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Tight ends more important than ever

Statistically, NFL tight ends are making more of an impact than ever before.

Last season, for example, tight ends broke the records for receptions (2,256), receiving yards (24,969) and touchdowns (190). Now, tight ends are becoming so important, offenses can't win without them.

Eighteen tight ends are on pace for 50-catch seasons, which would be yet another record. But the interesting thing is that 13 of the top 14 pass-catching tight ends are on teams that are 2-2 or better. In a passing league, a quarterback has to be able to work the middle of the field to maintain drives and score in the red zone.

The Patriots have been at the forefront of the change. They averaged 63 offensive plays per game last season, and Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were aligned in two-tight end sets on 39 of those plays. After New England finished 14-2, teams started to copy that formula.

The Houston Texans, for example, have been in two- and three-tight end sets on 51 of their 64 plays a game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They're 3-1. Leaguewide, two- and three-tight end sets are up to 22 plays a game per team compared to 10 featuring the conventional two-back, one-tight end formation.

Slowly, most teams are phasing out the fullback position, opting to use more versatile tight ends who can catch and block. Fullbacks will always have a place on some NFL rosters, but fewer teams are keeping them. There is a downside to that because teams not using fullbacks are having trouble getting touchdown runs near the goal line and are having some difficulty holding fourth-quarter leads because they aren't running the ball as successfully.

But you can understand what's going on with tight ends. The tight ends who are tall pass-catchers are tough for defenses to match up against. If you go to a nickel defense, the tight end is bigger and often just as fast as the cornerback covering him. If you match him up against a safety, the tight end has a size advantage. If the defense stays in a base look, the linebacker may not be able to cover him.

From the inbox

Q: I have a question about Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman and the other NFC East quarterbacks.
Neither Michael Vick nor Tony Romo has received as much criticism even though they have committed just as many, if not more, turnovers than Grossman. He is the only one of the three who has gone to a Super Bowl, so why is he seemingly taking the bulk of the criticism week in and week out?

Tony in Washington, D.C.

A: Your point is fair, but Grossman hasn't really shown the ability to win games on his own. The others have. So much of his success in Chicago was based on how the Bears scored points on returns and defense while Grossman did just enough to win games. Though he has a strong arm, Grossman doesn't scare defenses if there is going to be an offensive shootout. Eli Manning, Vick and Romo all have the ability to win games with their ability. All four quarterbacks get criticized for turnovers, but the other three can carry a team more than Grossman. The funny thing is that of the four teams in the NFC East, the schedule favors Grossman and the Redskins to have the best chance to win the division. Imagine that.

Q: As a Steelers fan I am distressed with the way the defense is playing. It seems to have already missed more tackles this season than the previous several seasons combined. But the Steelers are not alone in that department. To me that is a point nobody is talking about. There were no workouts this past offseason, and fewer practices in pads during training camp and the regular season. Fewer opportunities to tackle live ball carriers in practice leads to more mistakes and poor play in games. Do you think this could be an early trend from the new rules on contact in practice from the new CBA?

Terry in Albuquerque, N.M.

A: Poor tackling technique is being mentioned, but I agree with you, I don't think it is totally registering in the minds of everyone. The first four weeks of the season have been the perfect storm for success for quarterbacks. Defenses haven't had the chance to get in shape for 60 minutes of football. They weren't trained by coaches during the offseason and the limited amount of contact has made it tougher for them in games. You also have to add in the fact that for fear of fines and suspensions, defenders can't just launch their bodies at offensive players like before. They have to think about using the shoulder instead of the helmet, and that causes a slight delay in making the tackle, a delay that could allow the runner to slip by a defender.

Q: The Lions are 4-0 and have DT Nick Fairley coming back any week now. My biggest concern is the offensive line, most notably at right guard. Do you believe it's possible that the Lions trade a defensive lineman (Corey Williams/ Sammy Lee Hill) for a quality RG to improve their running game before the trade deadline?

Robert G in Atlanta

A: I don't see any trade happening. Like most teams, it's so late in the process that you make the best you can out of the talent that is there. I'm more concerned about the offensive tackle positions. We've seen Peyton Manning and Drew Brees get through seasons with average or below-average tackles. Jeff Backus has been a steady left tackle, but there are times he's showing some age. The right tackle spot is uncertain. As long as Matthew Stafford gets rid of the ball quickly, though, all should be fine.

Q: As a lifelong Dolphins fan I can't help but openly root for the Fins to lose to get Andrew Luck. Do you think, behind the scenes, an owner or GM would ever secretly hint to his coach to tank? Also, do you think Luck is the type to refuse to sign with the team that drafts him (i.e. Eli, Elway?)

Brad in Beverly, Mass.

A: I'm glad you brought that up about the Dolphins. They are 0-4 and may not have Chad Henne for the rest of the season because of a left shoulder separation. That would put them in the lead for Luck, but you aren't going to have Tony Sparano, the coach, or Jeff Ireland, the general manager, tank the season. Their jobs are on the line. If the Dolphins are in position to get Luck, those guys probably wouldn't be making the selection. Plus, it's not fair to the fans who buy Dolphins tickets to deliver losses and not effort. Only one team gets Luck. Finishing second in the Luck sweepstakes only adds to the frustrations.

Q: Last week the Lions and Vikes went into OT. The Lions won the toss, drove down and kicked the winning field goal. I thought the rule had changed where if the team that won the toss kicked a field goal, the other team got a shot at the ball? Second, I thought as part of the collective bargaining agreement there was now a floor to the salary cap as well as a ceiling. If that is the case, how is it that teams like K.C., Tampa Bay and Jacksonville are so far under the cap?

Mike H in Philadelphia

A: The overtime rule in the regular season has not changed. The first team that scores wins the game. The weird thing is the referee in that game had the rule confused, which probably leads to your confusion. The NFL is not ready to go two possessions for regular-season overtime games. It only applies in the playoffs. At the last minute of settling the collective bargaining agreement, the NFLPA gave the owners a two-year reprieve on the salary floor; it starts in 2013. As it stands, though, just about every team will reach the minimum this season.

Q: Let's say football returns to Los Angeles. And let's say, instead of the Chargers relocating, it's the Minnesota Vikings. What would be your guess as to the realignment of the NFC? Would the Rams join the North and L.A.'s team join the West? Would there be total realignment?

Joe in Chicago

A: I don't see a total realignment. Plus, the league would hate to break up the NFC North. It's the perfect division for rivalries and geography. They would probably just do the simple swap of moving St. Louis to the NFC North and then put the Los Angeles team in the NFC West.

Q: I know that this is the only thing that anyone talks about whenever the Denver Broncos are mentioned, but I want to know what you think. Kyle Orton is so mediocre. There is not one special thing about the guy. If (when) Denver goes into its bye week at 1-4, is it time for a change at QB to truly see who gives the team the best chance to win? It's getting very old for Denver fans.

Kevin

A: Kevin, I feel your pain. I think Orton is better than you think but the Broncos are down on talent. The problem at quarterback is that Brady Quinn in the next best option, and Tim Tebow needs time to develop. As a Broncos fan, I know you have faith in John Elway. I like the way he's running things. I think he'll find some quarterback solutions for next year, but it's going to be tough this season.

Q: A lot of people are talking about the resurgent Raiders, but when I look at the team, I see a lot of points being given up and a secondary that has a lot of issues. I know the front four is good, maybe great, but the rest of that defense does not put fear in my mind. Given the division and schedule, do you honestly see this team as a playoff bully?

Adam in Nashville, Tenn.

A: Playoff bully, no. Playoff contender, yes. The AFC is down this year. The Steelers are struggling. The Jets are off to a slow start. Baltimore, Houston, New England and San Diego may be among the best teams in the conference, but each has a flaw or two. The next group of contenders are Oakland, Buffalo and Tennessee. I agree with your assessment of the Raiders' secondary. What I like is that they can run the ball, score points and beat people up with their defensive line. That may not make them bullies, but it keeps them in the street fight.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
@ClaytonESPN