Today, a new breed of athletic, powerful tight end has revolutionized offenses in the National Football League, a transformation that is now trickling down to high school football in Maryland.
“In the past, tight ends have primarily been used for blocking,” DeMatha Catholic High School head coach Elijah Brooks said. “But as you can see the NFL game changing and the college game changing, tight ends are a hot commodity [coming out of high school]. They’re big enough to push around smaller defenders and they’re fast enough to run away from linebackers.”
Football scouts point to former University of Maryland and Dunbar High School standout Vernon Davis as a key driver of the tight end transformation in the NFL. When Davis entered the NFL Draft in 2005, scouts saw a unique combination of size and speed that could be put to a better purpose than just blocking.
“NFL scouts, college and high school teams noticed what a weapon an athletic tight end could be,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said of Davis. “That’s when the NFL started to try to find more guys who are like that, who are just physical freaks with size and speed. More athletic tight ends trickled down to college and then whatever trickles down to college trickles down to high school.”
After Davis entered the league, more teams added tight ends in his mold. Over the last two seasons, players like the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham helped establish the position as an important component of successful, modern NFL offenses.
All three players lined up in the slot for their teams on one-third of offensive possessions, and ranked among the league’s top 20 receivers last season, according to Pro Football Focus managing editor Mike Clay.
The Patriots used the new model of tight end better than any other NFL team last season. Their two tight end offense carried the team to the Super Bowl, an achievement that has turned heads in the NFL, college and high school.
With a growing number of large, athletic high school players molding themselves after tight ends like Gronkowski, high school coaches are styling their offenses to take advantage.
In Maryland, Scout.com regional manager Brandon Huffman pinpointed Good Counsel and Friendship Collegiate as schools that are shifting towards a tight end-centric offense, largely because they can attract the top-tier talent the offense requires.
DeMatha’s offense struggled this season. Next season, Brooks said he was considering using his tight end more in their aerial attack. That’s the same strategy many teams in the region and across the country are moving towards.
Last year, Brooks had the top-rated tight end prospect in Maryland, Brent Wilkerson. Rivals.com ranked Wilkerson 17th in the nation, and he’s headed to Penn State next season.
Penn State just hired Bill O’Brien, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator who ran the team’s tight end-centric offense, as their head coach.
Last season, DeMatha employed a run-heavy offense, which primarily requires tight ends to help block.
“Brent didn’t get an opportunity to showcase all of his skills,” Brooks said. “He can be an outstanding pass-receiver and run-blocker at Penn State. He’s almost like a basketball player playing football. He runs great routes. He has good hands. And I think hell be a big-time weapon at Penn State.”
Last season, C.H. Flowers High School’s offense used tight end Monte Taylor like a pro team would. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Taylor stretched the field and broke down defenses by catching passes over the middle. He finished his senior season with 14 catches for 281 yards and three touchdowns, helping the Jaguars win their first regional title.
Taylor is only a two-star-rated prospect, according to Rivals.com. But Farrell, who said Taylor is likely to attend North Carolina after spending a year in prep school, will be a player to keep an eye on.
“Once he gets to North Carolina a year from now, he’s going to be a guy who’s going to make an immediate impact. He’s a sleeper for sure. He’s a late-bloomer, a guy who really excelled there in his senior year, who has gotten a lot of faster,” he said.
Athletic high school tight ends whose production is curbed by ground-oriented offenses are still being recruited. College coaches realize their high school systems required them to block on a majority of snaps, so they test their receiving skills in pre-college camps.
Huffman, who was recruited as a tight end in an era where coaches viewed the position as a lineman wearing a jersey in the 80s, said coaches can now see a great pass-catcher despite the offensive lineman-size body.