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The Evolution of the Tight End

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John Lopez of SI discusses the way the tight end position has become more focal over the past decade.

In 1990 not one of the league's top 20 receptions leaders was a tight end. The Pro Bowl tight ends that year were Ferrell Edmunds, Rodney Holman, Keith Jackson and Steve Jordan. They combined for 2,348 yards and 15 touchdowns. By 2000, only one tight end ranked among the league's top 20 in receptions. It was Gonzalez. The Pro Bowl tight ends in 2000 were Gonzalez, Stephen Alexander, Chad Lewis and Frank Wychek. They accounted for a modest bump to 3,084 receiving yards.

But by last season, with the new mold of tight end firmly established and growing, literally, five tight ends ranked among the top 20 in receptions, Clark, Witten, Gonzalez, Gates and Vernon Davis have become dominant players. Three more tight ends ranked in the top 25, at 21st (Kellen Winslow Jr.), 23rd (Brent Celek) and 24th (Heath Miller) in receptions. And 2009's Pro Bowl tight ends accounted for a whopping 4,160 yards of offense and 26 touchdowns -- a more than 77 percent increase in yardage and a 73 percent increase in touchdowns since 1990. Moreover, five NFL tight ends had at least 965 receiving yards in 2009. Of the seven tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, three never even had one season with as many as 965 yards receiving.

Lopez talks about the way teams now put a premium on athleticism. It is a chance to create a mismatch in a spot where a lot of teams did not focus before. The league has seen a shift to the passing game in this same timeframe. I wouldn't be surprised to see fullback be the next position of emphasis and teams search more for Richie Anderson/Jerald Sowell types who can catch out of the backfield like the Jets used to have. It will be another area to utilize the passing game.

The Jets moved up in the Draft a few years ago because Dustin Keller has the athleticism to create mismatches in the passing game. I think Dustin is going to have a good year. The wide receivers on the roster are so good defenses will have a tough time designing coverages to contain them. A lot of linebackers and safeties struggle to match up with Keller, and it will be difficult to roll coverage onto him.