Tight end becoming focal point of NFL offenses

FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2017, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) catches a pass in front of Atlanta Falcons linebacker Duke Riley (42) during the first half of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass. The play was nullified on an offensive pass interference penalty by Gronkowski. Tight end, not too long ago almost an afterthought for many teams, has become a critical spoke in the offensive wheel. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

By BARRY WILNER, AP Pro Football Writer
If you were watching NFL games last weekend — and for much of the season — and didn’t notice Zach Ertz and Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski, well, you probably weren’t watching very carefully.
Tight end, not too long ago almost an afterthought for many teams, has become a critical spoke in the offensive wheel.
Indeed, for many quarterbacks, the tight end has become something of a security blanket. Certainly Gronk for Tom Brady and Delanie Walker for Marcus Mariota.
It’s also been that way for years with Antonio Gates catching passes from Philip Rivers, or Greg Olsen for Cam Newton.
From revitalized veterans such as Walker and Davis to impact rookies Evan Engram, David Njoku and Jonnu Smith, tight end has become a focal point in the league.
“It’s just transcendent to the point to where now the position has catapulted to a point where it’s just unbelievable,” says Gates, 37, who in his 15th pro season could be headed toward holding every significant receiving record for the position. And yes, that should spell Hall of Fame someday.
“So many guys that’s making so many plays. Such a threat, where the majority of the time when you go into a game plan you’re not thinking of doubling tight ends. Now you see, obviously Gronkowski is one name. The (Travis) Kelces of the world. Jason Witten is still playing well. Those are the guys that’s obviously, in situational football — third down — you’re trying to take them out of the game.
“It didn’t used to be like that. So, now when I watch games, it’s like a big brother situation. I’m like ‘Wow, the position has grown so much.’ And hopefully these guys can continue to keep that legacy going.”
Actually, the legacy isn’t all that profound. There are only eight in Canton, the last being Shannon Sharpe in 2003. Tony Gonzalez certainly will join the club when eligible in 2019.
For decades, the tight end was considered a glorified tackle. Even when John Mackey and Mike Ditka were stars in the 1960s and early ’70s, it was not a key part of the passing game.
That changed quite a bit, more as an evolution though, since 1980.  With the onset of uptempo attacks with spread principles, though, tight ends coming out of college often have been more pass catcher than pass protector.
That is reflected in the way Gates and Witten and Davis and Olsen — all of whom have played at least 11 pro seasons — have built stellar careers.
It’s also reflected in the numbers posted by Kelce or Ertz or Gronk. And even the newcomers: Engram is the most reliable target for Eli Manning on the injury-ravaged Giants.
“Zach is an elite receiver at that position,” says Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who could easily be talking about Kelce or Gronkowski or Walker.
“I haven’t been around too many guys that run routes like him. But there’s really kind of an emphasis on being the complete player because there’s not a whole lot of tight ends that can run routes the way he runs and be productive blocking at the line of scrimmage. Zach’s really done a good job and has really improved. He’s been physical, and a lot of that is just a mindset.”
Many team’s mindset includes having more than one tight end on the field. That paid a different kind of benefit last year for New England when Gronkowski was lost to a back injury, but Brady had Martellus Bennett on hand.
Playing a pair of tight ends at the same time can make for nightmare matchups for defenses. There’s no better example than Reed and Davis in Washington.
“Gruden is all about the tight ends,” Davis says of Redskins coach Jay Gruden. “He loves to get the ball to Jordan Reed and he just has a track record for building an offense that’s friendly to the tight end’s position.”
In Baltimore, where pretty much every wideout has been banged-up or lost to Joe Flacco, three of the top five receivers through seven weeks have been tight ends.
Tennessee’s Walker ranks third among tight ends in 2017 with 32 receptions through Week 7. From 2015 through now, he ranks second among tight ends in receiving yards (2,212; behind Kelce’s 2,423) and third in receptions (191; behind Kelce’s 194 and Ertz’s 192).
As versatile as any TE, Walker offers a comfort zone for the developing Mariota.
The Jets like to use more than one tight end at a time, though only Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a receiving threat.
Seferian-Jenkins is second on the team with 26 receptions, one behind wideout Jermaine Kearse, despite being suspended for the first two games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy last year.    Seferian-Jenkins’ 26 catches match the total Jets tight ends had all of the past two seasons combined.
“When you have a couple of tight ends in the game, it’s a whole different ballgame,” offensive coordinator John Morton says.
“Just having him (Seferian-Jenkins) out there, a big-bodied guy going down the field, that’s a big force, and him blocking. Along with Eric (Tomlinson) and Neal (Sterling), too. When you have those tight ends, you can get into different personnel groupings and try to create a mismatch, if you can, depending on what they’re playing. It’s been a great plus to have him out there, for sure.”
Most every NFL coach will echo those sentiments.
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AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker, Rob Maaddi and Josh Dubow, and Sports Writers Greg Beacham, Kyle Hightower and Dennis Waszak Jr., contributed.
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