July 29, 2014

Re-Valuing the Tight End

Sorry, this is not a post about women in yoga pants. Although maybe I should file that idea away for another day. (That’s a joke, honey, I swear!)

The value of the running back continues to wane in the modern NFL. The shift to the exciting (and very marketable) passing game, plus the physical toll paid by backs, is slowly draining the value from spot. And the tight end position is the primary beneficiary.

There has always been value at tight end. Two of the guys that have driven me nuts more than any others in the past several years were Heath Miller and Todd Heap, guys who always seemed to be able to get 9 yards on 3rd-and-7. And to add to my frustration, the Bengals seemed not to value the spot and counter with their own answer to those guys.

In 2010, they finally changed course with the selection of Jermaine Gresham. He was touted as one of the best TEs to come around in a while, and his addition to the team has been noticeable. In rating the tight ends in the AFC North, Jamison Hensley agrees that Gresham has become a force in the division, choosing him as top TE among the four teams.

He led AFC North tight ends in receptions (56) and touchdown catches (six) last season. Still, there’s a sense he is being underused at a time when five tight ends caught at least 79 passes last season.

Jamison is right. Despite being the most productive TE in the AFCN, I can’t help but think that he could be an even bigger force in the middle of the field than he was in 2011. He averaged only 10.6 yds/catch, not as effective as most top TEs. Perhaps a hurried introduction to Gruden’s new offensive scheme was a limiting factor on him. Improving his yds/catch and getting him just one more ball per game would easily make him in the 5 most productive TEs in the game. A full offseason and a comfort level with Andy Dalton can make both of those things doable.

An equally interesting development at the position is the addition of Orson Charles, a teammate of A.J. Green at Georgia, who could quickly become a good “2″ in a 1-2 punch from the position. He is big enough to spar with linebackers and take the hits that come with catching the short pass over the middle, and fast enough to get behind LBs in man coverage. With his selection, giving the Bengals two potent receiving options, the value of the tight end spot went up significantly.

Having both Gresham and Charles means the Bengals will often have four legitimate receiving threats on the field, possibly five depending on the hands of the guy coming out of the backfield. Imagine it: A.J. Green commands double coverage no matter where he is; Binns or Jones (or Tate?) races down the opposite side of the field to get deep, forcing help from a safety; meanwhile, Gresham and Shipley (or Sanu) pick out soft spots in the middle of the field. Someone is going to be open. It’s just up to Dalton to find him and get him the ball.

When Gresham and Charles take the field together, they will bring the added threat of run-blocking. (Blocking is the biggest need for improvement in Charles’ game. He is adequate, not deficient like Coffman, but will get plenty of focus from his coaches in elevating his blocking.) They can seal edges, blow up backers trying to plug holes, or bump and slip behind defenders selling out on the run.

While the most interesting camp battle will be the #2 WR, pulling double coverage away from A.J. Green will not be his job alone. Gresham and Charles (along with Shipley and Sanu) will have just as much to do with making that happen… and will reap much of the benefits when teams choose to double cover him anyway.

I love seeing the Bengals transform from being the franchise that largely ignored the tight end to embracing the current evolution at the position, trumping the Ravens’ play with Dickson and Pitta. Gresham and Charles will bring the most value to the TE spot in the next few years since Bob Trumpy tore up the field in the 70s. Maybe more.