Redskins Deep Dive: An in-depth evaluation of the tight ends

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – OCTOBER 23: Jordan Reed #86 of the Washington Redskins celebrates in the endzone after scoring a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter of the game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 23, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Tight End Overview

What makes tight ends in football elite? It’s much easier to quantify elite play from wide receivers and running backs based on stats. But unlike both of those positions, tight end play is similar to offensive lineman grades in that the statistics don’t always measure the production.

Consistent hands, strength in blocking and running, foot speed and balance are critical to producing results. But being an elite and productive tight end doesn’t always require to have a full and rounded set of skills.

Redskins fans know this more than most. Jordan Reed, during the height of his dominance in 2015, was never known as a good blocker. In fact, he struggled immensely in this department. But he was such an elite route runner and such a productive receiver for his size that it simply didn’t matter. He gave defensive coordinators nightmares with every game that number 86 stepped on the field.

But the position is far more complicated than what meets the eye. To put in perspective the versatility of tight ends, look no further than the blocking responsibilities they routinely fulfill.

In most defensive line-ups, gap formations take the letter grades of A-D. The A-gap is defined as spaces to the left and right of the center, between both guards. B-gaps are the spaces between both guards and tackles. For the right guard, this would be their right-hand side, and for the left guard, this would be their left-hand side.

C-gaps are the spaces to the outside of the tackles, and in a base 4-3 defense, this would traditionally be the defensive end position. In a 3-4, this would traditionally be a blitzing or spying outside linebacker. D-gaps appear when offenses bring a tight end to the lineup on the outside of a tackle. The D-gap would be the space or defender that lines up over-top or outside of the tight end.

An effective blocking tight end opens up the running game in incredible ways. Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez are examples of tight ends who virtually became extra guards when called into action. What makes tight ends so amazing is that, depending on what the defense calls for, they need to have the strength and speed to block some of the leagues best defensive rushers.

Take, for example, a counter trey run scheme. The counter trey is a run scheme that is basically used in every offensive playbook. The key to making it work is merely combining deception and delay with moving blockers to spread out a defense and create space manually.

Most counter trey and power running schemes involve a tight end to be lined up either next to or staggered behind the outside tackle. Both systems include pulling guards and centers chipping defensive lineman and quickly moving up to the second level to engage and move linebackers. Depending on the defensive alignment, the tight end will have the responsibility of either taking on the defensive end or moving to the second level to take on a linebacker. While this explanation sounds simple, both of those responsibilities require two completely different sets of skills.

Maintaining a block on a D-gap defensive end sometimes requires you to square up to someone like J.J. Watt or Joey Bosa. As a tight end, this requires an incredible amount of strength. Tight ends blocking defensive ends in any type of pitch counter trey or power scheme need quick feet and strength to move players the size of today’s defensive ends, especially those the likes of both Watt and Bosa.

On the other hand, if the formation or play requires tight ends to chip defensive ends and move to the second level, that brings a whole different set of skills. Speed, strength, and weight balance on the move is key to taking on today’s athletic style of quick linebackers.

Productive run-blocking tight ends have to be able to block every type of defender on the field. It’s just a part of what makes the position so complex and unique.

Size and speed are aspects of these athletic freaks. Noah Fant of the Denver Broncos stands at almost 6-5, yet at 250 pounds, he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash time. Regardless of his less-than-stellar rookie season, his frame and athleticism are hard to find. Elite receiving tights ends have elite hands. Tony Gonzalez, arguably the greatest tight end of all time, stands as the league record holder in receptions and receiving yards. His ability to catch virtually everything thrown his direction was the biggest reason he has a place in Canton.

Regardless of the size, tight ends also learn how to run routes like receivers. Quickness, crisp cuts, and explosive breaks are what makes Zach Ertz such a pain to defend. Players like Ertz, George Kittle and Austin Hooper are perfect examples of explosive receiving tight ends.

Like topping a pizza, there are so many combinations to get the perfect fit. Having the ideal tight end comes in all shapes and sizes, and productivity truly depends on the offense.

Now that you know a bit more about the position, let us take a trip to the Redskins tight end group and see where they stand for this coming season.

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