle, there was Heap making a couple of key catches, including the catch that gave the Cards a first-and-goal.

"You are seeing more of those (tight ends) ready to step in and play some of the positions like you see the tight ends for the Patriots play," Whisenhunt said.

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