Where Have All the Tight Ends Gone?

Where Have All the Tight Ends Gone?

Steve Silverman

The position has changed so much over the years that it is barely recognizable

HE IS ONE OF the game’s true superstars. When Tony Gonzalez takes the field for the Kansas City Chiefs, opposing defensive coordinators shudder because they know he has the athletic ability to tear apart their coverage schemes and put big play after big play on the board.

Gonzalez is far and away the game’s most dangerous tight end. Last season, his fourth in the NFL, he caught 93 passes for 1,203 yards and nine touchdowns–numbers that would put most No. 1 wideouts around the league to shame. If the Chiefs make the playoffs this season under new coach Dick Vermeil, it’s a given that Gonzalez will have matched or bettered those numbers from last year.

But is Gonzalez a true tight end? Does he block as well as the great tight ends of the past? Nobody doubts his athletic talent, but does he compare with Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Kellen Winslow, and Jackie Smith, who are Hall-of-Famers and the measuring sticks at the position?

When thinking along those lines, two other players come immediately to mind: Ken Dilger of the Indianapolis Colts and Freddie Jones of the San Diego Chargers. Both players actually are more complete than Gonzalez–they simply don’t receive the same amount of publicity because they don’t have Gonzalez’s pass-catching numbers.

Dilger doesn’t hesitate to sell out on a block downfield or on the line. In fact, it’s the dirty work that he truly excels at; he’ll sacrifice his body on a regular basis. If you look closely at many of the highlight-film runs by Edgerrin James, it’s often a key block by Dilger that sends the running back on his way.

“Ken is the kind of guy who is truly all about team success,” says Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. “He’ll always do whatever it takes to make a play work. He makes the rough catches, and he will always make the block. He doesn’t care who he has to hit–defensive ends, linebackers, defensive backs–it doesn’t matter. He’ll take them all on.”

Jones has been one of the few bright spots for the Chargers in recent years. Although the team has struggled to move the ball, Jones has been a big-time, big-play threat whose style is reminiscent of a wrecking ball in a museum.

However, Jones was slowed this summer after having hernia surgery. In July Jones thought he was experiencing the usual soreness associated with training camp, but when the pain continued to intensify, the fifth-year tight end sought further treatment and the hernia was discovered. Surgery was performed shortly thereafter.

Jones has always been a quick healer, so there’s every reason to think he’ll rebound this season. At 6’5″ and 270 pounds, he is a powerful blocker. As for pass-catching, the 2000 season was a breakout year for Jones, who caught 71 passes for 766 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers helped earn Jones the accolades he deserved long before last season.

“Freddie Jones is simply a tremendous player because he’s a receiver who can make big plays, make tough catches, and block with a purpose,” says first-year Chargers offensive coordinator Norv Turner. “He should be a great weapon for us, and it gives us quite a few options when he’s on the field.”

Like Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe also is viewed as a pass-catching tight end–and with good reason. He was the Baltimore Ravens’ most dependable receiver in their Super Bowl-winning season of 2000 and was especially valuable in the postseason.

In the second quarter of Baltimore’s win over the Denver Broncos in their wild card matchup, Sharpe took a quick toss from Trent Dilfer and turned it into a 58-yard touchdown that virtually put the game away. In the second quarter the following week against the Tennessee Titans, Sharpe raced 56 yards down the sideline to set up a one-yard TD run by Jamal Lewis.

And in the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens offense appeared incapable of moving the ball and was trapped at its own four-yard line early in the second quarter. Hoping to get more room for punter Kyle Richardson, Dilfer threw the ball over the middle to Sharpe. When the Raiders secondary whiffed on the tackle, Sharpe ran 96 yards for the touch-down, which was all the Ravens needed to secure a berth in the Super Bowl.

But while Sharpe loves nothing better than basking in the spotlight after a dramatic touchdown catch, he also is a capable blocker. During his career on the Broncos prior to joining Baltimore last year, Sharpe’s blocking improved significantly, especially in Denver’s Super Bowl-winning seasons of 1997 and ’98. He may not have particularly enjoyed blocking for Terrell Davis, but he was good at it.

“I’ve shown over the years that I can block,” Sharpe says. “I will do whatever it takes for this team to win. I’ve shown that over the years, whether I’ve been in Denver or here in Baltimore.”

But the 33-year-old Sharpe won’t be able to play forever, and the Ravens prepared for the day he retires or goes elsewhere by selecting Todd Heap with their No. 1 pick last spring. Heap, who has excellent hands and feet, appears to have big play written all over him because of his speed, desire, and athleticism. He also is a willing blocker. In other words, he has the potential to be as complete as some of the great tight ends of yore.

The only thing holding him back right now is his size (6’5″, 252 pounds), which prevents him from dominating on his blocks, All that means is that Heap has to hone his technique. “Heap will stay with his [blocking] assignment anywhere on the field,” says one AFC scout. “He’s really tenacious, and he works hard. But he’s not going to knock people over on a regular basis.”

Atlanta Falcons rookie tight end Alge Crumpler doesn’t have that problem. He came to the Falcons’ training camp this summer with the reputation as a nasty, punishing blocker. At 6’2″ and 270 pounds, Crumpler is built like a small tank. He also runs surprisingly well for a man his size.

There were questions about his receiving talents since he didn’t get many pass-catching opportunities during his college career at North Carolina. But Crumpler proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of training camp, making eye-catching receptions on a regular basis: Look for Crumpler to become more and more of a receiving factor for Atlanta as this season progresses.

Crumpler is a throwback. Some of today’s big-name tight ends–like Frank Wycheck, Wesley Walls, and Chad Lewis–pay only lip service to blocking. Wycheck is more of an H-back than a tight end. Although he’s not averse to blocking, his value to the Tennessee Titans has been his ability to rack up yards after making the catch.

Walls is trying to rebound from a major knee injury he suffered last season. When healthy, he’s one of the hardest-working and most productive pass-catching tight ends in the business. Walls caught 12 TD passes in 1999 and had put two on the board last year for the Carolina Panthers before he got hurt. Walls can get open in the red zone and knows how to use his body to screen off defenders in clutch situations. But he’s not going to terrorize anyone with his blocking.

Lewis emerged as a Pro Bowl tight end last year with the Philadelphia Eagles, but it wasn’t because of his blocking. It was his pass-catching that turned heads; he had 69 catches for 735 yards and three touchdowns. Although he knows how to get open and then run after the catch, he won’t bury a linebacker or de-cleat a strong safety with a shoulder to the midsection.

But that is more the rule than the exception these days. For the most part, the era of the head-banging tight end who does it all is gone.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group