When the Indianapolis Colts lost Dallas Clark for the season, it was a huge blow to the defending AFC champions.
Not just because Peyton Manning lost one of his favorite targets, but because the Colts fell far behind opponents at a position that has become critical to offensive success in the NFL.
Not having a standout tight end puts teams in a tight spot in today’s NFL.
"It’s become a more important position and it’s gotten some great athletes playing tight end," says the Jets’ Dustin Keller, who epitomizes the new breed with size (6-foot-2, 250 pounds), speed and agility. "Guys are better athletes and bigger athletes, 250- and 260-pound guys who can block and run routes at the same time. I think everyone is looking for the next great tight end."
The best ones range from the wily veteran (Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez) to the in-their-prime stars (San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Dallas’ Jason Witten, Baltimore’s Todd Heap, the injured Clark) to the new wave (Keller, Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis, Oakland’s Zach Miller, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew).
Not to forget Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley (also out for the season), Seattle’s John Carlson, Chicago’s Greg Olsen, Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow, New Orleans’ Jeremy Shockey, Washington’s Chris Cooley, Philadelphia’s Brett Celek, Houston’s Owen Daniels and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller.
"Yeah, it’s pretty loaded at tight end in the AFC," says Zach Miller, who leads the Raiders in receptions with 30. "It’s hard to get noticed. You got Gates, Dallas Clark, Owen Daniels. They have been, kind of year in, year out, steady performers. They’re almost getting 100 catches, 10-plus touchdowns, those sort of things."
Indeed, 100-catch and 1,000-yard seasons were unheard of for tight ends until recently. Gonzalez hit the century mark in 2004 with 102 and no other tight end got there until Clark had 100 last season. That doesn’t mean the position wasn’t flourishing in the interim. On the contrary, it now is one of most heavily scouted in the game, and a tight end has been selected in the first round in each of the last 11 drafts.
"This has been a function of trying to get favorable matchups for the offense," Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum says. "We see in college ball how teams are spread out more and you don’t find that Anthony Becht or Kyle Brady tight end who is mostly a blocker. You now have bigger guys in college who can be flexed out, who might be found out wide or in the backfield or in the slot.
"A lot of these players might come into college as a tight end/linebacker, and in the past he would become a linebacker. Now, those great athletes, like Dustin at Purdue, are tight ends. They have a great skill set in a bigger man’s body and they become a weapon for the offense with the ball in their hands. You couldn’t say that about many traditional tight ends in the past."
Gonzalez is the measuring stick for the position. Now in his 14th season and third with the Falcons, he holds nearly all significant receiving records for tight ends. But he’s also been a solid blocker throughout a career that easily could have been played in another sport — he was an outstanding basketball player at Cal.
"If I was the trendsetter, hopefully they know I’m blocking, too," says Gonzalez, who also has had 99, 96 and 93 receptions in a season. "I wouldn’t call myself the trendsetter. The guys I was looking up to when I came into the league were Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates. Ben Coates had 96 catches one year, and Shannon was catching a bunch of balls. And Kellen Winslow (the father of the Bucs’ tight end). If you keep going back, there were guys that did it before me. But it’s nice to be at the forefront of it."
Gates has benefited from playing with two superior quarterbacks in San Diego, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. He’s had two 1,100-yard seasons and is the player many of his peers point to as the best in the game.
"I think you’re seeing more of that type than you’re used to," Rivers says. "I remember when it was Gates and Gonzalez and there weren’t many other guys. Now it almost seems like every team tries to have that type of guy. I think still with Gates and Gonzalez, and there are others, they obviously are unbelievable in the passing game. They’re complete tight ends. That’s not what makes the highlights. They can play every down, whereas, some guys, ‘Here he comes in the game, he’s a passing tight end.’
"You get different coverages when you have a tight end like that," Rivers says of Gates. "The ideas become endless when you have a guy like that."
Adds Keller about Gates: "You have to be versatile, and he’s the one guy you talk about doing everything."
Gates was an outstanding college basketball player and didn’t even play football at Kent State.
When Mike Ditka and John Mackey were the standout tight ends in the 1960s, their first order was to block, and that’s how coaches used them. Because both of them could run over tacklers — even powerful linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke — and Mackey even could get deep, the Bears and Colts became more adventurous.
Not a lot, though. While there were excellent receiver types at tight end in the 1970s and ’80s such as Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow, Keith Jackson and Todd Christensen, it was not until the 1990s that pro personnel execs and scouts discovered the benefits of versatility at the position.
"I remember growing up and watching tight ends, and there were only a couple," says the 26-year-old Lewis. "The tight end was basically a third tackle. Now it’s different. Tight ends are being split out and asked to do more things, and there’s tight ends getting picked up in the draft that are being looked at as guys teams can flex out. The game has changed. It’s ridiculous, but it’s in a good way for tight ends."
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Texans owner Bob McNair ordered a sweep of the locker room to make sure none of his players are using banned substances.
USA Today first reported the Texans had staff members remove any products from lockers that are not approved by the NFL. Two of Houston’s players — left tackle Duane Brown and linebacker Brian Cushing — served four-game suspensions for different violations of the league’s policy on banned substances.
San Diego Chargers
Disgruntled Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson signed his contract tender with the stumbling, turnover-prone Chargers yesterday.
He can’t help them during the next three games, though, because of a team-imposed suspension.
By reporting now, he can serve his three games on the roster exempt list — he was placed there in a hardball move by general manager A.J. Smith — and then play in the final six games to accrue his sixth season toward unrestricted free agency.
Brett Favre‘s healing ability has been tested before. It’s headed for another down-to-the-wire finish.
The latest will-he-or-won’t-he drama in Favre’s 20-year career continued yesterday when Minnesota listed him as questionable for Sunday’s game at New England. The Vikings will wait until the very end to answer the burning question whether their injured 41-year-old quarterback will play.
Favre was on the field for drills yesterday, with limited participation in practice for the first time this week. He wore a wrap on his left ankle, which has two fractures that have threatened his NFL-record streak of 291 straight games started.