By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - How good is the tight end talent on the field at Gillette Stadium this week between Gronk, Graham and Hernandez?
Saints' interim coach Joe Vitt summed it up, saying, "Theycan run, they can catch, they can run routes, they can block, they can get tothe edge and kill you, they can catch the deep ball, they can catch outside ofthe framework of their body, theyre all good dancers, theyre good cooks andthey love kids."
He left out flossing. They all floss nice too. But the point is well-made. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the Patriots and the Saints Jimmy Graham represent the vanguard for a position that is in the midst of a revolution.
Observing the three of them, you find yourself looking at play after play with the matchup seems criminally unfair.
Too tall, too wide, too quick, too strong, too explosive, too graceful. The new breed tight end is arguably the most complete athlete in team sports right now.
Saints safety Roman Harper, who's been in the league long enough to see the whole evolution up close, was asked about Graham (99 catches, 1,310 yards and 11 receiving TDs in 2011) and Gronk (90, 1327, 17).
"It's two totally different animals. I hate to call them animals, but it is what it is," shrugged Harper. "Actually, we should talk about all three of them. Hernandez (79, 910, 7) has the most shake, the most wiggle at the top of the routes, he's getting open. He will break a guy off in 1-on-1 coverage, no doubt.
"Jimmy is just more of a strider," said Harper. "He's gonna be faster than Gronk but he's more of a strider and he's gonna come out of the break and he'll be like 'Drew (Brees), throw it up. It's a rebound, I'm going to get it.'
"Then you got Gronk, he's a big guy, he's a big target he's gonna, 'Unnnh (Harper drops his shoulder),' he's got that body action and Tom (Brady) is putting right on him. Gronk makes his money after the catch. If you look at him, that's where he makes his money. They're all three different beasts."
They combined for 268 catches, 3,547 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2011. The top three outside receivers in terms of receptions (Calvin Johnson, Roddy White and Victor Cruz) combined for 278 receptions and 33 touchdowns. They did combine for far more yards, but that's to be expected. The point is, offenses now run through the tight end as much as through outside receivers.
"Everybody wants to use 'em," said Harper. "Everybody wants a big tight end that's running down the middle, tough matchup on safeties and linebackers. Now you're seeing tight ends make 80, 90 catches a year and that's nothing for them. Back in the day that never happened. You got three of the four best tight ends right here."
Are they the greatest tight ends ever? They will be the most prolific, certainly, but whether they're better than Mike Ditka or John Mackey or their direct predecessors Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates? That's another debate entirely. The game changes, the opportunity for numbers to swell in unforeseen ways develops.
Gary Sheffield hit 28 more home runs in his career than Lou Gehrig. Different time, different game.
Last season, there was great debate as to whether Graham or Gronkowski was the better player. Cases could be made on either side. It's a Lamborghini vs. Ferrari argument.
People will compare us the next ten years of our lives and of our careers, where there will be a better assessment," said Graham. "I think well be in competition for the next ten years, because of the type of players we are.They are products of their surroundings as well, as Gronkowski has pointed out and Graham did on Tuesday. Having the two most accurate quarterbacks in the league - guys who are able to diagnose the mismatches in a split second and deliver the ball - helps. So too does the presence of Wes Welker in New England and Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Both work in the underneath area occupying linebackers' attention that allows the tight ends to feast as well.
The best tight end in Patriots camp and on Tuesday was Hernandez. When he is healthy, he's harder to cover than Gronkowski because of the separation he gets coming out of his breaks.
"Hernandez, we had trouble covering him out there today," said Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. "You only have 11 and they only have 11. You can only double so many guys so you gotta pick your spots and pick and choose. I'm sure Tom (Brady), when he sees a double somewhere he goes to the other guy and he's got someone who can beat a 1-on-1. You throw Wes Welker in there, Brandon Lloyd. ... I'm hoping to play them because there's only one game we can play them in (the Super Bowl), but I'm not so sure I want to hope for that."
It would be a high class problem for the Saints. Worrying about how to stop two players in a potential Super Bowl matchup - or acknowledging the headache - means you may be good enough to have to deal with it.
The Saints may well be. The Patriots too. And a lot of that is traceable to the tight ends both teams roll out there.
No, I think they do a great job with matchups. We exploit them the same way (Tom) Brady does. Drew knows (Darren) Sproles is coming out of the backfield. Hes on a linebacker and Im on a corner whos shorter and a little slower. We exploit those matchups just like they do. I think they use the tight ends very similar.With the way the tight end position has evolved, do you think ten years ago, you would have made the move from basketball to football?Definitely. That door was open before with guys like (Antonio) Gates and (Tony) Gonzalez in Atlanta. Hes been doing it forever. He was a basketball prospect. If those guys hadnt laid down that foundation, Id be playing basketball overseas or maybe in the Olympics.Are you or Rob Gronkowski better?
It seems like tight ends also go away with spread offenses. How will your position still be around?I think we match up well. When we play in the middle, not only can you block, you can be at the point of attack. You can stretch a defense and they have to respect the middle of the field.