The game changed. How exactly did it change? Let me show you two pictures to illustrate exactly how the game changed.
Those are tight ends making acrobatic grabs while matched up against cornerbacks. There is a new breed of tight ends that are all the rage in the NFL. No longer are tight ends the on-the-line, hard-nosed blocker types, now they are growing increasingly fluid and athletic and teams are splitting them out wide to strain the defense. This new breed of tight end is a consequence of offenses wanting to spread defenses out instead of pounding them to smithereens like they did a few decades ago; they’re a consequence of the evolution of the NFL passing game.
Confused? Let Trent Dilfer elaborate.
“Tight end has become the second most important position in football right now,” Dilfer said with a forcefulness that brooked no debate. “These guys are the prototype for an athlete enabling a system that is dramatically shifting the game.”
How? Let him count the ways.
“Because of their size and skill set, and because of the way they are employed, on any given play they can be run blockers, they can be pass blockers, they can run routes and catch passes,” Dilfer said. “And teams that can put two or even three tight ends out there at the same time just expand that advantage.
“It’s become a nightmare for defenses. It’s changing the game.”
These new tight ends are a complete match-up nightmare. They’re too big for corners. They’re too athletic for linebackers. And they’re probably too big and athletic for a vast majority of safeties. And like Dilfer said, you don’t know what they’re going to do on any given play.
But this isn’t just about tight ends, the NFL is increasingly straying from the smash-mouth days of yonder. NFL offenses are stringing teams out wide and they’re letting it fly. This year 10 players threw for over 4000 yards, go back just one decade (to 2001) and only two players threw for 4000 yards. If you go back two decades only one player threw for 4000 yards. In 2011 there were 16 players who attempted over 500 passes, in 1991 there was one. Two players (Brees, Brady) broke Dan Marino’s passing yard record and 4 of the top 6 single season passing yardage marks were put up in 2011 (Brees, Brady, Stafford, Manning).
But why am I writing about this? Because this signifies a change the Eagles must make. For too long the Eagles have ignored the linebacker spot and maybe that could fly a few years back when you could get by with less athletic linebackers but in todays’ NFL where linebackers are forced to match-up with Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Jermichael Finley and play in space, that doesn’t work. The value system of the Eagles that puts linebacker at the bottom of the totem pole is antiquated. The new spread out offenses put more pressure on linebackers. Now, linebackers have to be able to play in space and in coverage (which takes more athleticism) while not giving up any ground in the run game. You’re not going to find guys like that late in the draft consistently. Good linebackers who can cover athletic tight ends, survive in space and support the run aren’t just going to fall in your lap. Jeremiah Trotter and Stewart Bradley are outdated models and guys like Lawrence Timmons, Daryl Washington and Patrick Willis are all the rage.
The game changed and the Eagles have yet to react as they keep plugging in these random late round grabs that simply lack the skill set to be a complete linebacker in the modern NFL. The game changed and the Eagles need to change right along with it.
And just for you solutions oriented people, here are some names of guys who could potentially be the kind of guys that I’m talking about:
Keenan Robinson LB Texas
Nigel Bradham LB Florida State
Zach Brown LB North Carolina
Audie Cole LB North Carolina State
Terrell Manning LB North Carolina State