Why Ladarius Green Is the NFL's Next Breakout Star at Tight End

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Why Ladarius Green Is the NFL's Next Breakout Star at Tight End
Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

Ladarius Green of the San Diego Chargers is hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow AFC West tight end Julius Thomas this season.

Green is entering his third season in the NFL after featuring very little during his first two. The 24-year-old has just 21 regular-season receptions for 432 yards and three touchdowns to this point in his career. Like Thomas, he is a raw athlete who needed time to develop after being drafted.

Thomas caught 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season last year, before adding 18 receptions for 188 yards in the playoffs. During the two previous seasons, Thomas had a combined total of one reception for five yards in nine games and one start.

An ankle injury took Thomas' rookie season from him, while the Broncos' veterans at the position made it difficult for the raw prospect to earn more playing time during his second season.

Green has been relatively healthy compared to Thomas, but he has spent time in the background developing as the Chargers continued to rely on future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates. Gates is now 34 years of age and has noticeably slowed down, but he still had 77 receptions for 872 yards last season.

Because it's unlikely that Gates eclipses his production from last season as he gets older, the Chargers should expect to use Green more.

Two-tight end sets have become prominent in the NFL ever since Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez starred for the New England Patriots in 2011. With Gates as the possession receiver and Green as the more explosive, mismatch weapon, the Chargers have the versatility to keep both tight ends on the field at the same time.

Green needs to prove that he can handle a greater workload and responsibility for the offense, but in terms of pure talent, he has the ability to be a star in the NFL.

 

Athleticism

Green is 6'6" and 240 pounds. He ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and shows excellent fluidity and quickness on the field. In 2013, that athleticism was highlighted by his average per reception, as Green averaged more yards per reception than any player who caught at least 10 passes.

Player Receptions Yards Average Touchdowns
Ladarius Green 17 376 22.1 3
Robert Meachem 16 324 20.3 2
Aldrick Robinson 18 365 20.3 2
Kenny Stills 32 641 20.0 5
Santonio Holmes 23 456 19.8 1
Justin Hunter 18 354 19.7 4
Josh Gordon 87 1,646 18.9 9
Tiquan Underwood 24 440 18.3 4
Drew Davis 12 216 18.0 2
Riley Cooper 47 835 17.8 8

NFL.com

Of the players on this list, Green is the only one who is listed as a tight end, and he is the only player who is officially listed at 6'5" or taller.

Having a player with Green's athleticism allows you to threaten every single level of the defense on every single snap in a variety of ways. Not only can Green catch the ball underneath and eat up space as quick as most receivers, but he can also run downfield without the ball to catch deep passes from his quarterback.

Green's speed is on display in the following GIFs:

NFL.com

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His size at the catch point is very valuable when he gets down the field to work against defensive backs, while his fluid movement allows him to exploit less agile linebackers over the middle of the field underneath.

Even though Green doesn't have exceptional short-area quickness to release from the line of scrimmage, he is so big that he should be able to use his strength to push back bigger safeties and defensive backs in press coverage. It should also be noted that the offense can scheme him free at the line of scrimmage like it did above.

 

Ball Skills

Green's ball skills resemble those of a seasoned NFL wide receiver who is on his way to the Hall of Fame rather than a raw, inexperienced tight end who was selected in the fourth round. That is the highest of praise that can be given to any player, but his ball skills were simply phenomenal in 2013.

Again, a limited number of targets squashes just how trustworthy his tape is for projecting forward, but there was little more he could have done to create optimism in San Diego.

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NFL.com

There are very few receiving targets in the NFL who check all the ball skill boxes. Some receivers will always look to catch the ball with two hands extended away from their body. Some receivers will always meet the ball at the earliest possible point. Some receivers understand how to catch the ball to set themselves up for yards after the catch.

On his 2013 targets, Green consistently did all of those things.

For a supposedly raw talent, Green is a very natural receiver. He understands when to just make sure of the reception and when to set up his YAC ability. He understands how to catch the ball in such a way that he maximizes his chances of getting to the ball ahead of the defender.

Green didn't have a clear-cut drop in 2013. The only catches he didn't make were very difficult one-handed receptions on inaccurately thrown balls. He didn't take many huge hits on catch attempts, so it's still a question how brave he will be over the middle of the field as his workload grows.

 

Matchup Problem

When you're 6'6" and 240 pounds of fluid athleticism, you're expected to be a matchup problem all over the field. Size has very much become a focal point of red-zone offenses in today's NFL as teams look to isolate tight ends and receivers with smaller defensive backs for jump-ball situations.

NFL.com

As he showed in the playoffs last year against the Cincinnati Bengals, Green is able to high-point the football over defensive backs at a point where most wouldn't have a chance of disrupting him. Being big is one thing, but Green extends his size by attacking the football—something that not enough receivers do with such effectiveness.

 

Route Running

Green runs a relatively limited route tree. He doesn't create separation with sharp cuts or break away from his routes to find soft spots in zone coverage. However, he doesn't need to be perfectly precise with his routes because he can create separation with his athleticism alone.

 

Blocking

Blocking as a tight end has become a contentious issue as of late because of Jimmy Graham's franchise tag debate. Even though Green is an excellent receiver and a mismatch weapon like Graham, he is a significantly better blocker than the New Orleans Saints star.

Green's movement and body control, combined with his size, make him a very effective blocker in space. He can advance to the second level to locate linebackers and safeties, but he can also pull behind the line of scrimmage to close off the opposite edge of the line.

NFL.com

On this big run for Ryan Mathews against the Denver Broncos during last year's regular season, Green initially lines up as a tight end to the right of the offensive line.

He shows quick feet and good balance to work his way behind the line of scrimmage to the other side of the field before getting outside of the edge defender. While he doesn't immediately engage the linebacker, he uses the design of the play to his favor by getting to the right position to seal off the edge.

Green makes this movement look very simple, but it's not something every tight end in the NFL can do effectively.

On this play, Green is the inside tight end lined up to the left.

NFL.com

The Chargers run a sweep play to the left side, and Green has to make the key block to allow Mathews to run upfield. Green lines up the defensive back and uses his power at the point of contact to knock him out of the play.

Green isn't the kind of tight end who can line up on the line of scrimmage, lower his pad level and power his legs through contact to drive linebackers and defensive ends off the line of scrimmage. When he does line up tight to the formation, he generally focuses on establishing position and holding his ground in space.

For a receiving tight end, he is definitely a valuable blocker. Green has the potential to be a matchup nightmare for defenses in both the run and pass game.

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