The NFL landscape has shifted towards the “move” tight end. Commonly refereed to as a “Joker”, this hybrid breed of new-age pass catchers are much more jumbo receivers than they are traditional “Y” in-line tight ends of the past. Former Saints Jimmy Graham seemed to be the trend setter at the position when he arrived in the NFL in 2010. Although he’s 6’7” 265 pounds, the former University of Miami basketball player was often seen split out, where he could use his size, deceptive speed, and excellent route running ability to cause mismatches for linebackers and safeties.
During his first full season as a starter in New Orleans, Graham caught 99 passes for 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns. He would go on to post similar type numbers over the next few years, causing a rather awkward situation when he became a free agent after the 2013 season. The Saints placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on him, paying him as a tight end (his listed position), but his camp felt he should be paid like a wide receiver (where he often lined up in the Saints offense). The difference in average salary was around 5 million per year under the tag. His case went to arbitration, and it was ruled that he was indeed a tight end for purposes of the franchise tag.
Although Graham was not the first tight end since the turn of the century to be used like this, he was viewed as sort of a pioneer for this new, hybid breed who was about to take over the NFL.
Our very own Jordan Reed is another great example of this hybrid “move” tight end. The Redskins use a healthy Reed in many different positions in an attempt to create mismatches in the passing game. Even more traditional in-line tight ends like Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert are often split out in an attempt to do the same.
These athletic jumbo receivers have caused havoc for opposing defenses. They are too big to be covered by a corner, and too fast to ask a linebacker to try and stay with them. Teams are now turning to a hybrid safety/linebacker (often referred to as a dime linebacker, or a STAR backer), to be a specialist in covering these types of tight ends.
The Redskins have been abused by tight ends over what seems like the last seven seasons. Ever since we switched to the 3-4 defense in 2010 under then head coach Mike Shanahan, tight ends have feasted on our defense.
This season, in our division alone, we face Zach Ertz (Eagles) and Evan Engram (Giants), two of the better move tight ends in the NFL, twice. We will also see Ricky Seals-Jones (Cardinals), Jimmy Graham (Packers), Greg Olsen (Panthers), O.J. Howard (Bucs), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Jaguars) and Delanie Walker (Titans).
So, will the Redskins be able to match-up with these pass catchers?
Our starting linebacking corps in our 3-4 base defense consists of Mason Foster and Zach Brown. Neither are particularly good in coverage. While Brown has the speed and athleticism to run with many NFL wide receivers (never mind tight ends), he’s much better in zone coverage than trying to turn and run the seam with a guy like Zach Ertz. If Foster somehow ends up getting matched up one-on-one with a TE, it’s game over!
Second year safety-turned-linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons is the best coverage linebacker the Redskins have. He has the length, size, speed and fluidity to run with these move tight ends. The issue is, Harvey-Clemons is a reserve linebacker, and will sometimes only be used in nickle. If teams pass on first and 10, which many do, he most likely wont be in the game.
This leaves our safeties as viable options.
Both D.J. Swearinger and Montae Nicholson absolutely have the ability to match up with an athletic tight end in off-man coverage. The issues is, smart offensive coordinators will see this shift, and can use these move tight ends to pull coverage away from their receivers, often allowing one-on-one coverage on one of the outside receivers running a deep route.
Young players like Adonis Alexander, Quin Blanding and Troy Apke, who all offer a nice combination of size, hip fluidity and speed, may be able to provide some coverage ability as an added defender shading a tight end in sub packages. But again, the issues arises when we are in a base defense, and these extra defensive backs are not on the field.
The only solution that comes to mind is to roll with a traditional 4-3 under base defense, or play a 3-4 with a underneath robber. Both options would allow a defender to match up with a tight end (one in a man look, and the other in a rolled-up zone) in an attempt to try and negate these dangerous pass catchers.
Again, the problem still arises that when you roll the safety down in an under coverage, it takes away some of that deep help. Sure, you can have your MIKE drop high-hole, but with either Foster or Brown, that is not their strength.
Hopefully defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can come up with an scheme to stop these tight ends from gashing the Redskins defense this season, and end what seems like a decade-long epidemic.