Palazzolo’s Pitch: TE Versatility

| March 27, 2014

Pitch-TEversBack in early October, Palazzolo’s Pitch took a look at the league’s versatile tight ends noting where the top receivers catch the majority of their passes. More than ever, tight ends are viewed as movable offensive chess pieces, not only lining up in a traditional role, but also finding themselves in the slot, out wide, or even in the backfield.

The word “versatile” has almost taken on new meaning when referencing tight ends as it once described a player capable of stretching the seam in the passing game while providing stellar in-line blocking in the running game. Times are changing as tight ends are often viewed as glorified wide receivers and “versatile” now refers to their ability to contribute to the passing game from a variety of angles. They still need to stretch the seam, but they’re also asked to win from the slot on option routes, out wide on slants and fades, and out of the backfield where they can often outrun linebackers.

Here’s a look at the league’s top receiving tight ends and where they line up to do their damage.

In-Line

Given the 49ers’ usage of tight formations, it makes sense to see Vernon Davis at the top of this list. He did most of his work from a traditional alignment, with an amazing 48% of his yards coming just from post and corner routes. He grabbed seven of his nine touchdowns on corner routes alone as his “two-way go” from his in-line positions proved a difficult cover for opposing linebackers and safeties.

Name %Tot Yds Tgts Rec Yards Yds/ Rec YAC TDs Drops
Vernon Davis 54.0% 42 29 459 15.8 142 9 2
Jordan Cameron 52.9% 33 28 443 15.8 125 2 1
Julius Thomas 50.4% 48 33 397 12.0 217 4 3
Rob Gronkowski 45.9% 19 13 272 20.9 87 1 1
Greg Olsen 42.2% 37 28 344 12.3 152 3 0
Charles Clay 38.1% 35 26 273 10.5 178 1 1
Jimmy Graham 31.0% 28 18 377 20.9 156 4 2
Martellus Bennett 30.8% 28 24 234 9.8 145 3 1
Jared Cook 29.8% 19 13 200 15.4 92 2 2
Jason Witten 28.2% 32 21 240 11.4 82 4 2
Tony Gonzalez 3.7% 9 7 32 4.6 6 1 0
Total 35.2% 282 207 2874 13.9 1165 30 12

Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas are the only other tight ends to gain over 50% of his passes from an inline position.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tony Gonzalez will go into the Hall of Fame as a tight end, but he spent little time at the position, with only 3.7% of his yards coming from a traditional role.

It should be noted that the tight ends on this list averaged 13.9 yards/reception from an inline position, the highest total amongst all alignments. This certainly stems from more use of play action and perhaps deeper shots on early downs, but it may be something for teams to look at when deploying their tight ends and looking to make big plays in the passing game.

Slot

Here we find Gonzalez’ domain as he gained 79.4% of his yards from the slot to lead the players on the list.

Name %Tot Yds Tgts Rec Yards Yds/ Rec YAC TDs Drops
Tony Gonzalez 79.4% 82 59 682 11.6 167 4 4
Jason Witten 68.4% 72 48 582 12.1 235 4 4
Martellus Bennett 60.6% 51 34 460 13.5 190 1 2
Jared Cook 60.5% 51 34 406 11.9 142 3 6
Rob Gronkowski 44.1% 34 20 261 13.1 81 2 0
Charles Clay 40.8% 39 24 292 12.2 122 3 4
Julius Thomas 39.8% 29 25 314 12.6 135 4 0
Jimmy Graham 39.5% 66 42 480 11.4 135 8 3
Greg Olsen 37.3% 43 28 304 10.9 91 2 5
Jordan Cameron 36.7% 53 36 307 8.5 81 2 3
Vernon Davis 23.9% 21 12 203 16.9 75 2 2
Total 48.7% 512 337 3977 11.8 1319 31 33

Jason Witten, Martellus Bennett, and Jared Cook also gained over 60% of their yards from the slot to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Predictably, Davis and Cameron come in at the bottom with Cameron the only tight end to average less than 10 yards/reception at 8.5.

Wide

The offseason debate about Jimmy Graham’s “true” position is an intriguing one as 29.5% of his yards came while lined up out wide. When combined with 39.5% of his yards coming out of the slot, he gained 69% of his total yards from wide receiver positions.

Name %Tot Yds Tgts Rec Yards Yds/ Rec YAC TDs Drops
Jimmy Graham 29.5% 41 26 358 13.8 132 4 1
Vernon Davis 20.4% 17 10 173 17.3 37 2 1
Charles Clay 19.3% 14 12 138 11.5 45 2 1
Tony Gonzalez 16.9% 24 17 145 8.5 44 3 0
Greg Olsen 14.0% 17 12 114 9.5 33 1 0
Rob Gronkowski 10.0% 11 6 59 9.8 30 1 1
Jared Cook 9.7% 8 4 65 16.3 37 0 0
Martellus Bennett 7.9% 9 6 60 10.0 44 1 0
Julius Thomas 7.4% 9 5 58 11.6 3 4 1
Jordan Cameron 7.3% 11 7 61 8.7 3 2 1
Jason Witten 0.0% 1 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
Total 14.4% 153 100 1173 11.7 405 16 5

Davis is the only tight end whose production out wide almost matches his production from the slot as he ranked second with 20.4% of his yards coming as the outside receiver.

It’s quite surprising to see Witten at the bottom of this list as he’s often viewed as one of the prototype tight ends that line up all over the field, but the numbers show that the Cowboys have him doing the majority of his work in the slot as he was only targeted once as the outside guy.

Backfield

We don’t often see these top tight ends lining up in the backfield with Greg Olsen clearly making the best use of his time there. Four of the top tight ends failed to catch a pass out of the backfield.

Name %Tot Yds Tgts Rec Yards Yds/ Rec YAC TDs Drops
Greg Olsen 6.6% 5 5 54 10.8 59 0 0
Jason Witten 3.4% 4 4 29 7.3 16 0 0
Jordan Cameron 3.1% 4 3 26 8.7 21 0 0
Julius Thomas 2.4% 2 2 19 9.5 18 0 0
Charles Clay 1.8% 4 3 13 4.3 13 0 0
Vernon Davis 1.8% 2 1 15 15.0 14 0 0
Martellus Bennett 0.7% 1 1 5 5.0 6 0 0
Jared Cook 0.0% 1 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
Jimmy Graham 0.0% 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
Tony Gonzalez 0.0% 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
Rob Gronkowski 0.0% 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0
Total 1.7% 21 17 142 8.4 129 0 0

 

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  • Dgood

    Where is Julius Thomas on these?

    • Infamous27

      That’s a good question

    • RickDrummond

      Missed him on the copy/paste… fixed now. Thanks for the spot.

  • Guest

    Missed out on the copy/paste… added back in now. Thanks for the spot.

  • Joshua Kappel

    Hi, love the article, one question. Being a Colts fan, I’d love to see the numbers/analysis for Coby Fleener (I’d also love to see Dwayne Allen’s, but his absence was a little expected after his hip injury this year). Don’t know if the numbers I saw were accurate, but I think Fleener had over 50 receptions and 600 yards this year. His drop numbers were also not as bad as many seem to think. Thoughts on if he is an upper tier TE?

  • redbeardedone

    I don’t see Antonio Gates listed despite him being on the linked article of top 5 Versatile Tight Ends.

  • Mood_Indigo

    Shouldn’t versatility for a TE include their blocking and how much their O rely on them for a blitz pick up or for exotic run blocks? Vernon Davis is one of the top 3 blocking TEs in the league if not the best.