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The Roles of the NFL Tight End

New York Jets Training Camp Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

I have said it many times. The manner in which NFL positions are described is outdated.

These positional designations may have been accurate at one point in time. The league is different now. If we were starting from scratch and focused solely on how things work in the NFL of today the concept of position would be presented in a way dissimilar to what we know now.

Over the last few months we have discussed wide receiver and the secondary. Each nominal position has a number of roles in today’s league. In many cases the relevant questions aren’t about which position a player is listed at but which and how many roles the player can fill.

Today we are going to take a look at tight end.

Now at its most basic element the tight end is the guy who lines up right next to one of the tackles. He is on the line of scrimmage at the snap. In the NFL the offense has to have seven players on the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. Five of them are offensive linemen. Two are eligible receivers. The tight end is typically one of these two players.

Now many of you may be familiar with something called an h-back.

Around a decade and a half ago ago, Mike Tanier wrote a great article providing context on the history of the h-back.

The modern two-tight end set was developed by Joe Gibbs and his Redskins staff in the early 1980s. It was created as a countermeasure against 3-4 defenses in general and Lawrence Taylor in particular. Gibbs discovered that an extra tight end on the line of scrimmage was in better position than a fullback to stop Taylor and other elite blitzers. Gibbs soon learned to use the second tight end as an all-purpose blocker: that extra tight end (usually Don Warren, back in the day) might go in motion before the snap to unbalance the offensive line, or he might slip into the backfield as a fullback or sneak into pass patterns. The modern H-back was born.

Unlike the traditional tight end, the h-back lines up behind the line of scrimmage. He can line up on the other side of the formation.

As Tanier noted, however, he isn’t limited. He could also line up on the same side as the regular tight end.

Additionally, he could line up in the backfield. (More on that later.)

For quite a while you could have made a convincing argument that there were essentially two different tight end positions in the NFL. You had the traditional tight end. (We’ll call him in-line.) You also had the h-back.

The h-back role had an interesting evolution. While Gibbs tended to use these players first and foremost for blocking, the role evolved over the years. Teams started using slightly smaller, more athletic players as h-backs to create mismatches in the passing game, while the in-line tight ends were generally stronger and sturdier blockers. (Please note this is speaking very broadly. There were exceptions to everything I just mentioned.)

There are some systems that still make a distinction between in-line tight ends and h-backs. Some coaches want these players to have distinct skills, but I would argue the distinction between the two has shrunk in recent years. For the most part I don’t think the roles of the tight end position diverge much along in-line and h-back lines in today’s NFL. The biggest difference between these two now might be simply whether the player lines up behind the line of scrimmage or on the line of scrimmage.

The following are what I consider the more relevant roles to consider when discussing the modern tight end position.

Seam Threatener

Deep passing down the middle of the field is frequently more difficult than throwing deep to the outside. Safeties are lurking over the top in the middle of the field. Deep passes to the outside are typically beyond their reach.

You might have heard talk about tight ends who are effective running seam routes. The seam is the middle part of the field past where the linebackers are assigned to defend but before the area where safeties inhabit.

Seam passes can result in big plays, but they aren’t easy to execute. A tight end has to beat the linebackers quickly. If he doesn’t gain quick separation against the linebackers, the safeties will already be on him. The quarterback also has to time his throw perfectly in this brief window after the linebackers are beaten but before the safeties arrive.

Short Pass Outlet

For teams that have young quarterbacks, there is always talk of having a tight end who is a “security blanket.” Tight ends are big bodied targets. It is nice for a quarterback to have somebody like that in the middle of the field to throw the ball (where tight ends typically line up) when he needs it.

Run Blocking Offensive Lineman

Perhaps it is overly simplistic to say, but sometimes the tight end essentially functions as another offensive lineman blocking in the run game.

Pass Blocking Offensive Lineman

While tight ends are known as pass catchers, there are also times where they are asked to stay in and help with pass protection.

Tight ends tend to be called on to pass protect against blitzes or to help a tackle with a double team against an elite pass rusher. If you find a truly great blocking tight end who can hold up one on one against an edge rusher, this player has value.

The tight end can also line up at the three wide receiver positions. I won’t go into great detail about those. You can click on the article I wrote a few months ago for a deeper explanation.

You will see tight ends align at the three spots, however.

X Receiver

Y Receiver

(Albeit part of a bunch in this shot)

Slot Receiver

Lead Blocker

These days a tight end is frequently given the assignments of lead blocker traditionally reserved for the fullback.

Let’s go back to our earlier discussion about the h-back. The h-back was a player who moved around the formation. He could line up at the end of the line one play. The next play he might be in the backfield serving in a fullback role. This is the new normal in modern offensive football.

There is a lot of debate about whether the fullback is going extinct. The answer is complicated. Running plays where there are two players in the backfield continue to be a part of the NFL. One player gets the handoff. The other is the lead blocker. Because of this, the role of the traditional fullback remains part of offenses.

However, we have reached a point in the evolution of offenses where it is difficult to justify keeping a player on the roster if the only role he can fill is lead blocker on run plays. There are exceptions, but players generally need to be able to bring more to the table in addition to performing the duties of the fullback to earn their keep.

Receiver Out of the Backfield

When you line up in the backfield, sometimes you go out on routes essentially taking on the role of a receiving running back.

Ball Carrier

Since a tight end might end up in the backfield in the fullback role, he might even get the occasional handoff, particularly in short yardage situations.

You could argue some of the nuances such as whether there are more roles, but this is a fairly broad overview of the modern tight end position. You can probably imagine why it is considered a position where the transition to the NFL is difficult.

Frequently when people talk about prospects before the Draft fans will comment, “We don’t need a tight end.” They think the players on their team are decent, but I would argue this talk misses this point. More relevant points to consider are how many of these roles are unfilled for a team, and how many roles each prospect can capably play.

Of these roles, the receiving ones are the most valuable. The NFL has become a league where creating mismatches and producing big plays are the goals. A tight end who is adept at working the seam and/or the traditional wide receiver spots has tremendous value. The best are too fast for linebackers and too fast for defensive backs. Even if you have one of these great receivers, adding another is a very good idea. You can rotate them between the traditional tight end spot and the wide receiver positions from play to play to manufacture matchup problems for the defense.

I think this is also where some disconnect in player valuation comes from. Many people view Ryan Griffin as a valuable player. I would say he’s a quality player in the Short Pass Outlet role, but I don’t think he is capable of being effective in any other role consistently. I also would say Short Pass Outlet might be the least valuable role and the least difficult to fill. Zone coverages have holes in them. Receptions on Short Pass Outlet type plays tend to come because the tight end’s designed route just takes him into one of these holes. Almost any tight end in the NFL should be able to fill this role and produce decent numbers if he gets enough volume. Griffin doesn’t bring much in the way of blocking or more dynamic pass catching.

In the same way it might be tempting to say Trevon Wesco is valuable because he frequently fills the lead blocker role for the Jets. As mentioned above, however, it is difficult to justify the existence of a player who can only fill that particular role. The consensus best fullback in the NFL, Kyle Juszczyk, is part of the 49ers passing game and lines up all over the field, including in wide receiver and tight end alignments. A guy like Wesco who may never be more than a reception every week guy in the passing game probably needs to develop into a dominant player in all of the blocking roles to have value. If he can become the rare tight end who can block an edge rusher one on one, the Jets might have something.

If you are a long-time follower of this website, you know I am very high on Chris Herndon’s potential. This is because Herndon has the tools to potentially fill those valuable pass catching roles effectively. This would be a very exciting development for the Jets and their fans.