Evolution Breeds Opportunity for Tight Ends in the Red Zone

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]”Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science – in all of biology” – Bill Nye

And especially in the game of football.

Yet unlike nature, where changes can be gradual and take life cycles, evolution in football must be swift, must be effective, and preferably must be trailblazing lest ye be left behind to suffer in the grey mist of mediocrity.

Early in the twentieth century, the forward pass was adapted into the game. In 1907,Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School led by Pop Warner began to use the pass effectively and that led to victories over then powerhouses Penn and Harvard among other to finish the season with only one loss. The evolution had begun.

Fast forward to today. 11 personnel is the new offensive formation of choice. Nickel defense is the new base defense. There’s specialization in positional groups. Running backs have the primary back, receiving back and short yardage back. Receivers have the X, the Z, the slot and the guy that can take the top off. Defenses have the pass rush specialist, the run stopper and more recently the hybrid linebacker/safety who can play the run but also cover backs and tight ends.

Tight ends are also getting in on the trend and Jeff Feyerer had a great piece you should check out about just that.

Blocking used to be the priority for the position; an extension of the offensive line. Having a guy with receiving skills was a luxury. That has transitioned to the opposite end of the spectrum to a good receiving tight end who is a serviceable blocker.

In recent years, the position has grown immensely with guys like Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, and Antonio Gates paving the way for the players of today. Those three are second, fourth and twentieth, respectively, in all time receptions. Not among tight ends, ALL receivers.

Current players like Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Travis Kelce, and Rob Gronkowski have taken the torch and kept it burning bright. They’re highlighted players in their offense who are heavily targeted, athletic receivers who can handle inline blocking in the run game.

Enter the new crop of players who have come in the last couple years. Players who are athletic enough to be used in the slot, split out wide and even run the ball. The flex or move tight end is becoming more abundant and there are players who can help teams seemingly become more effective in the red zone. Their goal will be to help improve statistics that over the last few years are stunningly consistent.

Numbers

Using the numbers from NFL Savant here is a look at how teams have fared on red zone targets.

Over the last 4 years, running back completion percentage and touchdowns have slowly increased. Wide receiver completion and target numbers were increasing for 3 years before a big dip last year.

Tight end completion percentage has gone down each of the past 4 years with completions and touchdowns trending downward as well.

Pos. Year Sum of Completions Sum of Targets Comp% Sum of TDs
RB 2014 276 407 67.81% 69
2015 270 396 68.18% 73
2016 294 440 66.82% 76
2017 281 411 68.37% 80
RB Total   1,121 1,654 67.78% 298
TE 2014 311 570 54.56% 172
2015 322 592 54.39% 183
2016 319 597 53.43% 162
2017 282 559 50.45% 161
TE Total   1,234 2,318 53.24% 678
WR 2014 664 1,287 51.59% 288
2015 684 1,344 50.89% 341
2016 734 1,416 51.84% 306
2017 583 1,174 49.66% 285
WR Total   2,665 5,221 51.04% 1,220
Grand Total   5,020 9,193 54.61% 2,196

 

Some of the better players in recent history have gotten older and lost a step. The implementation of the hybrid defender could also contribute to that decline. Or maybe the schemes didn’t target the position as much as years past.

Team By team rankings

Only two teams, Cincinnati and New England, are ranked in the top 25% in completion percentage, TD percentage on completions, TD percentage on targets, and touchdowns.

The below grid is sorted by the final column which is the average of the four Rank columns.

Team Total Comp-letions Total Targets Comp % Comp% Rank TD % on Comp-letions TD% on Completion Rank TD% on Targets TD% on Target Rank Sum of TDs TD Rank Average of the 4 Ranks
CIN 39 65 60% 5 79% 1 48% 1 31 4 2.75
NE 61 107 57% 8 70% 4 40% 2 43 1 3.75
NO 64 105 61% 4 55% 16 33% 6 35 3 7.25
SD/LAC 58 118 49% 24 71% 3 35% 4 41 2 8.25
DEN 32 51 63% 2 56% 12 35% 3 18 18 8.75
TB 38 73 52% 19 66% 7 34% 5 25 8 9.75
NYG 40 73 55% 14 60% 9 33% 7 24 10 10
IND 52 87 60% 6 52% 21 31% 10 27 5 10.5
MIN 42 68 62% 3 50% 24 31% 11 21 14 13
JAC 30 54 56% 12 57% 11 31% 8 17 21 13
MIA 44 78 56% 9 52% 19 29% 13 23 12 13.25
KC 48 94 51% 21 56% 13 29% 15 27 6 13.75
PHI 49 90 54% 17 53% 18 29% 14 26 7 14
WAS 50 85 59% 7 48% 25 28% 16 24 11 14.75
SF 32 57 56% 10 53% 17 30% 12 17 22 15.25
DET 27 58 47% 28 67% 6 31% 9 18 19 15.5
SEA 43 90 48% 27 58% 10 28% 20 25 9 16.5
CHI 39 71 55% 13 51% 23 28% 17 20 15 17
TEN 42 84 50% 23 55% 15 27% 21 23 13 18
GB 35 64 55% 15 51% 22 28% 18 18 20 18.75
PIT 44 79 56% 11 43% 28 24% 26 19 16 20.25
OAK 20 50 40% 31 70% 5 28% 19 14 27 20.5
CLE 19 58 33% 32 79% 2 26% 24 15 26 21
ATL 31 47 66% 1 39% 31 26% 25 12 29 21.5
HOU 27 55 49% 26 56% 14 27% 22 15 25 21.75
NYJ 17 41 41% 30 65% 8 27% 23 11 31 23
CAR 44 85 52% 20 43% 29 22% 28 19 17 23.5
DAL 39 72 54% 18 44% 27 24% 27 17 23 23.75
BAL 48 88 55% 16 35% 32 19% 32 17 24 26
ARI 25 60 42% 29 52% 20 22% 30 13 28 26.75
BUF 27 55 49% 25 44% 26 22% 29 12 30 27.5
STL/LA 28 56 50% 22 39% 30 20% 31 11 32 28.75
League Totals 1,234 2,318 53%   55%   29%   678    

 

What’s New?

There’s a lot of talent at the top with guys like Gronkowski, Kelce, and Kyle Rudolph. For the 2018 season here are some situations to keep an eye on that could produce more opportunities and improved numbers for tight ends. Again, these numbers are based on the last 4 years.

Tandems

One way to capitalize is the use of multiple tight end sets. 12, 22 and 23 personnel are opportunities to create mismatches. These teams have quality pairs.

  • Cincinnati – The injury issues for Tyler Eifert opened up opportunities for Tyler Kroft and he has capitalized on them. You can see above the Bengals don’t target them in the red zone a great amount but combined they have 26 completions on 41 targets for 24 TDs.
  • New England – We all know what Gronk can do but the other TE’s in this system can capitalize. Tim Wright had 6 receptions on 7 targets with 6 TDs in 2014. Dwayne Allen could capitalize on opportunities this year after 16 receptions and 11 TDs in 2016.
  • IndianapolisJack Doyle will team up with Eric Ebron this year. A healthy Andrew Luck could provide a boost to their offense. They’ve had similar success with Doyle logging 24 receptions on 35 targets and 10 TDs. Ebron has gone 18/35/11.
  • PhiladelphiaZach Ertz is a proven commodity with 27 receptions and 15 TDs and they added Dallas Goedert in the second round of the draft this year, a big bodied player who has speed and can make contested catches. With WR Alshon Jeffery out for the first two games, you could see more two TE sets in Philadelphia this year.
  • Carolina – Greg Olsen has 33 receptions and 14 TDs and they drafted Ian Thomas in the fourth round this year. He’s a prospect that’s a little raw but should develop into a complement in Norv Turner’s offense which was pretty effective for Gates and Rudolph in the past.
  • New Orleans – This one surprised me a bit. Maybe not the household names that would come to mind but Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill have pretty good numbers. Combined they have 39 receptions on 64 targets with 20 TDs.
  • Tampa BayCameron Brate and O.J. Howard in his second year are a formidable pair. Brate has 22 receptions with 18 TDs and Howard chipped in with 4 receptions and 3 TDs in his rookie year. I’d expect Howard to improve on those numbers.
  • Baltimore – The Ravens double dipped on tight end in the 2018 Draft by taking Hayden Hurst in the first round and Mark Andrews in the third round to help Marty Mornhinweg’s West Coast offense.
  • Los Angeles Rams – Sleeper twosome in a creative offense. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett combined for 10 receptions on 19 targets. These two could be overlooked by defensive coordinators with the other weapons they have on offense.

New Beginnings

The Future

  • David Njoku, Cleveland Browns – Second year player who should see improved quarterback play to help him improve on his 2017 numbers of 2 receptions on 10 attempts.
  • Evan Engram, New York Giants – With Odell Beckham out for most of the season, Engram put up very good red zone numbers (7 receptions on 10 targets and 6 TDs). How well will he do with OBJ drawing the coverage his way and Saquon Barkley threatening from the backfield?
  • George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers – Kittle got off to a solid start with 9 receptions and 2 TDs. His catch percentage rose 15% in the final 5 games last year with Jimmy Garappolo at the helm.
  • Jake Butt, Denver Broncos – Dropped to the fifth round after an injury in the 2017 Orange Bowl but he’s an every down player who can be and asset to the offense.
  • Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins – Tremendous athlete with a 41.5 inch vertical who fits the modern day flex tight end position nicely.
  • Jordan Akins, Houston Texans – A good showing at the Senior Bowl opened some eyes and he’s tough, athletic and has good hands to be a move tight end.

Plays

In my high school days the Fake 22 Blast Y Dump was unstoppable (and for the record I still think it would work every time). Modern day offenses are much more creative. Pro offenses always mine the effective plays from college football, some of which are already being used and could become staples for offenses. Below you’ll see quite a few examples with trips to one side isolating the tight end to gain advantageous one on one situation. Maybe something we’ll see more of at the pro level.

Here is a look at how the some of the top picks in this year’s draft have had success inside the red zone.

Hayden Hurst (#81), Fly Sweep

13 personnel lined up on the right wing.

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Mike Gesicki (#88), Shovel Pass

From a 4-wide set, motion presnap and follows the pulling right guard.

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Mike Gesicki, Read Option Pass (tight split)

Trips to the right and he is only receiver to the left. He feigns like he’s going to block and runs to the back pylon behind the cornerback.

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Mike Gesicki, Read Option Pass (inline)

Trips again. Left side, blocks for a second and releases on a wheel route.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-4.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-4.jpg”]

Dallas Goedert (#86), Fade split wide

Split to the right, fade route where he goes high above the defender for the touchdown.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-5.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-5.jpg”]

Mark Andrews (#81), Angle route

12 personnel, inline on the right. Play action. Presses out and gets the safety to slide to the outside before making his cut.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-6.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-6.jpg”]

Mark Andrews, Rub route from the slot

Slot right in a 2 X 2 set. Runs a flat route under the slant of the outside receiver.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-7.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-7.jpg”]

Jordan Akins (#88), Read Option inside release

Great design here. Inline left with trips to the right. Slight hesitation at the snap and releases inside the left tackle.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-8.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-8.jpg”]

Ian Thomas (#80), Out and Up

Inline right, with trips to the left – he’s 1 on 1 against the linebacker.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Vid-9.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/TE-Still-9.jpg”]

Ian Thomas, Rub from the wing

Pre snap motion to the right. The outside receiver impedes his defender.

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Room to improve

By looking at the where teams are and the infusion of the talent to the position the last couple of years, you can see the possibilities of what could be the future of tight ends in the red zone. On top of that, there were 18 offensive coordinator changes for the 2018 season. More than half the league. Hopefully the influx of new coordinators will evolve their offenses to take advantage of their young dynamic tight ends.

Looking at the league averages over the 4 years (308 completions on 580 targets) if each team made one more reception on the same number of targets, the completion percentage average would go up 5% (340 completions). 2 more completions per team would be an 11% increase (372 completions). The potential for a rise in the league wide numbers is there for the taking and with what has been identified here I see a definite possibility in this happening this season. Raising the completion percentage of rate of success for red zone plays requires creativity in design to get easy throws to tight ends like the ones shown above.

And while the touchdown percentages aren’t guaranteed to rise along with the completions percentage, the odds obviously go up with more completions.

There is it. Offensive coordinators it’s on you now.

Follow Tom on Twitter @THMead3. Check out his other work here, such as his look at Buffalo Bulls WR Anthony Johnson, his preview of Missouri DT Terry Beckner, Jr or his look at running backs who have gotten 400 touches.

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