As offenses have advanced, so has the tight end position.
It is an all-encompassing and demanding, hybrid position. At the collegiate level, tight ends are primarily utilized as either big slot receivers working the middle of the field, or solely as in-line blockers, seen primarily as an extension of the offensive line. What two subgroups are asked to do is significantly different.
NFL coaches often draft based on a player's individual craft, believing they can teach and develop the other aspect. At the pro level, tight ends have to do it all: block at the line of scrimmage, know run game calls and pass protection tasks, understand route concepts, and run a full route tree. At the pro level, the job entails more than just splitting out wide or lining up in the slot in an intermediate game. Coaches covet big-body tight ends that can do the dirty work in the trenches, possess pass-catching skills and are large enough to create mismatches on safeties but are agile enough to beat linebackers.
On the topic, Bucs' tight end coach John Van Dam described, "one of the hard things is you are going through looking at all these tight ends coming out every year and there are quite a few that don't ever get in-line and block, yet they are really good athletes and can do a lot of special things in space. You are trying to project: 'Hey what can these guys do? Can they block, can't they block?' without really knowing for sure. Obviously, the college game seems to be going more in that direction.
"At the combine they try to get the sleds out and try to have them hit some things but it's definitely a challenge. The guys that we got in this draft have proven to be able to block on the ball consistently, which is a good reason why we picked the guys we picked."
The Bucs' selected Cade Otton in the fourth round out of Washington. He spent the majority of his collegiate career with his hand on the ground. The grandson of the all-time winningest high school head coach in the state of Washington, Otton is disciplined as a route runner with natural pass-catching ability outside of his frame. He is physical at the point of attack with developed blocking awareness over his four-year career (redshirted-2017). Van Dam confirmed Otton will be considered an "in-line Y tight end" and will "hold point in the run game." As a finisher at the catch-point, his versatility creates an upside for Byron Leftwich's arsenal.
Ko Kieft, the Bucs' sixth round pick, is a mauler in the trenches from Minnesota. He is a high-motor player who is able to quickly get to the perimeter, showcasing superb blocking in space and at the second level on film. Van Dam equated him to "a guy that is going to run through that wall." 'Blocking specialist' is the phrase that has been invariably linked to Kieft since the draft and the Bucs' coaching staff will "evaluate athleticism" during rookie mini-camp.
O.J. Howard departed in free agency (Bills) and Rob Gronkowski has not yet re-signed with the Bucs as he contemplates his future. "I don't want to talk about if he doesn't come back," offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich candidly remarked during Tuesday's press conference on Gronkowski's status.
As the depth chart currently stands, veteran Cameron Brate would be the starter with Otton and Codey McElroy as the No. 2 and No. 3 tight ends. Brate, a former undrafted free agent out of Harvard, has risen to every occasion on the gridiron when his number has been called. He is one of the longest-tenured players on the Bucs' roster but has never been the primary starter due to a crowded tight end room. He has the opportunity for a breakout year in 2022 regardless of Gronkowski's decision. Brate's best season came in 2017 where he posted 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2021 with Gronkowski predominately out of the lineup due to injury, Brate hauled in 30 catches for 245 yards and four touchdowns.
Several players will battle for a spot, including Kieft and Codey McElroy. McElroy is a former minor league baseball player and previously a college basketball walk-on. He spent time on the practice squad over the past several seasons learning the Bucs' offensive system and the intricacies that encompass the tight end position.
The Bucs heavily utilize multiple tight end sets, keeping a defense off-balance because the opponent does not know if a run or pass will result or what mismatches will ensue. As the organization continues their quest for another title in 2022, the tight end position will be one to watch this offseason.