Has there ever been a time in NFL history when there was as much athleticism and promise at tight end as there is this season? Look at this wave of players at the position who have the speed and skills to catch balls downfield, the strength to wall off linebackers on running plays and the youth (all are 26 or younger) to dominate for years to come: the Falcons' Alge Crumpler is 26; the Colts' Dallas Clark and the Dolphins' Randy McMichael are 25; the Chargers' Antonio Gates, the Ravens' Todd Heap, the Giants' Jeremy Shockey and the Eagles' L.J. Smith are 24; and the Cowboys' Jason Witten is 22. Rookies Kellen Winslow (21) of the Browns and Ben Watson (23) of the Patriots have the potential to join that group.
"It's a new breed," says Eagles vice president for player personnel Tom Heckert. "Coaches realize that if you can get a tight end on the field and keep [an extra] defensive back off, all of a sudden you've got this big, athletic, fast tight end with a linebacker on him. And if that defensive back stays out there? Then you run the ball all day."
Adds Texans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, "I was at Ben Watson's workout last spring, and he was split wide some of the time. If you [disregarded] his size [6'3", 253 pounds], you would have thought he was a wide receiver. He ran so smooth, he was fast, he could go up for the ball, and he could catch. He's a wide receiver with tight-end size, and that's a matchup problem for any defense."
Gates is a perfect example of how teams are looking under every rock to find athletic tight ends. He played power forward on the Kent State basketball team that went to the Elite Eight in the 2002 NCAA tournament but never played college football. Yet because of his size (6'4", 260), soft hands and quickness, NFL scouts thought he'd be a good prospect, and he signed with San Diego as an undrafted free agent in 2003. "I think not playing in college might have helped me," says Gates, who caught 24 passes for 389 yards as a rookie and started 11 games. "I never developed bad habits."
Gates followed his eight-catch, 123-yard performance in San Diego's season-opening road win over Houston with four catches for 39 yards in a 34--28 loss to the Jets on Sunday. He could be the weapon the Chargers have needed to keep defenses from keying on running back LaDainian Tomlinson.