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Tight Ends Are More Important Than Ever In College Football

Stanford coach David Shaw has never been confused for someone bound by the zeitgeist. Because the pro-style devotee runs “a more traditional program,” Shaw told me this offseason, he will typically look to the NFL rather than his college contemporaries for schematic inspiration.1

This is likely why Shaw was ahead of his peers on one front: showcasing the value of the dual-purpose tight end. Even if the position’s worth at the NFL level arguably reached its high-water mark years ago, the golden age of the college tight end has just arrived. Since Shaw was installed as head coach prior to the 2011 season, the Cardinal has featured tight ends in the passing game more than any Power Five conference team in the country.2 Stanford has had 34 players selected in the NFL draft under Shaw, and six were tight ends — the most of any position group.

This season, however, Shaw isn’t the only coach spotlighting a position that’s traditionally been kept in the shadows, an outlet receiver once only used if all other options were exhausted. From a statistical perspective, it’s never been more fruitful to play tight end at the college level.3

The position’s evolution — from lineman facsimile to occasional route-runner to dynamic playmaker — is a microcosm for the shift in how coaches employ the athletes they put on the field. One-note skillsets are out, versatility is in.

At the Power Five level this season, coaches have used at least one tight end on 86.5 percent of all offensive snaps, a rate roughly 34 percentage points higher than it was at the same point in the season in 2014. And that heightened usage isn’t just for show. Tight ends have combined to accumulate 1,271 receptions on 1,941 targets, 15,144 receiving yards and 145 touchdowns, the highest marks at this point in each respective season since at least 2008.

Since the 2004 season, there have been 55 instances of a Power Five tight end accumulating at least 350 receiving yards through the seventh game of the season. Nine have occurred this season.

As the proliferation of pass-heavy offensive ecosystems continues at both the college and professional levels, it stands to reason that catch-capable players would see their raw totals spike. But even while accounting for that, the volume of tight end production is steadily rising.

Since the 2014 season, the share of receptions4 collected by tight ends through seven games has risen from 10.6 percent to 14.0 percent, while the share of receiving yards has climbed from 9.9 percent to 13.5 percent. Tight ends have accounted for 14.3 percent of all passing first downs, up over 4 percentage points from the 2010 season. Accordingly, quarterbacks are looking for tight ends more often, as they now garner 13.8 percent of targets, their highest share of targets at this point of any season since at least 2010.

Merely targeting tight ends in the passing game has also become more worthwhile, as it relates to generating successful plays. Per target, tight ends have accounted for 0.27 expected points added, an increase of nearly 60 percent from the position’s contribution in the 2015 season.

That evolution of tight ends is reflected even where they line up on the field. Through seven games, tight ends have accounted for 46 receptions when lined up out wide.5 Last year, they had 71 over the entire season. The new tight ends run routes like wide receivers do and prey on the linebackers who are often assigned to defend them.

And with those alterations comes a new prototype. Draft evaluators must now consider not only size and strength, but also whether the athlete has soft hands, route-running proficiency, in-air coordination and speed. “Tight ends,” Washington State coach Mike Leach once said, “are a blast if you have them. If you have a true tight end — and I mean a true tight end — then life is good.”

While the vast majority of NFL tight ends have college experience, that has not been a critical prerequisite for several star tight ends in the last 20 years.6 Perhaps the success of these once-unorthodox players has contributed to the rise of the modern-day tight end. Though, to be sure, the route-running and playmaking component of this generation of tight ends has come with a tradeoff for some who — in get-off-my-lawn fashion — bemoan the blocking inability of the newest crop.

For nearly a half-century, the tight end position was shorthand for a player predominantly tasked with blocking who would occasionally haul in a short-yardage pass. A coach wouldn’t have dreamed of focusing his playbook on the position that stood as a glorified lineman. But the days of the traditional tight end are over. The 2018 NFL season included two of the five highest single-season target totals ever for tight ends. And in college, tight ends are finding their way into the box score like never before, garnering an increasing share of targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. What once was an afterthought is now a viable threat in any situation.

Looking ahead: Week 9

Game of the Week: LSU (32 percent playoff odds) vs. Auburn (8 percent), 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

How LSU vs. Auburn swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Oct. 26 LSU-Auburn game

Change in odds if LSU…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Loses Weighted Difference*
LSU 31.6% +10.3 -20.2 +/-13.6
Auburn 8.2 -6.5 +12.8 8.6
Florida 10.8 -1.1 +2.2 1.5
Oklahoma 50.7 -1.1 +2.2 1.5
Alabama 50.4 +0.9 -1.8 1.2
Notre Dame 13.2 -0.7 +1.3 0.9
Penn State 20.1 -0.5 +1.1 0.7
Ohio State 57.3 -0.4 +0.7 0.5
Clemson 80.5 -0.4 +0.7 0.5
Total† 30.9

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

After surviving Florida in the second-most-important game of Week 7, LSU and its brutal schedule are back for the biggest game of Week 9. This time, the Bayou Bengals will host Auburn, which lost in its own showdown against the Gators the week before LSU faced them. Our model has LSU favored here, with a 66 percent chance of winning, and the Tigers had better take advantage with a trip to Tuscaloosa looming in two weeks. LSU is one of eight undefeated major-conference schools (along with Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Baylor and Minnesota), and the Tigers’ remaining schedule — including this game against Auburn — is the most difficult of the bunch in terms of its opponents’ average Elo rating. If LSU does lose to Alabama, it can scarcely afford to lose this one as well and still hope to make the playoff. As for Auburn, it still has an outside shot (8 percent) at a playoff bid, and that number would rise to 21 percent (basically the same chance Penn State has right now, for comparison’s sake) if it can knock off LSU. Auburn just needs to keep winning — a task a lot easier said than done against a remaining schedule just as tough as LSU’s. Either way, basically every other top contender in the country (except Alabama) is rooting for an Auburn win.

The most important games of Week 9

Week 9 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game Other Team Most Affected (Rooting interest)* Total Swing
1 LSU-Auburn Florida (Auburn) 30.9%
2 Ohio State-Wisconsin Penn State (Wisconsin) 23.5
3 Notre Dame-Michigan Oklahoma (Michigan) 21.7
4 Oklahoma-Kansas State Notre Dame (Kansas State) 16.1
5 Penn State-Michigan State Ohio State (Michigan State) 12.2
6 Oregon-Washington State Notre Dame (Washington State) 11.5
7 Texas-Texas Christian Clemson (Texas) 7.6
8 Missouri-Kentucky Alabama (Missouri) 7.3
9 Utah-California Oklahoma (California) 7.0
10 Minnesota-Maryland LSU (Maryland) 5.7

*This is the team outside of the game in question whose playoff odds project to change the most, depending on the outcome. Listed in parentheses is the team whose victory would increase the affected team’s odds.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.

Footnotes

  1. One could infer as much.

  2. Stanford tight ends have accounted for 541 receptions since 2011, nearly 100 more than any other Power Five team over that stretch.

  3. The same could certainly be said of quarterbacks or wide receivers.

  4. We looked solely at receptions made by wide receivers, running backs and tight ends — and not, for example, quarterback receptions on trick plays or tipped passes.

  5. Typically, these routes are designated for speedy wide receivers or possession receivers.

  6. Basketball converts like Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas have found success in the NFL with little or no college experience.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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