Perhaps no position in the NFL has emerged in the past decade more than tight end.
Offensive coordinators seem to find new ways to use the tight end and defensive coordinators seem as confused as ever about how to cover the position.
“The tight end position is getting more prevalent because the guys who play tight end have gotten so much bigger and faster,” longtime NFL scout Gary Horton said. “They’re like super-wide receivers. They give offensive coordinators such options and they give defensive coordinators nightmares because they don’t know what to do with the tight end. It seems more and more teams have a good tight end.”
Of course, tight ends such as Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates began to change the position in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In recent years, tight ends such as Jason Witten, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen and Rob Gronkowski continued to show how important the tight end position is in the NFL. Young players such as Travis Kelce (Kansas City), Jordan Reed (Washington), Gary Barnidge (Cleveland) and Zach Ertz (Philadelphia) taking the next step recently.
However, the tight end position is much like receiver, so it can take time for a tight end to produce.
“It can take a tight end a while because the NFL quarterback is so much more advanced than college quarterbacks,” Horton said. “The NFL quarterback may change a play at the line. In college, if you break a huddle and the tight end is doing a crossing route, it stays a crossing route. In the NFL, the quarterback may change it at the last moment and you’re doing a completely different route. That’s why you see the tight end take time to develop, but I think several are on their way to being good players.”
Among the young tight ends that may be ready to take the next step are Eric Ebron (Detroit), Clive Walford (Oakland), Ladarius Green (Pittsburgh), Maxx Williams (Baltimore), Vance McDonald (San Francisco) and Virgil Green (Denver).
“I like the group of young guys,” said Sharpe, who is one of eight tight ends currently in the Pro Football Hall Fame and who will soon be joined by Gonzalez in Canton. “There is just so many of them now. It’s just become a strong position. I think we’ll see more and more. It does take a little while for guys to get going, but once the light goes on, they make an impact.”
Two of the younger tight ends who stand out are McDonald and Walford. The 49ers had hopes that McDonald would become an instant part of the passing game when he was drafted in the second round from Rice in 2013. However, McDonald has been slow to respond in the passing game. He has been good as a blocker in the run game, even though that was a knock on him in college.
McDonald had just 10 catches in his first 23 games. However, in his third season in 2015, McDonald had 30 catches. He has been a standout in Chip Kelly’s offense this preseason and the 49ers are hopeful McDonald can emerge as the next standout tight end this season.
Walford, if he can stay healthy, has a chance to make a major impact sooner than his fourth season. Another in a long line of tight ends from Miami, Walford was taken by Oakland in the third round in 2015, and he dealt with a series of leg problems that affected his progress in training camp as a rookie.
Yet, Walford had 28 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie – that is a pretty nice start for a tight end. Walford, who suffered a knee injury this offseason because of an ATV accident, missed time in the offseason but has played well in training camp and in the preseason. Walford, who is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, is a fast field stretcher who has good chemistry with quarterback Derek Carr.
“There are intriguing young guys and Walford stands out,” said longtime NFL scout Matt Williamson. “I’m a big fan of Walford.”
While few rookie tight ends make immediate impacts, scouts love what they see in some of this year’s rookies. Among those that have stood out this summer are Hunter Henry (second round, San Diego), Austin Hooper (third, Atlanta) and Tyler Higbee (fourth, Los Angeles).
“Guys like (Hunter) and Higbee look really good,” Horton said. “All these new guys are hybrids. There are so many intriguing tight ends coming up. It will be a power position for a long time.”