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Zach Ertz, Ladarius Green: Who’s The Next Great NFL Tight End?

Sam Spiegelman looks at the next generation of pass-catching tight ends like Zach Ertz and Ladarius Green who are reshaping the position as we know it.

Zach Ertz
Zach Ertz

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

The tight end position is changing in the NFL.

Earlier on Tuesday, the New Orleans Saints handed Jimmy Graham a record-setting contract that made him the highest-paid tight end in the league, a deal that compares well with the money issued to some of the NFL’s best wide receivers.

Because that’s what Graham’s contributions are — as a receiver — lining up in the slot more often than on the line and impacting the game as a pass-catcher more so than a blocker.

That’s what the next wave of tight ends are: pass-catchers. They are guys that change the dynamic of an offense because of their unique size and athleticism lining up and creating mismatches with opposing defenders.

Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski, players that can contribute as both blockers and receivers, are a thing of the past. Now it’s the new Jimmy Graham breed of tight ends. Here’s a ranking of the next wave of hybrid tight ends:

The Givens

Not to ruffle any feathers, I’ve included the tight ends already in the elite category. Right now it’s a small class that includes Graham, Davis, and Gronk, players have already had a say in re-shaping the position.

Graham and Gronk are among the best pass-catchers in the NFL regardless of position, and Davis has the game-changing ability but is stuck in an offense that relies on the tight end to be a key run-blocker.

On the verge

Jordan Cameron was the among the league’s best pass-catching tight ends up until midway through the 2013 season, playing much like Jimmy Graham does. Cameron enjoyed a breakout year in his third professional season, hauling in 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns with a revolving door under center. Eventually Johnny Manziel takes over as the Browns’ quarterback, which means he’ll look to his big, athletic tight end as he progresses as a pro.

Julius Thomas fits this criteria, too, as his 2013 numbers already prove he’s one of the best tight ends in the game. However, you have to chock some of the production to being a receiver in a Peyton Manning-led offense. There’s no doubting Thomas’ skill-set but it’s fair to argue his impact would not be as great in another system. He’s still ultra-athletic and one of the best red-zone threats, and there’s no doubting he should replicate his fantastic 2013 campaign again this year.

Awaiting a breakout

Jordan Reed emerged as a dangerous weapon in the Redskins offense as a rookie in 2013 before concussions prematurely ended his season. Concussions will be the only thing that can hinder Reed’s abilities to be a dynamic pass-catcher because he now has a healthy Robert Griffin III and better weapons around him, so success seems inevitable. If concussions don’t slow Reed down, then he should thrive in Jay Gruden’s offense.

Many are wondering whether DeSean Jackson‘s absence will open the door for Jordan Matthews to emerge as a rookie or Riley Cooper to prove himself a legit No. 2 wideout. If anything, expect Zach Ertz to be the player that winds up being a major contributor. Ertz has received praise all offseason from his coaches and teammates, and it doesn’t hurt that he’ll do so in an offense that tends to produce a lot of points and a lot of yards.

Ladarius Green is stuck behind a legend in San Diego, but many are counting on Green to overtake Antonio Gates as the Bolts’ main tight end threat in 2014. Green has received first-team reps over the offseason, and reports indicate he is becoming a better route-runner. He managed a 22.1 yard per reception average with 17 catches in 2013; that proves he has big-play ability that Mike McCoy will try and take advantage of.

Keeping an eye on

Eric Ebron is already being touted as the next Jimmy Graham, but let’s give him a chance to be a rookie first. Because he’s young and has yet to play on the professional stage, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him undergo somewhat of a transitional period. With that being said, he’s jumping into the same Saints offense that helped Graham emerge as an elite pass-catcher, and because Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Golden Tate are already in place, there’s not a lot of pressure on Ebron to be a go-to guy yet. His ceiling, though, remains extremely high.

Hue Jackson has the ability to transform offenses, and perhaps second-year player Tyler Eifert will be one of the benefactors in Cincinnati. Eifert does not possess the outstanding athleticism that Cameron or Thomas has, but he could have more opportunities in the Bengals’ new-look offense. The issue remains Jermaine Gresham, who will continue to steal targets from Eifert. Eifert is poised to get better, but elite is likely out of the question.

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