So I started thinking about trends in the league the other day and how the Chargers either blazed the trail, followed a trend started by other teams, or steered away from the popular trend in this widely recognized “copycat league.”
There are “new” trends in the league every year: some are repeats of history and other are new ideas altogether. Interestingly enough, there are ways in which they are all interconnected. For example, trends toward a certain scheme may highlight the need for a new type of player, causing a trend in the league to draft rookies in that position higher than had been the norm in years past. I’ll give you two examples: safety and tight end. Looking back through the drafts, there is a clear trend for playmaking safeties and tight ends to be drafted higher now than in years past. This trend is largely due to changes in offensive and defensive schemes and the implementation of those schemes causing a need for different types of players.
Okay, it’s starting to get a bit too convoluted for one post, so I’ll limit this first installment to a certain player trend that can be noticed at several positions throughout the league. Many of the positions I will discuss used to be filled by players that used to be identified as “tweeners”: where they didn’t really physically fit in to some of the more major positions but they still warranted a spot on the playing field. After the jump I will break down a couple of the trending positions over the last few seasons, as well as analyze the Chargers’ specific role in that trend.
The signing of Antonio Gates to a 5 year contract extension as the highest paid TE in football says a lot about the league’s view of TE’s going into the future. The TE position is morphing into a position that can offer a dynamic receiving threat in the middle of the field instead of just acting as an undersized extra offensive lineman.
With the increasing success of the spread offense and the passing game throughout the NFL in the past several seasons, the TE position has evolved into a position that exploits mismatches. Teams fill the position with an athlete that is not just a player with a big body and a bunch of strength, but also with quickness, speed, hands, and agility. The combination of size, speed, and strength causes a mismatch that can be exploited regardless of who is covering him.
When a DB lines up on him, the TE typically has a height and strength advantage over that player, enabling him to position his body between the defender and the ball, also known as “boxing him out.” This is a talent that many basketball players learn when grabbing rebounds, and it is not a coincidence that many former basketball players have had great success at the TE position because of their ability to use their body as a shield.
When a LB is matched up on the TE, there is typically a clear advantage given to the TE in the speed and agility categories. Additionally, LB’s tend to be much slower to react to the cuts in a receivers’ route than DB’s are, giving the TE even more separation when running his route.
The TE can also be “flexed” out to the Slot WR position, which can create favorable matchups for the running game by pulling a LB or DB out of position in order to cover the TE. This is where the “Spread” offense fits into the athletic TE trend in that it enables the offense to spread out the defense, opening passing lanes and running lanes that are normally shut down in a more traditional formation.
The athletic TE is a worthy addition to any offense that adds yet another threat that the defense must account for. The importance of this position in an offense can be seen in the last several drafts, where TE’s are getting drafted more often every year. The number of TE’s drafted in the last 5 years has more than doubled: 9 TE’s in 2005 against 20 TE’s picked in 2010. The evolution of the spread offense in college football also allows these athletic TE’s to develop their talents at that level, providing more options for professional teams to draft them.
When you factor in Antonio Gates and his dominance over the past several seasons at the TE position, I think it’s fair to say that the Chargers have been one of the trailblazers in this NFL trend.
These are your guys that were traditionally not skilled enough to run the ball consistently, too small to block as a TE, and without the reliable hands of a receiver. Today, it’s fair to say that is no longer the case. The FB position in San Diego is one where the FB is a “jack of all trades, master of none.” They wouldn’t be an elite running back, dominating blocker, or premier receiver, but they are good enough in each facet of the game to create and exploit mismatches.
Tolbert has shown on several occasions that he has the athleticism to make a defense pay when they neglect to cover him as he releases out of the backfield. Although Lorenzo Neal was about as dominating a lead-blocking FB as there has been, he really didn’t provide much of a threat when running the ball or receiving the ball. When Lorenzo was in the game, the defense could count on the fact that the Chargers were running the ball 90% of the time. It just so happened that LT and LoNeal were so good at what they did that the predictable play was still successful the majority of the time. When Tolbert or Hester are in the game at the FB position as a lead blocker, Norv is not tipping his hand on the run or pass.
The additional receiving threat by the FB also makes an effort to spread the defense thin by forcing the defensive coordinator to account for the FB to release on a passing route, again drawing a linebacker or safety out of position to be exploited by the WRs.
Athletic, mutli-faceted FB’s have been around for several decades, but the Chargers have recently made a concerted effort to move away from the traditional lead-blocking FB to provide another element to the offense. Since Norv Turner took the helm here in San Diego, the team has acquired both Tolbert and Hester to fill this role on the offense, and we will see Tolbert take a much larger role on offense this upcoming season.
There is also versatility in other positions throughout the offense that adds other dynamic elements, but I will cover that in another fanpost as this one focuses on positions that were formerly known as "tweeners" that are developing a larger role in offenses across the league.