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The First-Round Tight End Is Back in Style

So what if first-round NFL tight ends have offered mixed returns for most of the past decade? The position’s draft stock is suddenly on the rise again—and that bodes well for Mike Gesicki and Dallas Goedert.

Mike Gesicki, Zach Ertz, and Travis Kelce AP Images/Ringer illustration

The two most surprising offenses of the 2017 NFL season had plenty in common. The Chiefs and Eagles both have roots in the Andy Reid coaching tree, and the offense that former Kansas City coordinator Doug Pederson brought to Philadelphia is a schematic sibling to the version his old boss still runs. Both units featured more run-pass options and spread concepts than other offenses around the league, and that ingenuity helped them vastly outperform expectations last fall.

With Alex Smith at quarterback, the Chiefs finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and recorded 39 pass plays of 25 yards or more. Only the Patriots (41) ripped off more explosive plays through the air. Philly’s passing output was even more shocking. Few expected the Eagles to maintain their high-flying ways after Carson Wentz went down with an ACL injury in December. Two months later, backup quarterback Nick Foles became a Philadelphia legend by throwing for a combined 725 yards with six touchdowns in the NFC championship game and Super Bowl to help the franchise secure its first title.

No coaches were better at squeezing every drop of talent out of their offensive personnel last year than Reid and his long-time disciple, and a significant piece of that was the way both staffs deployed their game-breaking tight ends. Even with speedster Tyreek Hill in the fold, tight end Travis Kelce was undeniably the Chiefs’ most dynamic playmaker in the passing game. The three-time Pro Bowler caught 83 passes last season, the most in the league at his position. In Philly’s case, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is the owner of a new four-year, $52 million contract that includes nearly $27 million in guarantees, but it became clear by season’s end that Zach Ertz was the centerpiece of the Eagles’ aerial attack. Ertz led the team in receptions (74, tied for third among tight ends despite missing two games) and emerged as an unstoppable force during the playoffs.

“We started treating a lot of those guys as receivers,” Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich says of tight ends in that mold. “When you look at the direction that a lot of collegiate teams are going with the spread, you’ve got a ton of these ’tweener athletes. Are they wide receivers? Are they tight ends? Do they ever align with their hand in the dirt? You’ve got all those guys coming out of college, so the NFL has really taken advantage of them.”

The way that creative teams like the Chiefs and Eagles used their tight ends last season is particularly relevant when examining the 2018 draft class. Over the past decade or so, the returns on first-round tight ends have been mixed at best. For every Greg Olsen, there’s a Brandon Pettigrew. For every Vernon Davis, an Eric Ebron. But with more and more smart teams starting to experiment with how they utilize their star tight ends, there’s a chance the league has entered a moment when versatile players at the position can be more valuable than ever. For prospects like Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert, there’s never been a more opportune time to enter the NFL.

Pass-catching tight ends who exist outside of the position’s traditional framework aren’t new. The Chargers lined up Antonio Gates as a slot receiver years ago. Jimmy Graham’s usage during his Saints tenure spurred debates about positional flexibility in 2014. Rob Gronkowski transitioned from tight end to position irrelevant touchdown machine virtually the moment he came into the league. Still, there are key differences between those examples and how the Chiefs and Eagles are using Kelce and Ertz.

One involves the other skill players who are on the field for these teams in passing situations. Kansas City lined up in 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers, one running back) on 25 percent of its passing plays last season, the second-highest mark in the league behind the Ravens (32 percent). At 23 percent, the Eagles weren’t far behind. The presence of a second tight in these sets accomplishes a couple of goals. First, it can occasionally trick an opposing defense into countering with its base personnel, especially on early downs. By coaxing a defensive coordinator into putting three linebackers on the field, there’s an increased chance that a player such as Kelce or Ertz will get a plus matchup against a defender who has no prayer of sticking with him in space. “It’s extremely difficult on defenses,” Ulbrich says. “Typically when you’re preparing for 12 personnel, it’s like, ‘OK, these are the four formations you’re going to see.’ Now, all of a sudden when they’re in 12 personnel, you’ve got to prepare for every 12 formation, every 11 formation, and some of the teams with the really versatile tight ends, they can show you 21 personnel out of that, too.”

That’s where the other benefit of having a second tight end on the field comes into play. With a big-body tight end like Demetrius Harris or Brent Celek in the game to act as a traditional inline blocking anchor, Kelce and Ertz are free to line up all over the place. With 9:35 remaining in the second quarter of the Chiefs’ 12-9 loss to the Giants in Week 11, Kelce lined up as the outside receiver on the right while Harris tucked in as an inline tight end on the left. At the snap, Smith faked a handoff and tossed a screen to Kelce that went for a quick 9 yards.

There were plenty of other situations last season in which the Chiefs turned the deception up a notch. Only the Titans threw more passes out of 13 personnel packages (three tight ends, one receiver, and one running back), as Kansas City tried to gash defenses for huge plays out of that traditional running formation about twice per game. In a 28-17 loss to Dallas in Week 9, the Chiefs lined up with three tight ends in the red zone, with all three initially aligned next to each other on the right side. Before the snap, Kelce motioned to the left before settling into the slot. When a quick play-action fake sucked the Cowboys linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, he snuck behind them for a big gain.

“If [a team goes] out there with three tight ends, the defense has to be thinking, ‘OK, there’s a pretty good shot they’re running the ball here … ’” Gesicki says. “But if you’ve got guys that you feel can beat man coverage, can stretch the field vertically, or can run like a receiver, you can run the same plays you could run out of 11 personnel.”

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take the presence of an extra tight end to exploit a defense’s preconceived notions about specific personnel groupings. On the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LII, the Eagles huddled with what appeared to be traditional 11 personnel (one tight end, three receivers, and one running back). Yet when Philly lined up, all three receivers were bunched to the right, with Ertz lined up as the lone split receiver to the left. What happened next represents the evolution of hybrid tight ends. Rather than using his size advantage against the smaller Devin McCourty, Ertz ran an ankle-breaking slant that left a two-time Pro Bowl safety in the dust.

By disregarding long-held expectations and allowing elite tight ends to function as giant wide receivers, the Eagles and Chiefs have been able to add an element to their offenses that few teams in the league can match. Heading into the draft on April 26, those concepts provide a blueprint for how front offices can get the most from this class’s tantalizing crop of tight ends.

Take a look at Gesicki and Goedert’s 2017 game tape, and their towering stature is often the only trait that seems typical of tight ends. Both hover around 6-foot-5 and weigh at least 247 pounds, and both possess truly off-the-charts measurables. Gesicki, a former volleyball star and noted jump-ball artist, blew away even his most ardent supporters at the combine by posting a 41.5-inch vertical leap and a 129-inch broad jump (96th percentile among tight ends), clocking a 4.54-second 40-yard dash (92nd percentile), and crushing every other speed and quickness drill. Goedert’s numbers don’t lag far behind, as the South Dakota State product recorded a 35-inch vertical leap at his pro day.

That downright scary athletic ability translates to the field, where both lined up all over the place last fall. Gesicki’s calling card was his ability to stretch defenses, but unlike most tight ends, those opportunities rarely came as an inline player running down the seam. Penn State’s preferred tactic was to align Gesicki in the slot and run a “switch verticals” concept with him and the outside receiver, in which the wideout ran a post designed to suck the safety inside while Gesicki sprinted deep down the sideline. The result was often an undersized corner panicking as he tried to keep pace with a player who can do this. “That was a good spot for me to be,” Gesicki says. “It was going to be down the field, it was going to be a contested catch, but with my position, my body type, and my ability to high-point the ball, it’s something I specialize in. I’m going to be able to make that play.”

Gesicki understands why his multisport background and highlight reel full of jump-ball catches have caused some analysts to pigeonhole him as a one-dimensional receiving threat. He hopes that he’ll have a chance to exhibit the more underappreciated aspects of his game upon reaching the NFL. “People look at me and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s a good athlete, he can high-point the ball,’” Gesicki says. “That’s something where I’m excited to get to the next level and show I’m not just a basketball and volleyball player making contested catches.”

While Penn State ran the majority of its plays from 11 personnel in 2017, that package frequently included formations that strayed from traditional sets with a single tight end and three receivers. Even though Gesicki was referred to as the “Y” (tight end) regardless of his alignment, he was sometimes asked to run the same routes that the “H” (slot receiver) or “X” (outside receiver) would. “Based on our offense and how we called it, no, I was never a receiver,” Gesicki says. “But based on the jobs I was doing, it was exactly the same. We could have played 10 personnel, and the guy that came in for me would run the exact same routes that I was running.”

For Goedert and South Dakota State, the terminology and play calls were even knottier. Before he broke onto the scene, his program’s offense didn’t include many multiple-tight-end sets that deployed one as a de facto wide receiver. “We didn’t have the best system to do it,” Jackrabbits tight ends coach Luke Schleusner says. “If we were in 12 personnel or 22 personnel, heavier sets, and we called something that was a 3-receiver set, he just had to know to go out there.” Over time, the staff’s familiarity with Goedert’s skill set prompted it to push schematic boundaries. Early experimentation installed Goedert in the slot as coaches hoped that heavier personnel packages would generate a matchup with an outclassed linebacker.

Eventually, even two tight-end sets weren’t enough to convince opponents to play in base defense. Defenses would stay in a nickel package no matter the scenario as a means to limit Goedert, allowing SDSU—which doesn’t identify as a run-heavy offense—to gash teams on the ground. In a 28-21 win over South Dakota in 2016, the Jackrabbits realized that a particular RPO concept incorporating a deep route from Goedert garnered double coverage from a linebacker and safety. They finished the game with more than 400 yards rushing. “It’s like, ‘Jeez, we can run him vertical and take two guys out of here every play,’” Schleusner says. “They were just scared to death of him going vertical against a linebacker.”

South Dakota State’s goal was always to give Goedert the best matchup, but it’s not as if he spent his entire career taking advantage of poor, plodding linebackers. By his final season, the Jackrabbits realized how dangerous their first-round-caliber talent could be against FCS-level cornerbacks. Despite spending limited practice time on press-coverage releases out of a two-point stance, Goedert picked up the tactic with ease. “At our level, there’s just less long corners,” Schleusner says. “At the college game, you just see more 5-10 corners. With his size and his speed, if they tried to press him, he’d just use his physicality to get off and go.”

It’s that blend of athleticism and versatility that make Goedert and Gesicki so attractive in the modern NFL. With teams realizing the benefits of heavy sets that feature pass-catching tight ends who transcend positional norms, players with their flexible skill sets are warranting consideration among the first 32 picks. And while tight ends like Ebron, Pettigrew, and Dustin Keller may have represented failed investments, guys like Goedert and Gesicki could be set to provide huge dividends to their eventual franchises.

For his part, Gesicki understands that the recent success of tight-end-reliant offenses bodes well for his future—and wants to land in a spot where he can push that trend forward. “I want to get drafted to a team that systematically and scheme-wise, I fit into,” he says. “[A team] that’s willing to move me around and use me to best of their ability to create mismatches, even if I’m not getting the ball and can attract some of [a defense’s] cover guys.”