T.J. Hockenson, the Detroit Lions’ first-round draft pick, plays the increasingly important position of tight end.
The tight end position is one of the most fascinating in all of sports. It’s one that has grown and changed through scheme changes and has seen several different eras as time has passed. Offensive linemen have always been blockers. Wide receivers have always (primarily) caught the ball. Running backs have always been evaluated based mainly on their rushing ability. The first thing most people still look for in a quarterback is how well they can throw. Traits like blocking for receivers, receiving for halfbacks and extending plays as a quarterback with mobility have all been changing and continue to change as the league modernizes and sees new talents.
The one thing that’s consistent about all of those positions, however, is that their number one responsibilities haven’t really changed. It’s great if quarterbacks are mobile and can run, but Russell Wilson is an elite quarterback because of his throwing prowess just as much, for example. Wide receivers can be great blockers, but if they can’t catch, they won’t make a team. Even the modernization of receiving backs such as the Lions own Theo Riddick has undertaken some scrutiny in terms of limitations in role and situation if they aren’t able to run and/or pass protect efficiently enough.
However, the tight end position has yet to see this change completely develop. There have been some shifts, for example, Evan Engram who was a converted wide receiver at Ole Miss a few drafts ago. Yet, the best tight ends in the league today are a combination of the great tight ends of both the past and the future of the position.
Tight Ends of the Past:
The tight end position was popularized back before the Lions last won a World Championship. In fact, the Lions have won multiple championships since the development of the tight end position. It really gained popularity when football moved from an “iron man” approach of two-way players into a league where players focused on one side of the football. Cleveland Browns coach at the time Paul Brown, the other team competing for world championships with the Lions, developed the tight end position as someone who could not only play next to the tackle and could block, but also was an eligible receiver that could catch. As the Lions slowly headed into their downward trajectory, the tight end position was headed on the opposite path.
The 1960s saw key players early on like Mike Ditka, who played for the current NFC North rival Chicago Bears. Ditka became the first true receiving tight end in the National Football League. He would end up winning rookie of the year after being selected number five overall in the 1961 NFL Draft, three spots higher than T.J. Hockenson was selected in April. Despite Ditka being most known for his legacy of coaching the Chicago Bears after his playing days ended, it was really the tight end position where his impact is still growing strong into 2019. While Ditka’s coaching tree was limited to Jack Del Rio and Buddy Ryan in terms of NFL head coaches, the tight end position that he helped revolutionize in his playing days with the Chicago has continued for the last six decades.
In the time he was making Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl for the rival Bears, the Lions took over half a decade to catch up. Charlie Sanders would become arguably the team’s best player in team history at the tight end position over the course of the greater part of the 1970s as well as the late ’60s. He was one of the more physically and mentally tough players that Lions fans had ever seen and became one of the league’s best tight ends at not only catching the football but making exciting plays that fans had very rarely seen from a player at the tight end position.
The Lions, however, were too late to adapt to the shift from ten years prior, a trend that would repeat itself later, and their chances of winning a Super Bowl during his tenure – much like we would see with legends Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson – had passed them by.
By the 1980s to ’90s however, the tight end position had started to become popular league-wide. The position became even more difficult to stop with base defensive packages and prototypical defenders matching up against them in coverage. Tight ends like Kellen Winslow and Shannon Sharpe became some of the first to truly line up as receivers and run receiver-like routes. Shannon Sharpe in particular really aided John Elway during his time leading the Broncos to the precipice of NFL glory. This was when the position really doubled down on the move that the tight end position would not only be a blocker that could line up as the sixth blocker on the line of scrimmage, but also the future of tight ends being receiving threats as well.
Tight Ends of Today:
Heading into the 2000s the move becomes much more commonplace across the league, and many teams find their long term tight ends. After watching Shannon Sharpe rip them up for a decade, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers (now residing in Los Angeles) both found their all-time greats at the position in Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates respectfully. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers coming out of the Bill Walsh era took who they believed could be a special tight end in Vernon Davis number six overall in the first round of his draft class. The Dallas Cowboys snatched up Jason Witten, and so on. The league commonly saw a tight end on the field as someone who was a primary pass-catching threat and in some cases the number one receiving threat on a team.
Continuing that trend into the 2010s, teams like the Eagles, Colts, Patriots, and Chiefs have found the current generation of tight ends that have been focal points of their offenses the last decade. Players like Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, and Travis Kelce have been key pieces in teams who have gone on to make it deep into the playoffs the last couple of seasons. Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen are just a couple more names who have helped their teams go deep into the playoffs at least once during their time in the league.
The tight end position has been shown in the last decade to have a great influence on playoff success. Most teams who find success in the playoffs have a tight end who can mismatch defenses, and in a league where speed is becoming the new trend on offense, tight ends still have a place in modern day motion offenses.
The Kansas City Chiefs are a perfect example of this. While Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt amongst others were moving around and creating movement to try and catch defenses off balance, Travis Kelce has been arguably their most consistent and reliable receiving threat. He does his job by running routes well between the twenties and catching the ball well in the red zone to move the chains and score touchdowns when his team needs them most. He will continue to be a security blanket for the young Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is coming off an MVP season.
Zach Ertz in Philadelphia has shown that he can be a big presence in Doug Pederson’s modern day offense. Like Kelce, he will be a security blanket for a young quarterback in Carson Wentz for a long time, as he helped Nick Foles lead the Eagles to a win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
While the league was utilizing receiving tight ends out of the slot, the Lions failed to address the tight end position as a priority. Average blocking tight ends cycled through until the team elected to take Eric Ebron number ten overall. Unfortunately, by that point, it was too late, and the team was already behind the trend, only this time, due to the failures both he and Brandon Pettigrew had experienced during their time in Detroit, the team wasn’t able to ever catch up and make up for this deficit.
What the Future Could Hold:
Moving on to this generation of tight ends, however, they likely won’t last much longer. Gronkowski has already retired, Olsen is close, Witten is coming out of retirement for what could be one last run, and Graham’s stardom faded a bit after he left the Saints offense. The old guard is starting to phase themselves out. The tight ends who were slot mismatches against bigger defenses who didn’t have the speed, length or both to match up with them are starting to fade as defenses become quicker and more athletic, particularly at linebacker.
So, there’s one big question left to answer- where will the position go in the future? The league has a tendency to cycle through trends, alternating from west coast to vertical to west coast again, from power backs to speed backs back to power backs. From possession receivers to speed receivers back to possession types. Is this where the tight end position is heading as well? Back to a power position seen as the sixth offensive lineman? Most likely not.
However- is it possible that the days of tight ends being used primarily as slot weapons will be fading as the league learns more and more every year about how to stop it and defenders are developed to try and defend the position? It looks to be that way. For the first time in a long time, the Lions may well be ahead of a trend. While the league’s current stars primarily line up as slot receivers, to try and create mismatches as receivers, we may be heading to a point in the near future where what separates great tight ends from special ones isn’t production and stat lines on the receiving end of the spectrum, but on the blocking end. Players like T.J. Hockenson, who have just as much success if not more lining up in line will be the ones who find success. The tight end’s ability to exploit the middle of the defense from a three-point stance will be what makes this next crop of tight ends great. While being able to be effective big slot receivers will still very much have a place for at least a few years, we’re already seeing big slot receivers being developed at the college level. Players like A.J. Brown out of Ole Miss in this year’s class are an example. Sooner rather than later, we could see teams put actual wide receivers in the big slot role to mismatch even faster linebackers, and tight ends will be heading back to the line as blockers.
T.J. Hockenson has already done that at Iowa and will be doing that early and often in Detroit. While fans have had a distaste in their mouths for some time since Eric Ebron was taken by the previous Martin Mayhew regime with the 10th overall selection, he was someone who could’ve fit the current mold of tight ends as a bigger slot receiver. However, if the league does, in fact, move back to a two-way threat at tight end on the offensive line instead of in the slot, the Detroit Lions may have found themselves beating the trend of the league for the next decade, and not following in the footsteps trying to catch up, for a change.