If the football world learned anything from the Jimmy Graham saga, it's that "tight end" doesn't mean what it used to.
Tight ends used to be the "third tackle," the in-line blocker behind whom the running game operated. The power of the man advantage in the box dictated how half the defense lined up. A few tight ends combined blocking ability with athleticism; players like Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders and Mark Bavaro became stars with their two-way play.
Kellen Winslow Sr. was ahead of his time, a pass-catching tight end at the focal point of the revolutionary Air Coryell offense. In the 2000s, Tony Gonzalez followed in Winslow's footsteps—then went further, changing the way we think about tight ends.
Never a powerful blocker, Gonzalez was nevertheless one of the most devastating offensive weapons in the game. He had five seasons with at least 90 receptions, including a league-leading 102 in 2004. He had four seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving and three with double-digit touchdowns.
Now, we live in an era full of would-be Winslows and Gonzalezes, and Graham stands tall among them.
No wonder Gonzalez told Chris Strauss of USA Today that Graham's four-year, $40 million deal makes him "underpaid."
Anyone who played fantasy football in the 2000s knows just how dominant Gonzalez was. Not only was he clearly the best tight end in football, he was miles ahead of the pack for years on end.
Here's the per-game production of the top 32 tight ends in 2004, per Pro-Football-Reference, sorted by receptions per game. Yards have been divided by a factor of 10 and touchdowns boosted by a factor of 10 so they all plot clearly on the same axis:
Gonzalez averaged nearly a whole catch more per game than No. 2 Jason Witten and about 15 yards more per game than No. 2 Antonio Gates. Gates' crazy rate of 13 touchdowns in 15 games doubled Gonzalez's rate of seven scores in 16 games, but Gonzalez still tied for the second-most touchdowns for tight ends in 2004.
After the top seven or eight tight ends, though, there's a clear drop-off; 10th-ranked Freddie Jones averaged just 2.81 catches per game. Most of the rest of the chart is a long, slow drop-off from not much production to very little, with the exception a cluster of green bars in the low 20s: red-zone specialists.
Chris Cooley, Marcus Pollard, Steve Heiden, Daniel Graham and Bubba Franks all averaged fewer than three catches per game but averaged a touchdown every two or three games. Seven of Graham's 30 catches were in the end zone!
Tight ends were used entirely differently in 2013, per Pro-Football-Reference:
The third-order polynomial trend line for receptions (same formula as in the other chart) is almost perfectly straight. Instead of a few elite tight ends getting an unusual amount of attention, nearly every offense is using their tight ends as pass-catching weapons.
Jason Avant, who ranked 31st in tight ends with 2.38 catches per game in 2013, would have ranked 14th in 2004. Freddie Jones' 2.81 catches per game ranked him 10th in 2004 but would have ranked him 26th in 2013.
The top 32 tight ends of 2013 combined for 23.9 percent more receptions, 34.6 percent more yards and 23.0 percent more touchdowns than 10 seasons before. Per Pro-Football-Reference, league-wide passing attempts went up just 10.1 percent in the same period, so teams are passing more now than they were then, but tight ends are a much bigger factor in the passing game.
Interestingly, the red-zone specialist seems to be an extinct species. Vernon Davis, Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham are the only tight ends that had disproportionately high touchdown rates—but all averaged well over 50 yards per game.
In 2014, this trend won't slow down.
In fact, it may accelerate.
Thomas and Jordan Cameron broke out in 2013, and there's a crop of young tight ends who are primed to do the same in 2014.
Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert, a first-round pick who had 39 catches for 445 yards and two scores in his rookie season, should improve on that in 2014. Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson thinks Eifert "gets more" this year, partly because veteran tight end Jermaine Gresham fell out of favor with the coaches last season. With a new offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, Eifert should see more opportunities.
Chip Kelly's first second-round pick, Zach Ertz, should also get more reps this year, per Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com. The Eagles seem to be using a lot of two-tight end sets to help compensate for the loss of receiver DeSean Jackson and give rookie wideout Jordan Matthews time to acclimate to the NFL game. That's great news for the 6'5", 249-pound Ertz, who racked up 469 yards and four touchdowns on just 36 catches in 2013.
Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune thinks fourth-year tight end Ladarius Green should "at least double" his 2013 stat line of 17 catches for 376 yards and three touchdowns. Thirty-four catches for 752 yards and six scores would put him in the tight end top 10 for the latter two categories.
That Dennis Pitta is a flexible, powerful offensive weapon is not a new idea. In fact, the fifth-year veteran still hasn't played his best football. He was supposed to step up and help quarterback Joe Flacco after the departure of Anquan Boldin, but an early training camp hip injury kept him out until the tail end of the season. Now fully recovered, he'll be looking to at least match the 61 catches, 669 yards and seven touchdowns he accrued in 2012.
Coby Fleener was supposed to be Andrew Luck's safety blanket, but the 2012 second-rounder has struggled to play consistently in the Colts offense. Instead, 2012 third-rounder Dwayne Allen had a much quicker impact. Unfortunately, Allen's 2013 season ended before the first game did.
Kevin Bowen of Colts.com wrote that Allen's healthy return means a "more creative" Colts offense for 2014. Colts tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts cites Allen's ability to play in-line as a way he and Fleener can help each other be more effective.
There are also a few rookies who could make their mark in 2014. The Detroit Lions spent their No. 10 overall pick on tight end Eric Ebron, whose size and athleticism should complete a Lions pass-catching corps with plenty of both.
In New York, Jets second-round pick Jace Amaro is a pure pass-catcher too—and sophomore quarterback Geno Smith needs all the playmaking help he can get. Amaro's 6'5", 265-pound frame and 4.74-second combine-measured 40-yard-dash speed, all per NFL.com, could position him to catch a lot of passes in 2014.
Two other talented rookies, Troy Niklas and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, missed all or part of the offseason with injuries.
Of all of these potential breakout candidates, only Eifert made it into the 2013 chart above. That's eight talented players whose stats should swell these numbers even further and prove that 2014 is the dawn of a new age for NFL tight ends.