The NFL changes season by season, but for the last decade it's swung to a full-fledged passing league. There is now a premium on positions that impact the passing game like we've never seen before. You can make an argument that 24 of the 32 prospects drafted during Day 1 of the 2013 NFL Draft were passing game orientated players, including eight of the top nine picks.
Joe Bussell, a former Teams Operation Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recently stated that he thinks the premium positions in the NFL are quarterback, pass rusher, cornerback, the offensive line, and, to some's surprise, tight end.
While tight ends have always done at least a bit of pass-catching, the production being put out by today's tight ends hasn't ever been matched. The tight ends are becoming such good pass-catchers, that recently, Vernon Davis has taken snaps lined up as a jumbo wide receiver, not including all the times he, among many other tight ends, has been split out wide in games.
The reason for the recent swing of importance regarding tight ends comes down to versatility and mismatches the versatility causes. If a team comes out in 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends), the defense has two choices: they add corners to combat the tight ends' passing abilities or they stay in base to combat the possible two extra run blockers on the field. There is no “right” answer.
A defense lining up in base (7 man front) could lead to a quarterback checking out of the play, spreading out the tight ends (possibly even the running back) in the shotgun, something the defense isn't ready to defend with only four defensive backs on the field. If the defenses come out in nickel or dime, the quarterback can audible to a power run play, which allows the running back to sprint his way downfield.
The next step in this “pick your poison” situation for defenses, caused by tight ends, is the no huddle. Not only do teams have to choose which battle they want to fight, but the offense can make them fight against those same bad odds again, and again, and again, by lining back on the back too fast for the defenses to substitute. The New England Patriots had a lot of success with the 12 personnel no-huddle offense when Rob Gronkowski was healthy and Aaron Hernandez was still on the team.
The no-huddle is one of the reasons Cincinnati's selection of Tyler Eifert in 2013 shouldn't have surprised anyone. The Bengals had stated they wanted to be no-huddle heavy in 2013, and took two perfect picks for their system: Tyler Eifert, the tight end via Notre Dame, and Giovanni Bernard, a running back from North Carolina. Both are the combination pass-catcher and run-play-impact-players Cincinnati needed to run smoothly in the no-huddle. What's interesting, is that Cincinnati was also the last team to draft a tight end in the first round prior to 2013. Pairing up two first round tight ends might have seemed like a poor value a few years ago, but as stated earlier, the NFL's changed.
In the four years before the past draft, seven tight ends were drafted in the first two rounds. In 2013, there were four alone, more than double the average of the prior four years. Those four tight ends were Eifert, Zach Ertz (Philadelphia), Gavin Escobar (Dallas), and Vance McDonald (San Francisco).
What did all of those teams have in common when they made those selections? A number one tight end. Cincinnati has Jermaine Gresham, a former first round pick; Philadelphia has Brent Celek, a 2013 free agent pick-up; Dallas has Jason Witten, one of the best tight ends of all time; and San Francisco has Vernon Davis, one of the highest drafted tight ends of all time. With the ability to add versatility to offenses, teams felt no reason to limit themselves to one good tight end. The 2013 NFL Draft could very possibly be seen as the turning point in which tight ends earned more value on draft day.
With tight ends producing in the passing game more than ever before, teams taking advantage of their 12 personnel sets, and the sudden willingness by teams to not only select tight ends early, but number two tight ends early, it will be interesting to project where pass-catching tight ends like Georgia's Arthur Lynch, Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz, and underclassmen such as Oregon's Colt Lyerla, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro will be selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. After teams get a glimpse of what Cincinnati is putting together, no one in the copy-cat league will be surprised if a team with an established tight end takes another one early.