The NFL’s three most prolific passing offenses last season belonged to the New Orleans Saints (334.2 ypg), New England Patriots (317.8 ypg) and Green Bay Packers (307.8 ypg). There are a number of reasons why these offenses were so good last season, chief among them sound offensive line play, explosive receivers, schematic superiority and quarterback mastery.
It also helps when you have tight ends who—to put it rather bluntly but completely accurately—are dominant in every sense of the word.
Blocking was long held as the primary duty of most NFL tight ends. That couldn’t be farther from the truth in today’s league, where explosive catch-and-run capabilities are a must for any TE in an above-average offensive system. The plodding, block-first TEs of old have morphed into the receiving threats of incalculable effectiveness littered about today’s elite pass offenses.
Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Jermichael Finley exemplify this new breed of alpha-male tight end, players with both the strength to run over defensive backs and the speed to evade linebackers. It’s almost unfair really, the way these players confound opposing defensive coordinators with their otherworldly brute force and athleticism.
The Giants had the pleasure of trying to defend one of these new age TEs in the NFC Championship game, when the 49ers’ Vernon Davis outran Antrell Rolle and the rest of the secondary for a 73-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Big Blue overcame the early setback, thanks in large part to some particularly heady play on special teams from both Jacquain Williams and Devin Thomas (ok, Kyle Williams had something to do with it, too.) The ensuing victory in San Francisco presented Perry Fewell with a more difficult challenge: defending Gronkowski in the Super Bowl.
Fortunately for Big Blue, New England’s Hulk-like pass-catching threat was hobbled by an ankle injury, accounting for a mere two catches and 26 receiving yards and sparing the Giants’ secondary from the havoc he frequently and so effortlessly wreaked on his opponents all season.
Big Blue is yet to develop a Gronk-like talent, but they may have acquired a similar player with their fourth-round pick in this year’s draft.
I speak of Adrien Robinson, the 6-4, 265-lb TE from Cincinnati who general manager Jerry Reese called the “Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends.” While Robinson may not live up to those lofty expectations, he could provide the Giants with another dynamic receiving target to complement a set of explosive receivers. Better yet, his size, speed (4.58 40-yd dash at his pro day) and quickness make him the perfect candidate to follow in the footsteps of Graham, Finley, Davis and Gronkowski.
Eli Manning threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns last year with Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum as his primary receiving tight ends. Ballard and Beckum are two solid players, to be sure. But in terms of talent, neither is in the same stratosphere as any of the players I just mentioned.
Robinson is raw and completely unproven. He was a one-year starter with the Bearcats and caught just 29 passes during his collegiate career. Similarly, the Saints’ Graham started at tight end for Miami for just one season and had just 17 catches to his name when New Orleans took him in the third-round of the 2010 draft. Known more for his exploits on the hardwood than on the gridiron while at Miami, Graham was the main beneficiary of Drew Brees’ record-breaking 2011 campaign, leading the Saints with 1,310 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
Robinson is the same type of developmental, tons-of-upside talent that Graham was coming out of college. It would be foolish to expect him to make the same immediate impact, let alone supplant Martellus Bennett atop the tight end depth chart right away. But if TE coach Mike Pope can transform that size, speed and upside into the next matchup-nightmare, Graham-like TE-WR hybrid, Eli would have another dangerous weapon to go along with an already impressive receiving corps, the one missing piece in an otherwise potent passing attack.