Mike Clay

Offseason Low Down

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Tight End or Wide Receiver?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


You’ve seen the reports.

“Titans TE Jared Cook will argue he’s a wide receiver.”

“Packers TE Jermichael Finley will push for the wide-receiver franchise tag.”

Over the last few years, tight ends have transformed from extensions of the offensive line into giant, athletic matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Coinciding with that transformation has been the move of tight ends from their normal hand-in-the-dirt position to the slot, and even out wide against the opposing team’s top corners.

That being the case, it’s become apparent that more and more “tight ends” may actually have a point during franchise tag, and even long-term extension, negotiations. The real question is – which ones? Today, I’ll examine.

Note: Included in this study are tight ends who played 200-plus snaps during the 2012 season. The five tight ends examined at length are those who played the lowest percentage of their snaps as an in-line tight end. All snap data is provided by ProFootballFocus.com Premium Stats.

Tony Scheffler

Snaps

Back

Wide

Slot

IL

509

0%

17%

65%

18%


Leave it to me to get this article started with the least exciting name on the list. Unfortunately for those of you who do not rival my enthusiasm for backup tight ends, Scheffler was the tight end who spent the least amount of his snaps in line during the 2012 season.

Having spent 65 percent of his snaps in the slot, and another 17 percent out wide, Scheffler can safely be labeled as a wide receiver.

Consider that, of Scheffler’s 83 targets this past season, only 10 came after he had his hand in the dirt. The bulk of his targets (64 to be exact) came when he was lined up in the slot. He caught a pathetic 33 of those targets for 345 yards. Scheffler’s only touchdown came on one of his two receptions while lined up wide right.

Injuries to Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, as well as, immaturity issues with Titus Young forced the Lions to use Scheffler as a pass-catcher more than they would’ve liked to. It didn’t work out well. The Lions figure to add bodies to compete with Burleson and Broyles this offseason, pushing Scheffler back into a dozen or so snaps-per-game behind Brandon Pettigrew.

Jared Cook

Snaps

Back

Wide

Slot

IL

450

4%

3%

67%

26%


No tight end played a higher percentage of his snaps in the slot (67 percent) than Jared Cook did during the 2012 season. Cook was in-line a bit more than Scheffler, but didn’t see much action out wide, working primarily on the inside.

Interestingly, Cook lined up to Jake Locker/Matt Hasselbeck’s right on 70 percent of his snaps. He saw 37 of his targets in the right slot, as opposed to only 14 in the left slot.

The league-wide catch rate is lower and the average depth of target (aDOT) is higher in the slot than it is in-line. That isn’t the case for Cook. He caught an impressive 71 percent of his slot targets, but did see a good chunk of said targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, Cook had a massive 12.4 aDOT on his in-line targets, but caught only 4-of-12 targets for 56 yards. All four of Cook’s touchdowns came while lined up in the slot.

Despite a limited role over the last few seasons, Cook has proven that he is a major force as a pass-catcher when given the opportunity. Assuming he’s re-signed by Tennessee, Cook figures to finally land an every-down gig in 2013.

Jimmy Graham

Snaps

Back

Wide

Slot

IL

669

1%

13%

58%

28%


The 2012 season was a bit disappointing for Jimmy Graham owners. Targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns were down. Drops were way up. Injuries may have been to blame for the step back, but at age 26, Graham certainly remains one of the top, young pass-catching tight ends in the game.

One of the primary reasons Graham has been such a force as a pass-catcher over the past two-and-a-half seasons is his heavy usage as a wide receiver…but his snap distribution did change quite a bit from 2011 to 2012.

Consider that Graham lined up in-line on only 28 percent of his 2012 snaps, which was way down from a 48-percent mark in 2011. Graham caught an impressive 22-of-25 targets (88 percent) while in-line this past season, which is significantly better than his 55-of-91 mark (60 percent) when in the slot. In 2011, he caught 41-of-60 targets (68 percent) when in-line, compared to 45-of-63 (71 percent) from the slot. It’s worth noting that Graham’s aDOT was up from 2011 to 2012 when in-line, and down when in the slot. Eleven of Graham’s 15 drops during the 2012 season came while in the slot.

Another area we saw a massive change in Graham’s usage was out wide. He lined up wide on 13 percent of his snaps, which was only down slightly from 17 percent in 2011. The big changes, however, came in the target and touchdown departments. Graham was targeted on nine percent of 90 pass routes while out wide in 2012, hauling in 8-of-14 targets (57 percent) for 103 yards and zero touchdowns.

Keep that ‘zero touchdown’ stat in mind as we compare to his previous season. Graham was targeted on 29 percent of 130 routes while lined up wide in 2011. He caught 22-of-38 targets (58 percent) for 236 yards and six touchdowns. That means Graham went from scoring just under half of his touchdowns from outside in one year to scoring zero in that spot one season later.

Graham continues to work as Drew Brees’ favorite target and that doesn’t figure to change any time soon. Even in a “down” year, Graham managed 85 catches, 982 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2012. Healthier and with Sean Payton back in charge, it’s fair to expect even more production in 2013.


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Mike Clay is a football writer for Rotoworld.com and the Founder/Managing Editor of Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He can be found on Twitter @MikeClayNFL.
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