In turning in their utterly ridiculous 2011 seasons, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have undoubtedly spearheaded a new era for tight ends in the National Football League.
Teams are turning their attention toward playmaking tight ends as the emphasis on run blocking and pass protection continues to dwindle.
Sure, these guys are still expected to provide some offensive aid outside of pass catching. But the idea of grooming a Gronk or Graham should be quite appealing for many NFL franchises
So who's the next Gronk? Who's the next Graham?
Who will be the next big-time tight end to burst onto the scene?
Here are the top five candidates primed for breakout seasons in 2012.
Tight ends aren't usually coveted in the first round of the NFL draft.
But during the 2010 proceedings, the Cincinnati Bengals used the 21st overall selection on Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham.
Gresham, who is entering his third professional season, meets all the criteria for a breakout campaign.
For one, he should be well prepared to chalk up considerable numbers at this point in his career. As I mentioned, this will be year three for Gresham. He should definitely be fully acclimated to the Cincinnati offense as well as the overall nature of the NFL.
Gresham is also being met halfway by his standout teammates Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Both should see improvement off their impressive rookie seasons a year ago.
The Cincinnati tight end will be much easier for Dalton to find considering the potential double-coverages Green will end up drawing.
The talented Gresham did increase his totals between his first and second seasons, bringing in 125 more yards and two more touchdowns. His transition from his sophomore season to his junior season should be no different.
Martellus Bennett has been one of the most confusing and frustrating players over the past handful of seasons.
There's no questioning his ideal size, incredible athleticism and raw talent.
His maturity, however, has halted any leap into the limelight for the tight end.
As a member of the Dallas Cowboys, Bennett never really found his niche. Despite the team's confidence in his on-field ability, Bennett's off-field shenanigans earned him a ticket out of town.
Bennett then bought a new ticket elsewhere after he signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal to join the defending champion New York Giants this offseason.
With Jake Ballard gone to New England and Travis Beckum fighting back from an ACL injury, the "Black Unicorn" will see some chances opposite Bear Pascoe.
Hopefully for Bennett, a new city and a new quarterback in Eli Manning will be enough to keep him on track.
I'm not sure if Greg Olsen really fits the bill as a "breakout" candidate.
He's been in the league for five years and isn't exactly unknown to most NFL fans.
But at the age of 27 with a handful of seasons under his belt, Olsen has to be ready to climb above the radar.
Although he's been constantly thrashed for his poor blocking ability, the Carolina tight end is easily one of the NFL's best pass catchers at his position. He possesses above-average hands and runs his routes very well.
Much of Olsen's potential success in 2012 will hinge on the sophomore season of last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton. Newton, who threw for more than 4,000 yards in his rookie campaign, is more of a passer than a runner.
Contrary to popular belief, Newton is a pocket passer above all. His imminent progression in 2012 should have a number of Carolina pass catchers, including Olsen, as the prime beneficiaries.
Just like the rest of the tight ends on this list, Fred Davis has proven to be extremely capable in the athletic department.
Last season, Davis hit career highs in receptions (59) and receiving yards (796) despite missing four games to suspension.
He also reached the end zone three times and saw 88 pass attempts—another career high—come his way.
This all with the likes of Rex Grossman and John Beck under center.
But luckily for Davis and the rest of the Redskins organization, Robert Griffin III is the new sheriff in town.
Although the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner did not constantly utilize his tight end at Baylor, Davis has to be a trustworthy target for him this year.
Barring any injuries or suspensions, look for Davis to finish among the league's top tight ends in terms of production.
Yes, the running joke in New York is that the Jets now have two quarterbacks who cannot throw the ball.
But this is no laughing matter for Gang Green in this seemingly make-or-break season. That includes tight end Dustin Keller.
Keller just screams breakout for a number of reasons—the first of which being his steady progress over his four-year career.
Here are Keller's numbers over the past three years:
- 2009: 45 REC, 522 YDS, 2 TD
- 2010: 55 REC, 687 YDS, 5 TD
- 2011: 65 REC, 815 YDS, 5 TD
Over this span, Keller has increased his totals by at least 10 catches and 160 yards per year. In addition, he has also seen a nice rise in his targets. Keller was targeted for 115 passes last season, 15 more than the year before.
And with those looks, there's no doubting that the Jets tight end is Mark Sanchez's favorite pass catcher. Keller should definitely see even more balls thrown his way, especially with Tim Tebow breathing down Marky Mark's neck.