Last October, the New England Patriots traded big-play wide receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings, just four games into the 2010 season. As bold as the Patriots often are, the move still surprised some, given that Moss had averaged 83 catches for 1,255 yards and 16 touchdowns in his three previous years with the team.
However, the groundwork for Moss's departure may have been laid six months earlier, in the 2010 NFL Draft. In the second round of that draft, the Patriots selected Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski. Two rounds later, New England doubled up at the tight end position by selecting Florida's Aaron Hernandez.
Both picks worked out tremendously for the Patriots, as both Gronkowski and Hernandez immediately became integral parts of the offense. In fact, at the time of the Moss trade, New England had run more plays out of a two-TE set than any other team in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
New England's offense certainly didn't suffer without Moss, finishing the season eighth in the NFL in yards per game, second in passing yards per game and, most importantly, first in points per game. The two rookie tight ends certainly helped in that latter category, combining for 16 touchdowns, 10 by Gronkowski.
By the end of the year, the Patriots ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts and ninth in pass attempts out of the two-TE set, according to Statspass.
While the exact numbers on this sort of play-calling ratio may not be easy to find, it certainly wasn't difficult to see what the Patriots were doing last year. University of Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker took notice, and so wasn't surprised when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted him early Saturday, despite the presence of prolific pass-catching tight end Kellen Winslow.
Winslow, originally a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2004, cost Tampa Bay a second-round pick in trade in 2009. Stocker was an early fourth-round pick this year after the Bucs traded up 12 spots at the beginning of the third day of the draft to make sure they got him. That the Bucs' draft cost for its two tight ends matches that of the Patriots with Gronkowski and Hernandez is just a coincidence, but the underlying strategy is almost certainly the same.
Stocker believes his pairing with Winslow can be prolific, as well.
"I'm a bigger-body type of guy; I'm a guy to put my hands in the dirt," said the 6-5, 255-pound former Volunteer. "So I think a combination of a really athletic pass-guy like [Winslow] and a big, versatile guy like myself can really help. A lot of teams in the league are doing that now. Look at the Patriots, look at teams like that, that are really utilizing two-tight end sets. I think that could be a dimension of offense that we can bring in Tampa now."
Indeed, the Bucs call that their 'Tiger' set – two tight ends and One Buc – and it's understandable why they would want to utilize it more often. Tampa Bay was relatively average in terms of how often it went Tiger in 2010, but it was quite effective when it did.
Last year, the Bucs ranked 20th in the NFL in pass attempts and 15th in rushing attempts out of a two-TE formation. However, the offense compiled a 122.0 passer rating in such situations and gained 4.6 yards per carry, both superb numbers. The team almost certainly increased its usage of the Tiger as the season went on and bruising back LeGarrette Blount carved out a more prominent role.
The beauty of a Tiger formation with two pass-receiving threats at tight end is that it makes the offense much less predictable for the defense. It is obviously a powerful formation out of which to run, but the defense must also account for the possibility of either tight end, or perhaps both, releasing into the secondary. And the Buccaneers don't have too many more dangerous pass-catching threats than Winslow, who led the team with 66 receptions last year and scored five touchdowns for the second season in a row.
Stocker knows he'll be teaming up with an accomplished receiver.
"I have watched quite a bit of him, and I remember when he was at Miami watching him then, too," said the rookie tight end. "Athletically, he is unbelievably gifted, and his skills, just his ball skills as a receiver and things like that, are as good as they get. I think I can add another dimension to their offense."
The Buccaneers obviously think the same thing, perhaps convinced by Stocker's 68 catches and seven touchdowns over the past two seasons at Tennessee. In addition to ramping up the Tiger portion of the playbook, Stocker can also give Winslow relief in single-TE sets, as the Buccaneers continue to manage their top tight end and his surgically-repaired knees carefully.
"I think they drafted me to come in and fill a role for them, fill a need for them, come in and be an every-down type tight end," said Stocker. "Whatever role they have for me when I get there, I'm looking forward to it and [am] ready to take that step.
"The more things you can do as a player, the more valuable you can be. Especially at tight end, you don't give the defenses any indicators what way your offense is leaning towards, whether it's a run or a pass, so I think definitely you can disguise some things and keep yourself from getting put in a box."
Of course, if teaming with Winslow is exciting for Stocker, it's perhaps an even bigger draw that he'll be getting in on the Josh Freeman experience almost at the ground floor. Freeman, the Buccaneers' 22-year-old quarterback, just completed his first full NFL season as a starter, and it was better than almost anyone could have imagined. Freeman posted a 95.9 passer rating in 2010, the best ever for a Buccaneer quarterback who started all 16 games in a season, and is only likely to improve from there. That's especially true if the Buccaneers keep adding weapons around Freeman, like Blount and wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn last year and now Stocker in this year's draft.
"Watching [Freeman] last year on TV and watching film of the Bucs, he's an unbelievable talent and an unbelievable player," said Stocker. "The things he's done in two years there speak a lot. I'm really excited to get down and work with him and I know he's going to continue to grow. He's still a young player. I can't wait to come work and start growing with him. Just looking at that, it's really exciting."