Not a wide receiver, not a running back, and not a tackle. It’s all of those rolled up into one. More often than not, they support the quarterback as receivers when there’s no other option available, but they can certainly lead the block just as effectively as a fullback would.
A Basic Concept
To be clear, the tight end (TE) is one of the offensive linemen positions. They’re often described as “hybrids” because they combine the tackle’s ability to pull and block defense players during traps, sweeps, and screens, but they can also receive the ball and split out, just like a wide receiver.
Simply put, a tight end can is a sturdy blocker who is also eligible to receive the ball. When all the receivers are covered, the tight end is there to assist the quarterback.
The Tight End’s Role
Given their size and build, tight ends are usually good at blocking, though many coaches prefer to send them out for passing plays because they’re bulkier than your average wide receiver, which can sometimes throw off the defense. To keep it in perspective, imagine a defense tackle expecting to tackle a 5’8” wide receiver only to find a towering 6’3” tight end who can run just as fast as a halfback. Whichever role they end up playing will depend on the team’s strategy.
To have a better understanding of what the tight end can do in those two roles, blocking and receiving, let’s take a look at the way this player interacts with other offensive linemen, namely: the tackles, the wide receiver, the fullback, and the halfback or tailback.
Tackle, Fullback, and Tight End – The Off-tackle Course
Fullbacks (FB) are supposed to lead a block alongside the offense tackle (T) and make an opening in the defensive line for the halfback (HB) or tailback (TB) to blast through during running plays such as dives and counters. Sometimes, however, the halfback can go for a side-run. That’s where the tight end comes in as an extra blocker.
During an off-tackle, one of the most common running plays, the offense’s tackle makes an opening in the defense by covering the defensive end (DE) or the defensive tackle (DT). The fullback leads a block against outside linebackers (LB) while the tight ends handle cornerbacks (CB) or safeties so the ball carrier can advance to the end zone.
The H-Back Tight End – Quarterback and Wide Receiver Support
When the team goes for a passing play, they don’t have much use for a halfback, so they replace that position for a second tight end, also labeled “H-Back.” As such, their job is to block the incoming “sam linebacker” or the cornerback (CB) aiming for the wide receiver. Sometimes may also have to block the occasional defensive end who slips past the guard and the offense’s tackle to take down the quarterback (QB).
These are the most traditional roles that tight ends used to fill as extra blockers, but nowadays, most formations will include up to two tight ends, one of which will most likely play as an extra receiver for the quarterback to consider if there are no other receivers open.
The tight end usually plays as another blocker, but it’s also eligible to receive the ball, a feature that teams exploit to their advantage during passing plays. You will notice that many formations replace the fullback position with a second tight end, and so they get two blockers who are also eligible receivers.
Most of the time, defenders don’t expect the tight end to receive the ball, so they focus on taking down the quarterback and the wideout. That gap in coverage and the tight end’s eligibility gives the quarterback another option to pass the ball to in case the other receivers are compromised.
Tight ends and quarterbacks working in tandem make for great passing offensives. Take the Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and quarterback Phillip Rivers. 89 of Gate’s 100 touchdown passes were thrown by Rivers.
Misleading the Defense:
In the tight-end stick concept, also known as the stick option, two receivers go for an outside release. The cornerback and the “will linebacker” will try to block or tackle the receivers while both: the right guard and the right tackle block the defensive tackle (DT) and the defensive end (DE), thus making an opening in the line for the tight end to dive through.
By the time the middle linebacker takes notice, the quarterback has already pulled and lined up to pass the ball to the tight end, who is now wide open and ready to advance.
In short, while half of the defense is busy trying to make it past the guard and the tackle or trying to block the receivers, the tight end slips through the line to receive the ball. This concept is particularly effective when dealing with aggressive linebackers who will tackle anything that moves on their side of the line.
Tight End Traits
Tight ends stand amongst the larger players in the team, but they also have to be fast. They might not have the endurance of a running back because of their size, but they must be able to handle sprinting in short bursts, especially when they’re near the end zone.
Big and Tall
Tight ends can sometimes be just as fast as the running backs but much bulkier, which is why cornerbacks, linebackers, and safeties often find them trickier to tackle. In other words, they have to hit a middle ground in terms of size and speed; sturdy enough to block but nimble enough to dodge and run. To be specific, tight ends tend to be about 6’3 and weigh over 240 lbs.
Of course, teams usually have tight ends for designated roles. If they are to assist the quarterback and receive passes, they tend to be a little lighter, whereas if they’re assigned to blocking, then they’re a little bit heftier.
Regardless of whether a tight end is charged with blocking or receiving, they need to be prepared to dodge or take the hits of a 6’3’’ – 6’8’’ defensive end and their 300 lbs of muscle running at 4.89. To put it plainly, a tight end needs to be athletic.
It’s a lot of contact and running. For starters, tight ends are in the line of scrimmage in a three-point stance, making it more challenging to go for an outside release. Depending on the scheme, they will need to block the defensive ends or evade them as much as possible to sprint to the sidelines so they can spread the defense thin. They might have to clear an opening for the ball carrier or catch a pass and advance the ball at least a few yards themselves, all of which require excellent athleticism.
Not only are they great backup plans for the quarterback, but they’re also perfect for short passing plays to score touchdowns when they’re close to the end-zone or just get the team’s first down.
Good at Mind Games
A good tight end will block and catch passes, but a great tight end will do that and keep the defense guessing what the next play is. Are they going to line up for a passing route or a running play? Is the tight end going to pull as an extra blocker for the receiver, spread the defense or try to move up a few yards for a down?
Not giving the scheme away is just part of it. They must also do their best in misleading the defense. The defense is very well aware of the tight end’s versatility, so they will be scanning the tight end for clues on the next play.
If the offense is going for a pass, a clever, tight end could prepare for a running play just to make the defense leave the line to look for the running backs only to find the tight end blasting through to catch a pass. Needless to say, timing is important. If the tight end stays too long at the line of scrimmage after preparing for a running play, the defense will pick up on the ruse and stay to block the tight end.
Even a slight shove purposely made in the wrong direction could mislead the defense and buy the quarterback and receivers some time.
Smooth Under Pressure
The tight ends frequently find themselves in tight spots. The fact that they are eligible receivers with a strong blocking game draws a lot of attention, so they become priority targets with a lot of coverage. This means their routes can get particularly crowded in the blink of an eye, so they also need good improvisation skills to come up with new routes on the fly.
Large size, speed, strength, and good body language. Those are the traits of a good tight end, and though it may sound like pretty much any other football player, in the tight end’s case, all physical traits must be balanced; their body control, however, must be on point to not give away the play, or confuse the defense.
The Origin of The Tight End - Long Story Short
Formation-wise, tight ends can be traced back to the mid-1940s when receivers were sorted into two categories: ends and flankers. Ends were the last offensive linemen in formation, and flankers would stand a few feet behind the opposite end of the line of scrimmage.
Back then, players had to be able to play both: offense and defense due to the limited amount of changes permitted at the time; the one-platoon system. The problem was that not all receivers would fit a specific category.
Some players were good at pass-catching and blocking but didn’t have the range of a linebacker, nor were they as large as the traditional guard or tackle, and though they were fast, receivers were generally faster. On the flip side, some receivers had the speed to outrun linebackers but not the size to block.
As the sport evolved, the one-platoon system was left behind, and players were now starting to get specific roles. This allowed coaches to find a more fitting role for players stuck in the gray area between offense and defense.
Paul Brown, of the Cleveland Browns, was one of the first coaches to come up with schemes centered on these proto-tight ends’ unique skill set and features in the early ’60s, thus paving the way for the modern-day tight end.
Tight ends started as blockers, but Mike Ditka’s impressive pass-catching record and John Mackey’s deep runs in the mid-’60s showed coaches the tight end’s potential as receivers. As the Air Coryell vertical passing and the West Coast horizontal passing systems gained popularity throughout the late ’60s and most of the ’70s, teams like the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins started to include two tight ends in their formations for pass-catching.
Best Tight Ends of All Time
Mike Ditka was one of the first tight ends to play as receivers. In a 12-year career, Ditka played a total of 158 games with the Chicago Bears, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Dallas Cowboys and completed 427 catches over 5,812 yards.
John Mackey played for the Baltimore Colts from 1963 to 1971 and then for the Sand Diego Chargers in 1972. In 139 games, Mackey made 331 catches over 5,236 yards. What made Mackey’s career as a tight end so remarkable was his breakaway speed. At his prime, Mackey caught a deflected pass for a 75 yards touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys at the Super Bowl V in Miami back in 1971.
Moving on to present-day exemplary tight ends, Rob “The Gronk” Gronkowski is one of the most accomplished in the NFL. Since the start of his professional football career with the New England Patriots back in 2010 up to his current position as a tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’s already covered 8,484 receiving yards, made 566 receptions, and scored 86 touchdowns in 115 games.
As a 4-time Superbowl champion, 5-time Pro Bowl, and 4-time First-team All-Po pick (just to name a few), Gronkowski is one of the most decorated players in the league.
In a 15-year career, Gates became the seventh tight end to make 500 receptions and only the ninth player in NFL history to catch 100 touchdown passes, out of which 89 were thrown by Phillip Rivers, and so they both now share the credit for the most quarterback-tight end touchdown passes.
Gonzales managed to score 116 touchdowns throughout his career with the Chargers, making him the tight end with the most touchdowns thus far. He retired with an impressive total of 955 receptions and 11,891 receiving yards. No wonder he’s been named Pro-Bowl Player eight times.
Gonzalez’s career is one of the best examples of what a tight end receiver can do. He started with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1997 and wrapped up his career with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. In those 16 years, he made an astonishing 1,325 catches in 15,127 receiving yards, making him the third tight end with the most catches; the first one being Jerry Rice with 1,549 catches the second one being Larry Fitzgerald with 1432.
Gonzales was named Pro Bowl player 14 times and All-Pro another 10 times. He’s truly a role model for aspiring tight ends.
These are just some of the most accomplished tight ends in NFL history, but the list goes on. It is worth noting that most famous tight ends are receivers, which just goes to show the importance of the tight end as a receiver.
The tight end football position is the team’s wildcard. A blocker who is also eligible to receive the ball. A large player charged with assisting the fullback in making an opening in the defense for the halfback during running plays.
The tight end is the quarterback’s backup plan when all other receivers are covered. It’s a position requiring an athletic build capable of quickly recovering from powerful blows and bursting into speed without losing balance.
They’re required to be discreet and deceptive with their body language to keep the play secret from the opposing team and lead them to make mistakes whenever possible. They must also be able to improvise new routes every time the defense gets in the way.
Tight ends are uber important because they fill in the team’s unexpected gaps during a play. They must be prepared to receive or block as necessary. Among other things, it requires discipline and skill.