The modern day NFL tight end was truly born in the 1961 draft when the Chicago Bears drafted Mike Ditka with the fifth overall pick. The Pittsburgh standout became the first tight end to put up real receiving numbers.
Mike Ditka retired with 427 receptions, which were Hall of Fame numbers at the time. The evolution of the passing game would make 427 catches for a tight end a great, but not Hall of Fame, career in this era.
John Mackey began his career in 1963 and added an element of speed that Iron Mike lacked. John Mackey made the iconic touchdown catch in Super Bowl V that helped the Colts beat the Cowboys. Mackey was also important in getting medical coverage for retired NFL players through the 88 plan.
Dave Casper was an offensive tackle at Notre Dame. The Raiders used that for the running game by putting him in the tight end slot. "The Ghost" also made a few clutch catches along the way.
Those are a few of the big name tight ends before the 1980's. That decade saw the tight end position become an even more important piece of the passing game.
Todd Christensen, who like Casper played a different position in college, can be credited for creating the new prototype of the position of tight end. The former BYU running back was the first hybrid tight end/wide receiver or H-back.
Kellen Winslow, at 6'5" and 250 pounds, can be credited for creating the new prototype of the athlete of tight end. His iconic performance in the 1982 playoff game against Miami is the signature moment of his Hall of Fame career.
Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns in the 1980's. Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe was a receiver playing tight end in the 1990's.
Now, it seems that every team has an offensive-minded tight end that is as big as a moose while being as fast as a wolf.
Rob Gronkowski is coming off an epic season for a receiver. The 6' 6", 265-pound stud caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. The former Arizona Wildcat star appears to be the next step in the evolution of the NFL tight end.
So what does that mean for the future of NFL defenses?
Linebackers are too slow to cover guys like Gronk, Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis. Cornerbacks and safeties are too small to stick with guys like future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, Brandon Pettigrew, Jason Witten and Jermaine Gresham.
Offenses have dynamic receivers on the outside that receive double-teams and bracket coverage schemes that leave the middle open for this era of tight end.
Assigning two defensive players for the tight end is not possible.
What we will have to see from defenses is a new prototype for the strong-side linebacker. The problem with that is guys that are 6' 6" and 270 pounds who can run want to catch passes or play power forward. Those guys do not want to cover guys their size.
With the rules the way they are in the NFL, offenses will always be the priority. It is not good coaching to take a guy like Rob Gronkowski and put him on the defensive side of the ball to cover a guy like Antonio Gates.
We will never see a 6'5" cornerback, unless the guy is that tall and he just can not catch. A guy with that type of size is simply a better asset on offense in the NFL today.
The future of the NFL is going to be heavy on the offense. The athletes the defenses need to balance the equation are all on the offensive side of the ball now.