These days, it has become increasingly difficult for NFL teams to find tight ends who can both block and catch skillfully, much less at a Hall of Fame level. Most modern tight ends can handle one responsibility, but is notably deficient in the other.
"The guys that are just big and powerful and can run are as rare as Lawrence Taylor is on defense," Giants tight ends coach Michael Pope said today. "People think that's crazy, absolutely. Because you look around the league and find someone that can block Julius Peppers on one play or have a chance to block him and run a 40 yard scene pass like a receiver on the next play. Go look for them. They're just not there."
Pope has been the league's premier tight ends coach for most of his 29 years as an NFL assistant. He has coached numerous superb two-way tight ends, including Mark Bavaro, Rodney Holman, Ben Coates, Stephen Alexander and Jeremy Shockey. But in the last few years, that has become a breed that's hard to find. Pope raised one he admired in Kevin Boss. But last week, Boss left the Giants to join the Oakland Raiders as a free agent.
"This is a part of the NFL," Pope said. "There's change. The rules approve it. The salary cap approves it. It's just something you have to live with. We train these guys and they move on, then you bring the next group is and train them. That's what John Mara and the Tisch family pay us for."
An all-round tight end seems to be missing from Pope's new group. Bear Pascoe, Jake Ballard and newcomer Daniel Coats are blockers who are developing as receivers. Travis Beckum is a good pass-catcher who isn't as strong at the point of attack. Christian Hopkins is a first-year free agent trying to improve at both skills.
Pope was asked if he has a player with the range of skills Boss possesses.
"I don't know the answer for that just yet," Pope said. "We need to get them in the games. Playing against people that you know pretty well, you don't get the same amount of physical activity and so forth that you're going to get in the game. I think it's going to take us a couple of games before we can answer that question."
The Giants open their preseason schedule Saturday night in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers.
The Giants traditionally use their tight ends to block in what is annually one of the NFL's most productive rushing attacks. That is a challenge for Beckum.
"He's disadvantaged because he weighs about 235 pounds," Pope said. "Most all of the guys that he's going to block at that position – his effort is going to be there, he's going to try, but the laws of science come into play. The bigger mass generally over the period of a three-hour game is going to win. He would wear down. It isn't our plan to use him like that on a regular basis like we might use a regular tight end. We will have to involve him there. We can't put a flag up that every time he runs in the game it's going to be a pass.
"We kept a very close chart last year on how many times he was in the game and how many times we passed the ball and how many times we ran the ball. He did a very good job for us in those run situations. Then he was flawless when we threw the ball to him. He didn't drop a pass the whole time that we threw the ball to him."
Pascoe and Ballard, while better as blockers than receivers, still need to develop the former skill as well as the latter.
"I think they're trying," Pope said. "They have to be able to do is develop a technique that will work for them when they get all different sized players to block. Some guys are very, very quick. They have to develop a technique that will give them a chance there. Some of them just try to overpower. That technique is a little bit unique and it's going to take awhile for them to be good at that. I think it could be well into the preseason before we know if either one if going to be good at doing that or good enough to do that that we can maintain the majority of our offense from the past."
Had this happened, say, 10 years ago and Boss took his pads and helmet elsewhere, Pope might not face such a conundrum about filling his position.
"We used to have more of a selection, absolutely," he said. "There were more guys out there. There have been a lot of players that have played that position over the many years that weren't real fast, but they were really good receivers. (Antonio) Gates at San Diego is a terrific receiver. I wouldn't say he's Baryshnikov, but he's able to succeed because of his basketball type skills, so he's successful.
"Some guys who are real good blockers are just so bulky and awkward that they're not finesse enough in the passing game that they can be quick and the quarterback can trust them to do the right thing. It's much easier, I think, if you have a guy who has a good tough attitude to help him become a blocker than it is to become a pass receiver. You can build him to be tougher. You can build him up in the weight room. Making him faster, those are genes.
"Mark (Bavaro) was dominating, powerful. Rodney Holman in Cincinnati was a powerful man, but he was a good receiver, too, and he could run. Stephen Alexander, I had down in Washington, was more of thin guy. He developed. He put a lot of weight on and became a more than adequate blocker. He could run like the wind. If you're looking for an athletic player, you might as well not go look for those guys who never catch any passes in college. You're not going to turn them around. Zeke (Mowatt) would be the exception. He caught almost no passes and he was a free agent, but we had a coach there that all of us knew. (Bill) Parcells and myself said this guy's a really good blocker and he's not really the biggest guy in the world, but he'll get bigger. He can catch the ball, too. We just don't throw it to him. Of course, he caught 48 passes as a rookie. Those guys are rare. You can't just say that you're good enough that you can go find those guys. In some cases you're just lucky enough to find them."
Why have multi-faceted tight ends become so hard for NFL teams to find? Pope said they simply aren't available.
"They're disappearing because they're not being trained in college - that's the big reason," Pope said. "College offenses are all spread out. They're getting smaller players because they're looking for more receiver types. It's affecting not only the tight end position, but the fullback position is disappearing. Very few offenses in college even use a pure tight end or a pure fullback. So, conversely the linebackers are getting smaller on defense. The strong safeties are kind of disappearing a little bit because they're looking for more athletic players. It's kind of a revolving cycle. Will it ever come back to being more bunched up formations? Whatever you do, you're probably never going to be able to get away from short yardage and goal line and four-minute (offense) where you need to be in there and take care of the ball and protect all the blitz possibilities. We just have to continue to try to develop them. You're not going to just go find them."