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The Tight End - NFL trends and how Shannon Sharpe changed the position

With no free agency to discuss and little else to talk about many here at MHR have been sustaining our football souls on history and speculation based on history - as meager as that sustenance might be. One bit of this speculation that has been repeated many times is this

"John Fox's teams don't use the TE for anything more than blocking, so Fox's Broncos will do the same"

In doing some research on this I started to want an answer to the broader question of how the NFL currently uses TEs - has it changed in the past decade? If so, what caused the change? Moving on from there I also wanted to know how much truth there is in the conjecture about Fox's use of the TE. I also wanted to compare the Broncos use of the TE over the same time period. Make the jump with me if you are not afraid of stats, graphs and Shannon Sharpe's massive guns

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We'll get back to Sharpe later, but first I am going to show you how the NFL as a league has been changing the way it uses the TE over the past decade - the changes have been pretty dramatic. Throughout the statistical analysis keep in mind that Sharpe had the best years of his 14 year career (the truly position redefining years) in the mid to late 90s with the Broncos.

I did a league-wide analysis by looking at how many total receptions, yds and TD's TEs have had each year and then what percentage of the total NFL catches, yds and receiving TDs went to TEs league-wide.

 

First the catches

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The total number of receptions in the NFL has gradually increased in the past decade from 9500 to 10500 catches per year. As Maxwellsdemon showed us recently, this was done with fewer offensive plays. The total number of TE catches has increased at a much greater rate. Over the past decade TE catches have gone from 1500 per year up to 2200 per year. The relative % rate of change for all nfl catches is about a 1% increase each year. TE catches have been increases at a five times that rate over the past decade. Accordingly the % of TE catches (TE catches/all NFL receptions) has also gone up over the past decade from 16% up to 22% (jump to the % graph at the end if you want to see the trend). According to advanced NFL stats, TEs also have a much higher catch to target percentage than WRs and RBs. So TEs are getting many more catches than they were in 2000 and they catch the ball more often when it is thrown their way. The trend towards offensive efficiency has caused a shift to using the TE more in the passing game, because throws to the TE are generally shorter and higher percentage (at least compared to throws to WRs).

 

So what about receiving yards?

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Not surprisingly, with more catches TEs are accounting for more receiving yards (thanks Captain Obvious). The trend here parallels the trend with catches, but as you will see later, the % of receiving yards being gained by TEs has gone up fairly dramatically over the past decade from 14% up to 20%. The rate of change is also much greater than the rate of overall increase in receiving yards.

Money Balls

Ok, so that's all well and good, but TEs have always been a red zone weapon. Has this changed? Are TEs getting more or fewer TD receptions than they used to?

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Looking at the chart above you see that in the past decade TE TD catches have gone up at about the same rate as TE catches and TE yds. The TD numbers have bounced around much more than the yds and the catches. If you exclude 04, 09 and 10 than the number of TE TD catches has been fairly static over the past decade at somewhere around 130 per year. 2004 saw 13 TEs catch 5 or more TDs with Gates catching 13. 2009 saw 15 TEs catch more than 5 TD passes with 3 TEs catching more than 10 (Shiancoe, Davis and Clark). 2010 saw 14 TEs catch more than 5 TDs again with 3 TEs grabbing 10 TDs (Lewis, Gates and R. Gronkowski). A more normal year like 2003 had only 3 TEs hauling in more than 5 TD passes. So while the increase in yds and catches has been steady, the TD catches have pretty much stayed the same (or maybe increased slightly) if you exclude the three banner years for TEs. The percentage of TD catches going to TEs has fluctuated quite a bit - in a good year 1in 4, in a bad year 1 in 5.

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While I didn't look back at the 90s, 80s or 70s, I don't recall the TE playing anywhere near as big of a part in the offense during those decades. With more time (and motivation) I could probably support that statement with data (but the majority of this data had to be tabulated manually). Here is my Broncocentric leap - Shannon Sharpe redefined the TE position. With the speed of a WR and the strength of an OT, he was a matchup nightmare. He was an adequate blocker (all pass catchers had to be in those Bronco offenses).  The NFL, being a league of imitation, then began looking for TEs who fit that mold and those guys have made the tight end much more of an offensive weapon than before. These changes, in the TE position and how it has been used, all occurred after Sharpe made his mark on the league.

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Relevance to the 2011 Broncos

So how was the TE used by the Panthers under Fox? And how have the Broncos used the TE during that same time frame?

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The Panthers under Fox only had about 15% of their catches going to TEs, although 2009 makes the trend appear to be that the Panthers were using the TE more than earlier in Fox's tenure. The Broncos under Shanny were gradually reducing the % of catches that went to TE, but even with that the Broncos in the past decade under Shanny were still throwing more balls to the TEs than the league average. Under McD the TE was at first deemphasized (2009) and then completely ignored (2010). For perspective in 2010, 21.5% of all receptions were made by a TE league-wide while the Broncos only had 8.1% of their catches going to a TE. The TE TD catch data is pretty similar.

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The Panthers and Broncos had a fair amount of fluctuation during this time period, but the Panthers under Fox ended up averaging about 1 in 5 TD catches going to a TE. In stark contrast, the Broncos used to throw an huge % of their TDs to the TEs, always being above average to way above average. In 2003, 47% - 9 of 19 receiving TDs - went to Bronco's TEs (Cooper Carlisle included here even though he was a T). That number was more than double the league average of 19.3% for that year. Only under McD did the Broncos shift away from throwing TDs to the TEs, with 2009 being the first year in the sample where the Broncos were below the league average and 2010 seeing the Broncos throw 0% of their passing TDs to TEs. Oh, Patrick Hape where have you gone!?! (For those of you who have forgotten, Hape was a TE-FB for the Broncos who made 32 catches with for 9 TDs during his 4 years in Denver.)

So if Fox follows his historic usage of the TE, we will have more passes thrown to TEs than during the McD years, but fewer than during the Shanny years. RedZone-wise history says that we should see the same thing for TE TD catches - more than when McD was here, but fewer than when Shanny was here. Of course, this presumes that McCoy moves away from the McD playbook enough to start using the TE more. This also presumes that one of the TEs who make the team will be a legitimate pass catching threat and that whoever starts at QB will have a good rapport with him.

2011 Broncos TEs

Is the next Shannon Sharpe on the roster? Probably not since Sharpe is a Hall of Famer and we may not see another player like him playing for the Broncos, but Green and Thomas both have promise. In this strangest of NFL off-seasons, we can dream that our two later round TE draft picks can turn into the next Sharpe (Green) and the next Gates (Thomas). Remember, folks, Sharpe was a 7th round draft pick himself from a small school that played well below BS (oops, I mean BCS) level football.

Go Broncos and thanks for wasting another portion of you time reading one of my posts. :-)

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This is a Fan-Created Comment on MileHighReport.com. The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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