Top tight ends use size to pile up receptions
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Rob Gronkowski makes a twisting, leaping, one-handed catch.
The super-sized tight end swats away would-be tacklers.
He celebrates touchdowns with a powerful spike that, somehow, doesn't knock the air out of the ball.
It's a quandary NFL teams face against Gronkowski and many others in this era of big receiving tight ends.
''Every offense in the league wants a guy like that,'' said Tony Gonzalez, who helped usher in the trend during a brilliant 17-year career that ended after last season. ''It is unguardable.''
Top tight ends are heavier than defensive backs, often faster than linebackers, and taller than both. The eight tight ends with the most catches this season are all at least 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. Just five years ago, only two of the top eight had that height-weight combination.
They're athletic and line up all over the offense - next to the tackle, in the slot, split out or in the backfield. Their wide wingspans and large bodies shield defenders from the ball.
The crackdown on illegal contact makes it easier to get open. And many play with outstanding quarterbacks who put the pass in the perfect spot: Gronkowski (6-6, 265 pounds) with Brady; Jimmy Graham (6-7, 265) with Drew Brees in New Orleans; Julius Thomas (6-5, 250) with Peyton Manning in Denver.
What's a poor defender to do?
''It's a big challenge,'' Tennessee safety George Wilson said, ''week in and week out.''
Graham leads all tight ends with 59 receptions. Gronkowski is tied for third with 53. Thomas is tied for the NFL lead with 12 touchdown catches. They often are double-teamed, making it easier for wide receivers to get free.
''It's a constant struggle,'' Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said.
In none of the 13 seasons from 1994-2006 did tight ends catch more than a total of 2,000 passes, according to STATS. They've surpassed that number in each full season since.
Their 1,500 catches this year are more than the totals in all of 1994 (1,412) and 1996 (1,458), and they're on pace for the fourth straight full season of more than 2,300.
Gronkowski has some highlight-reel plays in this year's batch.
In the Patriots' eighth game, he caught a pass, flicked off safety Ryan Mundy like a pesky gnat at the Chicago 25, and scored his third touchdown of the day, a 46-yarder, in a 51-23 rout.
''He's just a beast,'' Mundy said. ''His size is just his best asset.''
The next week, Gronkowski jumped and swiveled his body to reach for a pass thrown behind him. He hauled it in with his left hand while surrounded by defenders for a 20-yard gain to the Denver 1. He caught a touchdown pass on the next play of the Patriots' 43-21 victory.
In last Sunday night's 42-20 rout of Indianapolis, he caught the ball at the Colts 20, was hit by four defenders, outran a fifth, then flattened cornerback Vontae Davis while leaping into the end zone for a 26-yard score.
''When you see the ball,'' the sure-handed Gronkowski said simply, ''you want to go for it.''
Graham did that at the end of regulation of a 27-24 overtime loss to San Francisco on Nov. 9. Brees passed from the 50. Graham jumped over defenders and caught it in the end zone, but was penalized for pass interference.
''I'm not always going to outrun everyone,'' he said, ''Drew just says go up and get the rebound.''
Skills he used in college basketball - boxing out opponents, soaring for dunks - translate to his position. Thomas, Antonio Gates of San Diego and Jordan Cameron of Cleveland also played college hoops. Gonzalez was a trailblazer from the hardwood to the turf.
''Going up for those passes is like going up for an alley-oop and dunking,'' New York Giants tight end and former high school basketball standout Larry Donnell (6-6, 265) said with a laugh. ''I use that now to catch passes from Eli (Manning).''
After going undrafted in 2012 and making three catches as a rookie, Donnell has 44 this season.
Some shorter tight ends also are productive receivers.
''It's all about angles,'' said Gates (6-4, 255), ''being able to reach the ball at its highest point. That's what I brought to the table from playing basketball.''
Delanie Walker (6-0, 248) has 38 receptions for Tennessee.
''I never categorized him by size,'' said Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end.
It's impossible to ignore Gronkowski's, but he claims he can be guarded.
''If I'm not running the route how I was coached and not going full speed, I feel like I can be covered by anyone,'' he said.
It's not easy.
''You've got to play a near-perfect game with him,'' Buffalo safety Da'Norris Searcy said. ''You have to try to anticipate routes and be able to jump routes on him.''
But if Gronkowski gets to the right spot, the defender ''can't do anything about it,'' Brady said. ''I think they know that, too. So then they panic and then when they panic, it's even more of an advantage to the offense.''
Gronkowski is the most powerful example of that. But not the only one.
''It's the No. 1 mismatch in the NFL,'' Gonzalez said. ''Even when you're guarded, you're not guarded.''
AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner, Arnie Stapleton and Teresa Walker, Sports Writers Brett Martel, John Wawrow and Bernie Wilson, and AP freelancer Gene Chamberlain contributed to this report.
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