Tight Ends are a difficult position to fully evaluate. The diversity demanded of tight ends is unparalleled. We expect them to perform different roles – catch passes, lead block, and pass block. Sometimes they’ll line up as a fullback and other times they’ll line up as a flanker. Tight ends lined up in the slot or as a split end are no longer rare.
The original function of the tight end, of course, was to provide an extra blocker on the line. Because of the rules of the NFL, they had to check in as eligible receivers. Of course, teams exploited this (being sure to play the flanker or a split end off the line so it’s not an illegal formation) to add to the passing game, but it certainly was not a necessary function. Good tight ends knew how to block on the outside and be good at blitz pickups in jumbo packages.
Tight ends have shifted around, and today can often be seen in the backfield, performing a fullback function. The highest paid tight ends excel at receiving and blocking, but are of course much more notable for their on-the-ball production. Much of their passing game occurred in the slot or the flat, but recently, folks like Jimmy Graham, Aaron Hernandez and Jeremy Shockey have been proving they can be deep threats as well. Much of this credit has to go to Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzales, in my opinion.
So… how do I grade them if they perform so many different functions?
Well, I’ll be a little harsh. Unlike running backs or wide receivers, I’ll expect them to do well in all aspects of that game. I don’t particularly like how this decision will treat some of our (and my) favorites, and I’ll curve a little bit for expectations and in-game function, but… it’s a dynamic position. Being dynamic helps.
TE: Jim Kleinsasser – The People’s Champion. I love Jim Kleinsasser. I’m just going to put that out there. I was raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota and while in all other ways, I’m a proper University of Minnesota Gopher, I can only support the UND when it comes to hockey. There, I said it. Jim and I both survived the 1997 Red River flood (which we’ve taken to calling the Big, Big Flood) while he was attending UND and I was attending the third grade. We both left Grand Forks in 1999 to do bigger and better things in the fall (he played in the NFL, I went to high school). So in many ways, he and I are the same person. *cough*.
Anyway… we all know Kleinsasser’s strength is as a blocking tight end. After watching years of his play, I felt confident in saying he was the best run blocker in the country. Well after looking at snaps and (finally got access to this) game film of some of the top fullbacks and tight ends, I can easily say that he is. That’s not an exaggeration, or homerism; his eliteness at blocking has been something that game trackers have been acknowledging for years. In Pro Football Focus’ system – they grade each play between -2 to +2, in 0.5 point increments – Jim Kleinsasser’s run blocking was the best of all fullbacks and tight ends in 2008, 3rd best in 2009, had an off year in 2010 (bad games against Detroit and Miami), and once again best in 2011.
He makes very few mistakes run blocking, he has excellent technique and above all, has the best instincts I have seen out of run blockers yet. Here are some great examples of his blocking: Webb TD against the Eagles, AD’s 43 yard touchdown against the Bills, AD’s touchdown against the Bucs this year (go to 1:25 of the video), and two more in this great 2010 Highlights video (no, that’s not a joke, it’s done quite well. Mute it if you don’t like swearing. The Kleinsasser blocks are at the plays beginning at 2:35). It is of course hard to find highlights of people blocking, but there you go. He pancakes defenders often and will occasionally be able to block 2 or 3 defenders (not often, but sometimes, he will knock a DB into another defender and then move into the flow of the run to pick up another block). That first video tells you about his instincts, and the other three tell you about his ability to control the running game by creating holes with good technique.
Unparalleled is his ability to sense the direction of the run game and move down the field to make the perfect block. He has enabled more breakaways than possibly any other tight end in the NFL. The only other comparable run blockers this year are possibly Delanie Walker from the 49ers and the first 4 games of Ron Gronkowski’s season with the Patriots. Ridley does very little without Gronkowski, I can tell you that much. Gronkowski’s had a considerable dropoff in runblocking and Delanie Walker is behind Vernon Davis, so they both are making a relatively quiet impact in the running game. Gronkowski, naturally, is having quite the overall impact.
His best run blocking game this year is probably the Cardinals game. In the second drive, he picked up a great block and prevented Paris Lenon from turning the corner and making an 11 yard gain a 3 yard loss. The very next play, he picks up 2 Cardinals defenders (initially, it looks like 3, but the other one is forcing Peterson to cheat inside) and once again Jimmy turns a 1 yard play into a 4 yard play. On the next play, once again, Kleinsasser muscles Joey Porter while Percy Harvin picks up Lenon to pave a clear path for Peterson. If you can, look at that play, Kleinsasser pushes Porter back 6 or 7 yards, clogging up the lane and preventing Dan Williams from making the play as well. This happens the entire game. And it has been happening for about 12 or 13 years.
[Note: Found that play: it’s 12 seconds in. Ignore that the highlights announcer sounds like a high schooler]
I could go on and on about his run blocking, but I think you get the point. He’s the best run blocking tight end or fullback in the league. I would argue that he’s probably a better run blocker than perhaps 90% of tackles or guards in the NFL as well, but perhaps that’s not fair – he doesn’t often have the ability to showcase his run blocking strength against DTs; it’s a different type of run blocking there.
Well, that’s one type of blocking. What about pass blocking? He’s pretty good at that, too. Chris points that out here. This year, he’s not as hot. As in, he’s still good but not as good as the last three years. In 54 pass blocking snaps, he’s graded by PFF to have allowed 4 QB hurries, 1 hit, and no sacks. Given that people like Brent Celek have been assigned pass blocking a similar amount of times (55 or so) and have allowed 1 QB hurry and no hits or sacks. Leonard Pope has been involved in 67 pass blocking snaps has allowed 2 QB hurries and 1 hit.
I don’t actually agree with their QB pressure count, Kleinsasser has been a bit worse than that – he should be assigned primary responsibility for Tamba Hali’s sack of Donovan at 10:31 of the 4th quarter, for example. He let Tamba Hali get the best of him later, too – he registered a hit while Kleinsasser was blocking him with 3:28 left in the game. He had one block which I feel should have had a penalty called on it, too.
Other than that game, he’s been quite good, only allowing one more pressure in the other 7 games. Kleinsasser seems to do worse pass blocking from the split end position, which might be enough for opponents to gather enough time to gather steam but not so much time that they give away their technique, which blocking at the line or as fullback would prevent.
Kleinsasser is a bit lacking as a pass-catching tight end. He has had 1 yard per target and has run 4 clean pass routes out of 39 total snaps in pass formations (without being a pass blocker) and has had a total of 4 yards, for a total of 4 yards per route run. Compare this to other marginal pass-catchers – Donald Lee of Cincinnati, Zach Miller of Jacksonville, Will Heller of Detroit, Matt Spaeth in Chicacgo, etc. – and you find that Kleinsasser really isn’t worth throwing to as a general rule. He looked great in the preseason, I remember, and I don’t think we should refuse to throw to him in general – sometimes his dumpoffs can be wonderfully surprising, but not more than once every two games. His route running is easily busted by jams or bodies and his pass-catching instincts are OK at best. His hands are pretty good, but not enough to make up for awkward position or real receiving battles. Given that we don’t ask him to run pass routes, and generally ask him to perform the H-Back role, it’s not awful for us.
You can tell that Kleinsasser has picked up Musgrave’s system quickly and in many ways thrives in it – a system that deploys two or three TE sets that gives each tight end a different responsibility is good for him, in particular. If Kleinsasser had better pass-catching abilities, we probably wouldn’t have him catch too many passes anyway, as he’d be a better blocker, but it would add another dynamic to our offensive system.
Looking over the game film for these articles multiple times tells me that one of the strengths of our offensive system is its unpredictability (that’s why the Blazer package was even conceived). We don’t generally call Jim Zorn crazy plays, but we don’t necessarily do the same thing on every first down or the same thing from the same formation. We motion often to make the reads easier, and Kleinsasser motions like a professional. Think that doesn’t matter? Without it, we either absorb an illegal shift call (which has happened several times this year) or take a few hits on the play clock and give more time for the defense to set. Honestly, I wish Harvin and Gerhart could motion just a little cleaner. It’s not up there as wishes go, but it’d be nice.
So while Kleinsasser has been better at most tight end responsibilities than you or I might be at anything, he still has areas he’s weak in. As I said, I would grade tight ends on all aspects of their play, which means he’ll take a penalty for this.
Grade: B. He is not good for the pass game, but is so superior as a blocker that it erodes much of what’s lost otherwise. If I was grading him as a fullback, which is what Pro Football Focus lists him as, I would give him an A+ despite zero snaps as a ball carrier.
TE: Visanthe Shiancoe – Endowed. With Talent, I Mean. Signed from the New York Giants (3rd round draft pick), Visanthe Shiancoe has been a familiar face on the Vikings for years now. In his second season with his Vikings, his production skyrocketed – before he had only 4 total touchdowns and in 2008, he had 7. He nearly equaled the amount of receptions he had in his first 4 years with the Giants (45) during that 2008 season (42) and has been producing consistent 500 yard seasons since. This year he is slightly under pace for another 500 yard season (although he started fewer games in the previous seasons).
Visanthe Shiancoe is a different type of tight end than Kleinsasser, but often has pass and run blocking responsibilities. This year he has been asked to assist in blocking for passes 26 times and block for running on 197 snaps. His worst pass blocking game was against Detroit, with a few mistakes that didn’t really become big until (surprise) the 3rd quarter. He lost Cliff Avril on our second snap of the quarter. That poor blocking didn’t amount to much as he was one of many beat on that play. This sort of mediocre performance continued – he didn’t give anything huge up – and he only impressed once or twice on pass blocking responsibilities. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of pass blocking snaps, you can tell he’s a pretty good pass blocker. He’s only given up 1 pressure all season, and has otherwise done consistently well. His pass blocking rates well with Tony Gonzales and Leonard Pope, who have also done very well this season (Pope has had 3 times as many snaps as a pass blocker and given up 3 pressures). Not elite as pass blockers go, but top 15 material.
My biggest problem with his pass blocking, one that downgrades him from his live-play performance, are his penalties. 2 against Arizona, 1 in Kansas City and one drawn by Vanden Bosch in the game against the Lions. His 2010 season wasn’t much different and his 2009 season is barely an improvement upon that. It’s not a predictable and easily fixable set of penalties, either. Once it was a false start, and another time it was a holding call. Another one - fairly inexcusable for him and McNabb, who should have caught it as well – was an illegal shift, which is pretty sad for a pair of veterans.
The biggest area of improvement for Shiancoe is his run blocking. Again, his game against Detroit was his worst, this time as a run blocker. On the first drive, for example, his blocking assignment was Kyle Vanden Bosch – he went in too low, and assumed the play was finished when Vanden Bosch rumbled over him. However, Vanden Bosch completed the play after getting up and tackled Peterson not too far from the LOS. He did make up for it a little bit with a good block on Safety Amari Spievey on the next play. His block should have pushed a little more outside the running lane so he could run up and make the next block, as he had handled Spievey. As it was, it was a good play. As the game progressed, his blocks generally got worse, and seemed token by the 4th quarter (again, no big surprise). Incidentally, you know who’s to blame on that 4th on 1 (besides Musgrave for giving the ball to Toby)? Well no, not Shiancoe. It’s actually Charles Johnson. Shiancoe wasn’t on the field that play. I only mention it because I had to watch that abysmal drive several times. Also, I’m confused as to why, even if we’re giving it to Toby, we don’t have him run up the left side, where Loadholt and Kleinsasser are. By the end of the play, Kleinsasser is the only player who’s left standing and maintaining the block.
Shiancoe blocks runs differently than passes in a pretty significant way. Shiancoe is willing to leverage his height (6’4”) in a much bigger way during the run game, where he blocks very, very high (except against Vanden Bosch, which I’ll admit is only a sensible change from the norm). This works fine against DBs, but means he can’t release to block on the next level (it encourages both players to lock on to each other) and also gives him less control over the running lane. It doesn’t often fail him in a big way, but it’s no fun when it does. He’ll occasionally miss his blocking assignment, in order to look for the next level block. That often leaves an outside linebacker or occasionally a defensive end free to abort the run before Shiancoe’s second-level block becomes relevant.
He’s known a little better for his receiving game. He is a top 15 catching tight end (there is, incidentally, a huge gap between the top 5 or 6 pass catching tight ends and number 7). He ranks with Jeremy Shockey, Evan Moore, and Jake Ballard in his ability to make an impact in the passing game.
This probably surprises you, as most of the good pass-catching tight ends have highlight reels full of great catches for a lot of yards, Shiancoe’s catches are for a lot less. He has had 3 deep targets and no catches (7.5% of all of his targets). He even has 2 dropped catches. But when do we pay attention to Shiancoe? 3rd downs. Shiancoe has a wonderful ability to figure out where the down marker is and run a perfect curl route to throw off his coverage and make the catch. He ranks 5th out of all receivers (WRs, TEs, RBs), in 1st down catches on 3rd down (10). In fact, 78% of his catches go for a first down or a score.
He has a relatively low catch rate amongst pass-catching tight ends (an abysmal 56%), but also has only a shocking 63.4% of his targets were catchable. If you remember the first four games of the season, you can understand why he has had such trouble converting his open routes into success. I really like the Yards Per Route Run metric, but not for tight ends, as they have larger error due to sample size and are almost always second or third in progressions. As it is, he ranks 38th, with 1.34 YPRR. That’s actually not too bad considering how difficult it has been to produce yards with McDirt throwing at him. Of all tight ends with over 35 targets, he ranks 14th, which really is alright. One problem with Visanthe’s catch game is that he has low yards after the catch among tight ends – 4.4. This has more to do with the routes he has to run (generally curls and comebacks) and movement up the middle than his skills, as he has shown himself to force missed tackles and win reception battles when contested.
In games with Christian Ponder starting (weeks 7 and 8), he’s been ranked in the top 5 of tight ends who have had 8 or more targets (he has had 12 of his 41 targets then, or 30% in those two weeks).
A good way to measure his general performance, as he’s often the go-to on 3rd downs and in the red zone (2 touchdowns, 13% of his receptions), is his success rate. At a pretty good 50%, he still has a ways to go before he could ever be considered elite. I’d say that given some of the sample size problems of the people ranked ahead of him in success rate, he would probably rank in the top 15 in success rate, as well.
The biggest problem is that Shiancoe busts open on plays where it doesn’t matter if he busts open. McNabb’s scramble late in the Detroit game for example, was completely unnecessary. Shiancoe ran a great crossing route – Houston had shed him and Tulloch was about to pick him up before Peterson stepped in to his zone absorbed all of the MLBs attention. Shiancoe was wide open with no coverage within 5 yards of him and McNabb chose to scramble instead. This happens about once or twice a game. Hazards of a tight end, I suppose.
Shiancoe is an OK pass blocker and a terrible run blocker. He has very little feel of how the run is going but can pick up necessary blocks when need be. He’ll make few mistakes on his pass blocking decisions, but both his instincts and techniques on the run are wrong or worrisome. He also needs to cut down on his penalties. His receiving is pretty good, and has been impactful in these last two games. I only have reason to believe that it will improve.
Grade: C-. Given that Shiancoe ranks as a top 15 tight end in two categories and awful in another, I feel comfortable giving him a lower grade. Shading better than average in some of your responsibilities should not give you a pass on a third, albeit much less used responsibility. He certainly has the talent to improve in all 3 of his duties, however.
TE: Kyle Rudolph – Young Blood. The first tight end in history to start every game for Notre Dame as a freshman, Kyle Rudolph was considered a solid draft prospect when he declared. In contrast to their first pick, the Vikings were applauded for taking this hard working Ohioan at pick 43 (K-Sauce was picked #44, but the way). Generally agreed to be the best tight end in the draft, he and Christian Ponder quickly worked out a chemistry in the lockout-shortened offseason.
So: 3 categories – pass blocking, run blocking, and receiving.
In pass blocking he has nothing too significant to note, which is good. He has only been asked to block passes 13 times in his 8 game career and he’s made no mistakes doing it. He has allowed 0 pressures, 0 hits, and of course 0 sacks. He often has help or is the second line of defense for the offensive line, so he doesn’t get a lot of play as a pure pass blocker. He has room to improve – he goes a little bit too high (he’s also 6’6”, so excuse him a little bit) – but nothing that screams for attention. As his career with the Vikings continues, it’s pretty clear that he will be used in passing situations as the checkdown and not as an extra blocker. He lines up fine and motions well. I think he might have a tell – when he doesn’t run routes, he looks like he’s about to perform an agility drill. I haven’t tracked it and it isn’t one hundred percent, but it certainly seems odd. At any rate, when he moves around in the backfield, it’s clean and crisp.
As a run blocker, he’s had as many good days as bad. He had a great day against Tampa Bay, blocking lower than his height and taking out defenders much heavier than him, including the first run play of the game, where his block of Michael Bennet enabled a Peterson run for 11 yards. On the very next play, he blocks smartly and moves from his assignment as soon as necessary and blocks the next defender, which enables, once again, a Peterson first down. It wasn’t all good – the next drive, he lets go of Ronde Barber too early and Peterson gets tackled for a loss. All in all, however, he showed much more good than bad. The Chicago game didn’t fare as well, and was his worst run blocking day, once again starting out with the first running play. Rudolph lets go of Anthony Adams too early and Peterson barely runs for the gain. Next drive, he plunges through the hole to take care of Urlacher, but gets overpower and Urlacher records the tackle. He doesn’t make another mistake until the 3rd quarter, where he really deserves a holding penalty, as it’s a fairly blatant violation. Generally speaking, however, he has done a good job and shows a good instinct of who to block and when. He is inconsistent on the technical aspects of holding and will occasionally let go too early (but not often). As it is his 8th game of NFL play, and he missed significant time in college, Rudolph really has a lot of time to work on the technical aspects of his game. His run blocking, while not fundamentally sound, is extremely encouraging. He helps out with run blocking significantly more than many other blocking tight ends in the league already, has drawn one penalty and has enabled several very good plays. While Kleinsasser ranks first (by a significant margin), Kyle Rudolph has done himself well, and is certainly a top 10 run blocking tight end in the league, and in the conversation for top 5. As he progresses, he will certainly improve on this aspect of his game and be a premier run blocker.
But perhaps we won’t use him like one. His pass-catching abilities are what are most encouraging to Vikings fans. Having been officially target 14 times, he has caught the ball 11 of those times with 0 drops. Only 5 other tight ends in the league have had at least that many attempts and have maintained a better catch percentage. Between he and those 5, he has the most yards after the catch (6.6). In fact, amongst all tight ends with at least 10 receptions, he ranks 7th, behind Fred Davis, Rob Gronkowski, Randy McMichael, Jared Cook, fellow 2nd rounder Lance Kendricks, Joel Dreesen, and Michael Hoomanawanui. Before you go on thinking that the Rams picked a better tight end in this last draft than us, consider this: Lance Kendricks has 6 (SIX) drops. And a fumble.
When Rudolph does run routes, he doesn’t get targeted often – out of 125 routes run, he’s had 14 targets. It stems both from his struggles getting believably open (he’s a bit easy to track on the field, and relatively slow by NFL standards – 4.78 dash) and that both Ponder and McNabb go to either another tight end on the field or Percy Harvin as their pressure valve.
While he is said to have had 3 uncatchable passes thrown to him, I would actually like to believe it’s 4 and his unbelievable hands saved the odd one out. Rudolph’s catches make one think he has glue in his hands. He has made a few fairly impressive one handed catches and the ball doesn’t move a lot when he grabs it. He can outleap most of his coverage and come down with the ball if need be. Look for the Vikings to use him in the red zone more often after the BYE week.
As he is a rookie and generally doesn’t start (he has technically started half of our games), and sees fewer snaps than either of the other tight ends (although Kleinsasser takes fewer snaps than you would think), I’m curving him up and comparing him to people like Lance Kendricks and the first 8 games of Jimmy Graham, Ed Dickson, Rob Gronkowski and Jermaine Gresham.
Grade: A. He and Gronkowski are the only rookie tight ends in the last three years to grade out anywhere near a high level in their first 8 games by advanced metrics and rigorous grading systems (except FO’s weird DYAR metric). Incidentally, Gronkowski didn’t start blowing it up until Week 11. I think we could hear Rudolph’s name next year as often as Saints fans hear Jimmy Graham’s name this year. So far, he looks like a real winner.
Hockey note: I'm sad that we (UND) lost to us (UMN), but I’m happy that we’re (UMN) still undefeated in the soon-to-be defunct WCHA. I just wish we (UND) could have done better to start off the season. It will be a sad day if this rivalry ends in two years. I’ll be flipping between LSU-Alabama and UND-UMN tonight. At any rate, we can all celebrate Wisconsin’s 3-4 record.