Ravens safety Ed Reed has seen the evolution of the tight end position firsthand.
No longer considered glorified tackles or safety valves, the new breed of tight end is a matchup nightmare, a dangerous combination of size and speed with the strength of a power forward.
"They're more athletic guys, bigger guys, taller guys," Reed said. "Kind of basketball bodies."
While there have been playmaking tight ends before, from Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome to Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez, the caliber of athlete at the position — and how he's being used — has changed significantly over the past decade.
Six of the top 17 in receptions this season were tight ends, who are in a golden age and figure prominently in today's conference title games.
In New England, 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski is a cult hero, leading the league with 17 touchdowns and catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards. His teammate, ex-Florida star Aaron Hernandez, had 79 receptions and, used out of the backfield, was the Patriots' leading rusher in last week's AFC division win over the Broncos.
Vernon Davis lifted the 49ers into today's matchup with the Giants with his 14-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds left against the Saints.
"The tight end position is taking off," Davis said. "It's almost as if you have to start (covering) tight ends with cornerbacks … because they're fast. These guys are strong, and they're making plays. They're making plays like wide receivers."
Just ask the Bucs. The Saints' 6-6, 260-pound Jimmy Graham combined for 202 receiving yards in two games this season against them. The number of tight ends who had more than 500 receiving yards has increased every season since 2006, when 12 eclipsed that mark, until this season. In 2010, an NFL-record 22 achieved the feat, and 20 did this season.
The NFL is all about matchups, and the Grahams, Davises and Gronkowskis give defensive coordinators fits because they're often too fast for a linebacker, too big for a defensive back and can beat tight coverage with leaping catches.
But ESPN analyst and former Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer said another reason tight ends are more successful is the game has changed. With rules limiting contact around the line of scrimmage and the league cracking down on dangerous hits, Dilfer said it's taking away the defense's ability to dominate the middle of the field.
"No longer is the intimidation factor relevant in the middle of the field," he said. "I've seen routes being called with tight ends and slot receivers that you never even thought about running 10 years ago because you'd get your guys killed. So now you get all this chunk yardage in the middle of the football field with players that don't have to necessarily have top-end speed."
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With colleges using spread offenses, tight ends are more prepared to be part of the passing game when they enter the pros, and teams have made them building blocks. Kellen Winslow Jr. has been one of Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman's favorite targets.
But one ex-coach is skeptical of the position's importance in relation to the rest of the offense.
"If I'm drafting on offense, you go get your quarterback and your left tackle first," former Ravens coach and current Fox analyst Brian Billick told USA Today. "I'm not sure I wouldn't put that tight end at the next level; even in front of that great impact receiver."
Information from Times wires contributed to this report.