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The revolution was televised: Growth of tight ends in the NFL

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Last week, Gregg Olsen burned the New Orleans Saints for 134 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Jason Witten leads the Cowboys in touchdown grabs and is tied for the team lead in catches. New Orleans’ offense is searching for answers, in part because of the loss of Jimmy Graham, who led the team in receptions and touchdown catches last year. These are all examples of the increased importance of tight ends in the NFL passing game.

How Things Used to Be

Twenty-five years ago, tight ends were but a minor factor in NFL passing games, and only for a handful of teams. In 1990, Jay Novacek of the Dallas Cowboys led all tight ends with just 59 catches, and only two more were over 50. Many teams did not even prominently feature a tight end. Only 25 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times, less than one per team. League wide, only 14.4 percent of passes were thrown toward tight ends.

Five years later, in 1995, the environment had started to change. Ben Coates caught 84 passes as Drew Bledsoe’s go-to target in New England. For the first time, 40 tight ends were targeted at least 25 times. The percentage of passes to tight ends had jumped to 16.6 percent. The picture five years later was pretty much the same, just with Tony Gonzalez as the name atop the leaderboards.

The Changing Landscape of Tight Ends

The arrival of Gonzalez helped accelerate the pace of change once again with 2005 as the watershed year. For the first time, league-wide tight end target percentage topped 19 percent. A quarter of the teams in the league had one tight end with at least 100 targets. A dozen tight ends had at least 55 catches. The last total included a pair of Tennessee Titans, highlighting an important trend.

Teams in the past rarely used multiple tight ends, and when they did no more than one was a volume receiver. That changed beginning a decade ago and saw its peak with the versatile two tight end attack of the 2010 New England Patriots, the second-best offense since 1989 per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Tight Ends Up, So Who Is Down?

The obvious question is, where did those tight end targets come from? The percentage of tight end targets is at 20 percent through three weeks of 2015, up from 14.4 percent in 1990. Which position is not getting thrown the ball as much? Table 1 has the answers.

Table 1. Target Percentage by Positions

Year WR TE RB
1990 61.0% 14.4% 24.7%
1995 59.8% 16.6% 23.6%
2000 59.9% 16.7% 23.5%
2005 61.0% 19.1% 19.9%
2010 59.3% 19.8% 20.8%
2015* 60.2% 19.8% 20.0%

*-Through Week 3

The first column makes it clear that wide receiver target percentage has not changed much over the past 25 years. It stayed remarkably constant, in the 59-to-61-percent range. The increase in the use of tight ends in the passing game corresponds almost perfectly with a decrease in the use of running backs in the passing game.

There is no story where fewer running backs are catching passes. Teams are actually throwing just as many passes to running backs as they were 25 years ago. Instead, they are throwing many more passes in total and all those extra passes are going to wide receivers and tight ends.

The Shift in Tight End Efficiency

For most years since Mike Ditka virtually created the modern tight end position in the early 1960s, the tight end was an intermediate stop between the running back, a safe target unlikely to gain many yards, and the wide receiver, a risky target that gained more yards on average per throw. Yards per target make this clear, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Yards Per Target by Position, 1990-2005

Year WR TE RB
1990 8.77 6.97 6.18
1995 7.68 6.74 5.60
2000 7.50 6.38 5.81
2005 7.52 6.55 5.42

For those seasons, the tight end stayed comfortably in that middle role. More recently, though, tight ends have become more like receivers in their efficiency.

Table 3. Yards Per Target by Position, 2010-2015

Year WR TE RB
2010 7.58 7.03 5.84
2012 7.67 6.98 5.75
2014 8.01 7.25 5.89
2015* 7.97 7.55 6.25

*-Through Week 3

This is the new wave of hybrid tight ends in action, players who look and run more like big wide receivers, and who play more like them too.

How Defenses Have Responded, and What It Means

The challenge presented by the new wave of tight ends is defenses have to decide how to play them. Do they treat them as wide receivers, and match up to them with defensive backs at the risk of being outmanned in run defense? Do they instead treat them as normal players, and match up to them with their regular defensive personnel? Per data available through Football Outsiders, most teams treat do not treat tight ends as receivers. Teams were in their base four defensive back sets against 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) almost 80 percent of the time in 2014. Not quite the 90 percent of the time they fielded four defensive backs against 21 (two backs, one tight end, two receivers), but a far cry from the less than 7 percent of the time they fielded just four defensive backs against 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers)

As long as more receiving tight ends continue to come out of the collegiate ranks, and as long as teams continue to play tight ends with base personnel, expect tight ends to continue their rise to prominence in NFL passing games. Just don’t look for it on Sunday night, where Sean Payton is the rare NFL coach to keep passes to running backs in a place of prominence and the injury-riddled Cowboys threw more passes to running back Lance Dunbar than any other player last week.

Sunday Night Football odds: Eagles laying touchdown against Cowboys

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The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off a bye while the Dallas Cowboys had a short week to work on their road woes should tip off straight-up bettors, but the spread might be another story.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, are 7-point favorites on the Sunday Night Football odds against the Cowboys with a 43.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Philadelphia is 16-3 straight-up and 12-6-1 against the spread in its last 19 games after having at least a full week off, while Dallas is 0-9 SU in its last nine games after playing the Monday prior.

Dallas carries a good head-to-head trend of being 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six road games at Philadelphia, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and is also 6-3 ATS in its last nine road games as an underdog of 6.5 or more points.

The Cowboys are 3-5 both SU and ATS after a home loss against the Houston Texans on Monday. Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott have habitually struggled to score points on the road, and a nicked-up offensive line faces a very strong Eagles defensive line led by tackle Fletcher Cox. For all the formidability of its front four, though, the Eagles are giving up 4.5 yards per rush and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should find some room to the outside as both a rusher and pass receiver.

Dallas will be without wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) and will need more out of Amari Cooper in the passing phase as the ex-Oakland Raider enters his second game for the Cowboys.

The Eagles, who are 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS and need the win to have any reasonable chance at defending their Super Bowl crown, are 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS over their last eight games at night. Bettors’ confidence in the Eagles’ offensive capabilities might come down to the health of right tackle Lane Johnson (knee), who is expected to play and provide resistance to the Dallas pass rush.

Quarterback Carson Wentz now has wide receiver Golden Tate, recently acquired via trade, in his arsenal against a Cowboys pass defense that allows the sixth-worst opponents’ passer rating (101.1) in the NFL.

The ground game has generated middling results for the Eagles, who are still hoping either Corey Clement or Wendell Smallwood can take a lead role. Dallas also allows the second-least yards per rush in the NFL, which is a small reason to think the Cowboys will offer some resistance by forcing Wentz into obvious passing downs.

Wentz will likely face some long-yardage scenarios, though, as the Cowboys allow the second-least yards per carry.

There are pronounced UNDER trends in this matchup. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last three games against the Eagles, with an average combined score of 30.67 points. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last eight games on the road, with an average combined score of 31.25 points. And the total has gone UNDER in eight of the Eagles’ last nine games at home, with an average combined score of 31.89 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

NFL Week 6 odds: Bengals, Eagles, Patriots are all betting favorites

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The Cincinnati Bengals usually handle struggling teams, but it’s fair to wonder if that trend will be cancelled out by their long-running difficulties against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals, led by quarterback Andy Dalton, are 2.5-point favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Week 6 odds with a 53-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

According to the OddsShark NFL Database, it is only the sixth time in the last 14 seasons that the AFC North-leading Bengals are favored at home against the Steelers, but they are 14-4 straight-up in their last 18 home games against teams with losing records, and are also 6-1 SU and against the spread in their last seven games.

The Steelers, 2-2-1 SU on the season, have dominated the matchup with a 16-2 SU record in their last 18 road games against the Bengals, but they are also 1-6 ATS in their last seven games in the early afternoon.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-point road favorites against the New York Giants  with a 43-point total for the Thursday Night Football matchup. The Eagles are 14-6 ATS in their last 20 games against the Giants. The total has gone OVER in the Eagles’ last five games against the Giants, with an average combined score of 54.6. The Giants are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 home games.

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 48-point total in a matchup at Wembley Stadium in London. The Seahawks, who will be idle in Week 7, are 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The Raiders are 2-5 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The total has gone UNDER in 10 of the Raiders’ last 12 games, with an average combined score of 43.33.

The Chicago Bears are 3-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42-point total. The Bears are 1-9 SU in their last 10 games on the road against teams with winning records. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Bears’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 37.43. The Dolphins are 0-7-1 ATS in their last eight games at home after consecutive road games.

The Washington Redskins are 1-point favorites against the Carolina Panthers with a 44.5-point total. The Panthers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Redskins. The Redskins are 3-10 SU in their last 13 games in Week 6. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Redskins’ last five games in the early afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point road favorites against the Denver Broncos with a 52.5-point total. The Rams are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Rams’ last 10 games on the road, with an average combined score of 54.5. The Broncos are 4-13 SU and 2-14-1 ATS in their last 17 games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 3-point road favorites against the Dallas Cowboys with a 40.5-point total. The Jaguars are 4-22 SU and 6-20 ATS in their last 26 games in the late afternoon. The Cowboys are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games in the late afternoon.

The New England Patriots are 3.5-point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 59.5-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Chiefs have covered in every game so far this season and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games after consecutive ATS wins. The total has gone OVER in 10 of the Chiefs’ last 14 games at night. The Patriots are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games at night.

And the Green Bay Packers are 9.5-point road favorites against the San Francisco 49ers with a 46.5-point total for Monday night’s game. The 49ers are 0-14 SU and 5-9 ATS in their last 14 road games as an underdog of 7.5 or more points. The Packers are 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 home games as a favorite of 7.5 or more points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.