The New Elite Tight End Combination: Who Will Wear The 2013 Crown?

Jan 1, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook (89) runs after a catch against the Houston Texans in the third quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Titans defeated the Texans 23-22. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Tennessee Titans tight end Jared Cook (89) runs after a catch against the Houston Texans in the third quarter at Reliant Stadium. The Titans defeated the Texans 23-22. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /

The New England Patriots made waves in the NFL over the last couple of seasons with their focus on two-tight end sets in their offense. The duo of  Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have made some teams strive for a similar system, paving the way for teams like the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals to make big moves towards snagging another tight end this offseason.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, the system that they originated has fallen on rough waters as of late, with both “big money” tight ends bitten by the injury bug… well, a lot of injury bugs. The most recent news comes from Gronkowski, who not only has had four surgeries on this forearm, but will now be undergoing back surgery. While his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is citing the procedure as “minor,” any invasive surgery can lead to complications, as we have seen with the forearm. With durability concerns surrounding the Gronk/Hernandez brothers in New England, are there any other tight end combos that could take the crown as the elite duo in the NFL?

Well, there were only handful of teams that regularly deploy two receiving tight ends on the field in 2012. Last season, there were two teams with multiple tight ends that ended within the Top 30 pass catchers, in terms of yards: the New England Patroits and Detroit Lions. However, there were some moves by several teams in the offseason towards establishing a two-tight end set.

The Cincinnati Bengals used their 2013 first round pick on Tyler Eifert, who most considered to be the best pass catching tight end in the draft, closely followed by Zach Ertz. Eifert will join forces with Jermaine Gresham, who caught 64 passes (7th among TEs) for 737 yards (8th) and 5 touchdowns (10th) last season. The combination of Gresham, Eifert, and A.J. Green could easily slate the Bengals offense as one of the most potent, at least in terms of passing, in the NFL next season, especially if Andy Dalton continues to develop as a quarterback. However, Eifert has yet to step on the field, and their is no guarantee that he will be able to replicate his college production at the next level. There is often a two- or three- year learning curve with tight ends in the NFL, especially as pass catchers. It might also be difficult for the Bengals’ signal caller to feed all the hungry receivers, with their perennially Pro Bowl receiver requiring  9 to 12 targets per game and Dalton understandably wanting to feed him the ball, targeting Green on 29.9% of total passing attempts last season.

The Philadelphia Eagles took the other guy, Zach Ertz, in the second round, pairing him with Brent Celek. The Eagles’ incumbent tight end caught 57 passes for 684 yards last season, despite the team playing musical chairs with their quarterbacks all season. He did manage only one touchdown in their stagnant offense, but has been a consistent 500+ yards, 4+ touchdown tight end for most of his career, including his breakout 2009 season with 1,027 yards and 8 touchdowns. However, Philadelphia is a book of mystery, and with no “locked in” starter at quarterback, a rookie head coach, and an projected offensive system that has never actually been used in the NFL, it is hard to slate these guys on top.

The Dallas Cowboys snagged Gavin Escobar with their second round pick, which might have created a scary combination, paired with the leagues 2012 leader in receiving yards among tight ends, Jason Witten. Despite the messy “injury” situation at the beginning of the season, Witten was the only end in the NFL to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, and the only one to tally over 100 receptions. Much like Cincinnati, the Cowboys should have a healthy mixture of players to work with in the two-tight end set. With Witten and Escobar at the end, and Dez Bryant out wide, Tony Romo should have an easier time finding his target in the 2013 season. However, Escobar, unlikely Tyler Eifert, is non-existent as an in-line blocker and failed to maintain a high level of productivity in college. A very intelligent, well-respected NFL analyst once said, “If they can’t dominate at the college level, we shouldn’t expect them to dominate in the NFL.” Still, if he can make the transition, the Cowboys could have a fighting chance for the “best tight end duo” crown.

The Detroit Lions might attempt to make a case for Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, but both put up mediocre numbers for the amount of time that they were on the field and the number of times they were targeted. They combined for only 1,071 yards on 178 targets, and raked in only 4 combined receiving touchdowns. They also ranked 3rd and 6th, respectively, in dropped passes last season, combining for over 30% of the teams total drops last season. The Lions’ duo will never get much love playing on the same field as Calvin Johnson, and are merely pawns in the offensive gameplan with Stafford and Johnson as the King and Queen.

Now, we get to the St. Louis Rams.

The Rams made a splash in free agency, snagging Jared Cook from the Titans, who was widely considering the best pass-catching tight end in free agency. Even with a drought of quarterback talent and a gross misusing of his height and speed in the offense in Tennessee, Cook still managed 44 receptions for 523 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012, in only 13 games and 376 snaps as a receiver. In his only full season as a pseudo-starter in the offense, he ranked in the Top 15 tight ends in receiving yards and missed tackles, and hauled in 49 receptions and 3 touchdowns despite playing fewer snaps than 30 other players at his position; and that was with an ancient Matt Hasselbeck as the quarterback and Nate Washington as the other receiving option.

Lance Kendricks has performed well in his own right, with 41 receptions for 500 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012. Kendricks showed significant progression from his rookie season, not only in terms of production, but in consistency and reliability. The Rams’ sophomore ranked 9th in the NFL last season in catch rate, hauling in 71.9% of targets, after catching only 52.8% the year before. He was also given significantly more responsibility in the offense, being slotted as the starting fullback on the St. Louis’ roster after the release of Brit Miller in the middle of the season, which touches on his abilities as a blocker.

The two are pairing up within an offense that added Jake Long as the left tackle, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as receivers, and will be returning a healthy Harvey Dahl, Scott Wells, and Rodger Saffold to the offense line (all were injured last season). Bradford has shown an affinity for targeting his tight ends, at least when they are on the field, and should give plenty of targets to both Kendricks and Cook. Unlike the rest of the duos mentioned, both Rams’ players have shown the ability to produce in the NFL, and done so in run-oriented, bottom-tier offenses. With a competent coaching staff, more viable receivers on the outside, and an offensive system that should be more Bradford-oriented, both players could see “career” seasons.

If Gronkowski and Hernandez could maintain their healthy they would naturally be the Kings of the Tight Ends… but, that is a big “if.” With the door open left open, there are only a handful of teams fighting for that No. 1 spot, all of which have a solid case.

However, Kendricks and Cook should be the front-runners for three reasons: 1) Unlike three of the other four tight end situations, Kendicks and Cook will not have to battle with a true, No. 1 wide receiver who demands targets within the offense, 2) unlike three of the four other teams, neither of the players in the St. Louis tight end duo will be a rookie, and 3) unlike the Eagles, the Rams’ have a quarterback in place, one that has shown over his short career to spreading the ball around and utilizing mismatches in the offense.

Guess, we will all have to wait and see…