The Rise of the 'Joker' Tight End in the modern NFL


As the NFL has become more pass-happy, tight ends have become more versatile and dynamic. This new breed of receiving tight ends have come to be known as 'Jokers.'

That's not a mock reference, instead it's a term for the various ways modern tight ends make fools of NFL defenders. It starts with how much the mould of the position has changed.

Gone are the days of the in-line bruisers who mostly blocked and only lumbered off the line to catch passes at the goal line. The modern tight end is a hulking, hybrid pass-catcher, who creates mismatches at every level of a defense.

That versatility demands a greater level of athleticism than many would associate with the traditional tight end. However, that doesn't necessarily mean tight ends are any lighter.

The true 'joker' tight end combines near wide receiver-like speed, with tremendous size. It's that blend that creates a nightmare for defensive coverage schemes. One of the best examples of this kind of multi-faceted weapon is Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.

At 6'6" and 265 pounds, Gronkowski is a bulldozer. Yet he possesses greater explosiveness than his natural predecessors, players like Mark Bavaro and Eric Green.

Instead Gronkowski using his height and bulk to overpower defenders in coverage. He runs deeper, more precise routes than traditional tight ends were ever expected to and possesses greater speed.

The dilemma for any defense facing Gronkowski is who can cover him? He is too fast for a linebacker and too strong and tall for a safety. Putting a cornerback on Gronkowksi is an invitation to get outmuscled.

It's that mix of size with receiver's quickness and skills that makes the 'jokers' no laughing matter for any defensive coordinator. Offensive coordinators meanwhile, can delight in moving their 'jokers' around the formation and giving defenses nightmare choices.

That movement is the other key characteristic of the modern 'joker' tight end. Remember when the tight end almost always aligned on the offensive line with his hand down, next to the right tackle?

That's an increasingly rare sight in today's league. That's because the more athletic breed of tight ends can use their skills to attack from various positions. They are used like the queen on a chess board, the ultimate equaliser against any defensive structure.

'Jokers' are moved from their in-line positions into the slot. Some are even split out wide in flanker alignments. This calls for a different set of skills. It demands quickness and the ability to stretch the field on the outside.

Those requirements saw an influx of tight ends who fit a specific prototype. They can commonly be called basketball-style players, just this week the Seattle Seahawks signed Darren Fells, a basketball player who was playing professionally in Argentina and had not played football since high-school. Tall, angular and fleet-footed, these tight ends pose a genuine vertical threat.

They are big play specialists, more akin to wide receivers in a tight end's body. For years Antonio Gates helped define this prototype for the San Diego Chargers. He was continuing the legacy of ex-Chargers great Kellen Winslow, the original 'joker' tight end.

Gates' skills may be declining, but New Orleans Saints youngster Jimmy Graham is a rising star, cut from a similar mould. Equipped with a basketball background and a 6'7" frame, Graham has the length and agility to out jump any defender for the ball. He is a constant threat to attack the deep zones.

The Green Bay Packers can pose a similar threat with the talented, but inconsistent Jermichael Finley. While the Patriots use Gronkowski's counterpart Aaron Hernandez as a wide receiver or a running back. Hernandez has become a throwback to the classic H-Back role of years past.

The first Wembley game in September, between the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers, will feature a 'joker' tight end. Kyle Rudolph is a key part of the Vikings' passing game. He is sort of a Gronkowski-lite, used in a similar number of ways.

These 'joker' types are putting up frightening numbers. In 2011, Gronkowski caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Graham has tallied 184 receptions for 2,292 yards in the last two seasons.

Those are phenomenal numbers for a tight end, or at least they were. When Ben Coates posted similar figures for the Patriots in 1994 and Tony Gonzalez did it for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, they were celebrated as the exceptions to the rule for their position.

Today those numbers are fast becoming reasonable expectations for tight ends. They are no longer just supplementary blockers, or safety valve receivers.

Modern tight ends are multi-dimensional players, who pose matchup problems all over the field. Defenses are having to react and account for a tight end as their biggest danger.

If that tight end is a 'joker' the defense is in serious, serious trouble.

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