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
*-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
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
*-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.