Editor's note: Props to OakCityRam for providing some of the info for this article.
An NFL tight end is a constantly morphing breed of player. They used to be offensive tackles who showed they could catch an occasional pass thrown their way. Guys like John Mackey (1963-72) and Mike Ditka (1961-'72) were some of the first inklings the position was changing. Ditka was drafted by the Chicago Bears for his fierce blocking skills, but earned All-Pro 5 times and ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame for catching passes. His 427 career receptions for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns, changed how the tight end position was approached by coaches. Mackey had 5,236 receiving yards on 331 receptions for 15.8 yard per catch average and 38 touchdowns. He entered the Hall of fame in 1992. Six years after these two greats retired from the NFL, San Diego's Don Coyell helped turn yet another page in tight end history with Kellen Winslow Sr. (1979'-'87).
In his nine NFL seasons, Winslow caught 541 passes for 6,741 yards and 45 touchdowns, entering the Hall of Fame 1995. The 1982 playoff game against Miami showed what a great tight end could do. In one of the greatest performances by an NFL player ever, Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 and a touchdown, and then blocked a last second field goal. The image of him being helped off the field after the game is still etched in my mind. During the game, he was treated for severe dehydration, leg cramps and even received three stitches in his lower lip. His Miami game stats record would stand for 30 years, but more on that later...
The NFC West has been building up skill positions, and tight end is no exception. Every team in the division can boast of having talented tight ends. The very best of them is San Francisco's Vernon Davis. The 49ers have had problems getting Davis into their offense the last couple years. But some of the blame has to go to opposing defensive coordinators, who've gone out of their way to stymie Davis' other-world speed and athleticism for a big man. Checked at the line, and double covered, Davis has had to work for every catch. If the 49ers can find another wide receiver to take heat off him, Davis will show the world why he's one of the best tight ends in the NFL. San Francisco lost Delanie Walker to free agency, so there's a bit of a drop off in their tight end ranks after Davis. They're hoping rookie Vance McDonald out of Rice can be the guy to fill a big need on their depth chart.
The Arizona Cardinals have an underrated crew at tight end. Rob Housler, in his third year out of Florida Atlantic, had what most would consider a modest 2012: 45 receptions, for 417 yards for a 9.3 yard per catch average. But don't count me among them - Housler's 2012 showed the talent of a very good tight end caught in a failed multiple-quarterback experiment.
So the biggest problem a tight end for the Cardinals will have is Carson Palmer, who really hasn't been known for feeding passes to the position. Housler will see more duty in the red zone under new head coach Bruce Arians, but I don't see his overall yardage numbers climbing above 600, on 55 catches. The depth behind Housler isn't remarkable, so they may have to reach out to a free agent tight end to bolster the group. Visanthe Shiancoe, Kevin Boss and former Cardinal Todd Heap are still available according to RotoWorld.
The Seattle Seahawks have both talent and depth at tight end. Headlined by Zach Miller, and Anthony McCoy - who turned into an effective red zone target in 2012. McCoy could be interesting to watch in 2013. Last season, he only had 18 catches for 291 yards. The number that jumps out at me is his 16.2 yard per catch average, not to mention his 3 touchdowns. Another Rice University tight end product may make an NFC West roster. The Seahawks took Luke Wilson in the 5th round of the most recent NFL Draft. He only had nine catches in his final college season, and 33 total catches for 425 yards, as well as three touchdowns during his time at Rice. Injuries hit Wilson hard, so Pete Carroll taking him in the draft is kind of a head scratch-er. Yet his pro-day performance earned him a shot in the NFL, with a 4.51-40 yard dash, and a 38 in vertical jump from a guy who's 6'5", 251 lbs. He's impressed thus far in rookie mini-camp, but he has a long road ahead of him.
St. Louis has the strongest tight end corps it's had in over a decade. Lance Kendricks has been asked to emphasize his blocking, rather than pass catching skills. But Tev Broner's article on Friday showed the third year former Wisconsin standout is more than capable of being an offensive weapon. The Rams added former Tennessee Titan tight end Jared Cook in free agency, and he really could wind up being the key to the St. Louis offense for 2013. His ability to transition to the slot, and even outside, could provide some great mismatches. The rest of the unit is packed with big, young tight ends who make this unit one of the best you'll see in 2013. Mike McNeill showed his blocking prowess, as well as his ability ti snag the occasional pass. Undrafted free agent Philip Luztenkirchen from Baylor is an intriguing prospect, and who has an outside chance to make the final roster.
My Tight end rankings for the NFC West:
My rational: First, remember when I mentioned Winslow's playoff record for tight ends? Well, it stood for 30 years until Vernon Davis broke it with 180 yards and two touchdowns in 2012. Davis is simply too good to discount the 49ers tight end corp for lack of depth. If they can't find at least one other tight end before the season starts, it could be a problem. St. Louis has the best depth of any NFC West team at the tight end position. The only reason why the Rams aren't #1 here, is Jared Cook's less than overwhelming stats thus far in his career. In Seattle, I like the players, but doubt their ability to contribute other than as blockers. Russell Wilson has a bevy of wide receiving options who'll be snapping up most of the passes. Arizona has Housler, who as I mentioned is a talented tight end. They lose here because of the drop off after Housler, but don't be shocked if he's in the top 3 in stats among NFC West tight ends by the end of the 2013 season.