Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe has watched the evolution of the NFL’s passing attacks and says the tight end has become the second most-important position on offense after the quarterback.
In fact, it might be the second most-important position on the field. Period.
“Look at Gronk [New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski],” said Sharpe, who was also selected to eight Pro Bowls and was a three-time Super Bowl champion during his 14-year career with the Denver Broncos and Ravens. “He is the most dominating player in the game next to the quarterback. The way the passing game is emphasized in the NFL, I’d take a 70- to 80-catch tight end with over 1,000 yards over a 1,000-yard rusher anytime.
“You can’t match up with tight ends anymore,” said Sharpe, who had 815 career catches for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns. “No one wants to cover them with a No. 1 or even No. 2 cornerback, so they are either drawing a safety or linebacker. These guys are now 6-6, 6-7 and weighing 260 and 270 pounds. And they are running the 40 in 4.4 or 4.5. That’s where we’re at and where we’re headed.”
Sharpe would like to see the Ravens head in that direction. They are in the market for a tight end and there will be some available in the draft, including South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst, Penn State’s Mike Gesicki, Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert.
But general manager Ozzie Newsome’s draft record on selecting tight ends hasn’t been impressive. Since 1996 the Ravens have drafted 10, but just two have had an impact — Todd Heap (first round, 2001) and Dennis Pitta (fourth round, 2010).
The list includes Terry Jones, Trent Smith, Davon Drew and recent disappointments Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams.
The obvious question is how can Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Cleveland Browns from 1978 to 1990, struggle in evaluations at this position?
“The question becomes how hard is it to judge talent when you were so talented?” Sharpe said. “Look at Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players ever, and the team that he now owns. Sometimes you can’t explain it. I can’t explain it. Obviously, Ozzie can’t because he would have done something else.
“I think he is one of the best ever in his position and just look at his early picks. He has three Hall of Famers in J.O. [Jonathan Ogden], Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, and probably another in Terrell Suggs. Drafting is a gamble. Pete Carroll started out drafting well early in his career and look at his record lately. Bill Belichick does better with other people’s receivers than the ones he drafted recently. You just don’t know.”
Sharpe does know this: Tight ends are taking over offenses. He points to Gronkowski, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen and even Jimmy Graham, even though he is in the twilight of his career.
Sharpe says he has spoken to Newsome in the past about the requirements needed and few would know better than those two. Newsome and former San Diego Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow were the first part of a transformation in the position in the 1980s.
Before them in the 1960s and 1970s tight ends were just a little faster than offensive tackles. The primary role was to block, and if the tight end caught 30 to 40 passes a season and had more than 700 or to 800 yards, then that was a bonus.
But Newsome played wide receiver at Alabama and was converted to a tight end in the NFL. Winslow was 6 feet 5 and 260 pounds. Both created mismatches because they were as big as linemen and as fast as receivers.
Sharpe and New England tight end Ben Coates were also part of the trend of sleeker, faster tight ends, but Sharpe could play on the outside or in the slot. He just didn’t run seam or drag routes, but also every pattern in the passing tree.
Soon after Coates and Sharpe came the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tony Gonzalez and the Oakland Raiders’ Rickey Dudley. Sharpe, though, acknowledges that today’s game is different. The base offense seems to include three- or four-receiver sets with defenses often playing nickel or dime coverage.
“It used to be a big deal when a quarterback threw for 3,000 yards. Now they are throwing for 4,000, 5,000 yards,” Sharpe said. “Everything is geared to the passing game and protecting the quarterback. If you throw, there is a good chance you’re going to get pass interference, late hit, hit to the head or some type of penalty.
“Then they are trying to cover tight ends with linebackers. These guys are used to setting the edge or getting after the quarterback, not trying to run with a tight end downfield. These are clearly mismatches to be taken advantage off.
“Todd Christensen once told me that if I wanted to become famous, learn how to catch because they could bring in any stiff to block.”
Sharpe said that both he and Newsome agree that a tight end must have smooth hips and be able to sink them to get in and out of breaks. A tight end can’t be robotic, and must be versatile enough to play any position in the passing game and catch the ball in traffic.
Today’s tight end, a great one, has to be one of the best athletes on the field.
The Ravens apparently have a speed guy in receiver John Brown and a possession type in Michael Crabtree. Williams was expected to be the tight end of the future, but that appears unlikely with so many health problems.
The new starter might come from the draft. Well, that appears to be the hope.
“It’s hard to evaluate,” Sharpe said. “These days guys are preparing for the combine six to eight weeks in advance. They know what the tests are, so they have that edge. Basically, as a GM or scout, you’re trying to confirm what you saw on the tape.