The 2014 season looks set to be the year of the young tight end.
While it's too much of a stretch to call Jimmy Graham young, he will turn 28 years old before the end of the 2014 season, Rob Gronkowski leads a group of very talented pass catchers who are all 26 or younger. Gronkowski himself just turned 25. Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns will turn 26 just before the start of the 2014 season. Julius Thomas of the Denver Broncos won't turn 27 until the 2015 offseason. Charles Clay, Coby Fleener, Tim Wright, Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz, Jermaine Gresham, Rob Housler, Tyler Eifert, Mychal Rivera, Ladarius Green and Kyle Rudolph will all be 26 or younger when the upcoming season begins.
Each of those players had at least 313 receiving yards last season, even though most didn't start 16 games.
It's very easy to get lost amongst the crowd when your peers include as much talent as that group can boast. A player with the explosive ability of Ladarius Green who has yet to establish himself on the professional level is just waiting to match the production of players like Cameron and Thomas in 2014. It seems like Jermaine Gresham, Rob Housler and Kyle Rudolph are established veterans, but they still have time to grow into greater roles with their respective offenses. Because of all this talent, there are always going to be a variety of sleeper options for fantasy owners later in drafts.
When perusing through potential sleepers, don't overlook Dwayne Allen of the Indianapolis Colts.
Allen only caught one pass during the 2013 season, a 20-yard touchdown reception against the Oakland Raiders in Week 1. In that same game, he suffered a hip injury that required surgery and planted him on Injured Reserve. Even though injury took his second season, the optimism from his rookie season should carry over into his third season in 2014. As a rookie, Allen caught 45 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns while starting 16 games. Allen outperformed fellow rookie tight end Coby Fleener in spite of the fact that Fleener was taken one round ahead of him in the 2012 draft.
After Allen went down injured last season, Fleener compiled 608 yards and four touchdowns on 52 receptions.
Even though Fleener gave the Colts adequate production, he didn't exactly establish himself as a high quality starter. Fleener is a decent receiving option who could be more effective in a few areas, his value to the Colts' offense should lessen during the 2014 season because the Colts expect to have Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton on the field. Presuming that Pep Hamilton doesn't stick to his rigid, run-oriented ways with his newfound receiving options, Fleener will have a tough time getting on the field ahead of Allen. Because Fleener isn't an impact blocker and just an average receiver, he doesn't offer the offense anything that a healthy Hakeem Nicks doesn't already give them.
Allen figures to be a better actual tight end than a fantasy producer, but that doesn't mean he won't be valuable in fantasy. The 24-year-old isn't necessarily a matchup nightmare as a receiver, but he compares favorably to Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys. Witten was never as dynamic a pass catcher as Julius Thomas or Jimmy Graham, but his all-around ability and consistency made him one of the most productive players in the NFL for a period.
During the 2012 season, Allen reeled in 50 of his 54 catchable targets.
|Catchable Targets||Catches||Yards||Touchdowns||Contested Drops||Open Drops|
Thirty-four of Allen's 50 receptions came against zone coverage. Those receptions went for 380 yards, so Allen averaged 11.2 yards per reception. Three of his four drops came against zone coverage also, while all three of his touchdowns came against zone coverage. Allen was very consistent at finding space underneath on curl and out routes because he could use his big body with his quickness to get to the football before linebackers and safeties.
When targeted against man coverage, Allen was able to consistently make big plays. Even though he only had 16 receptions against man coverage, 15 when he lined up as a tight end or in the slot, Allen had five plays of 20+ yards and nine plays of more than 10 yards against man coverage. He may not have the same explosiveness as other players at the position, but Allen is fast enough to take advantage of space and strong enough to break tackles on the second level.
Allen's numbers during his rookie season were modest for a veteran, but impressive for a third-round rookie. Most importantly, his all-around skill set and ability to produce in different ways was evident.
With any big bodied tight end who isn't explosive enough to consistently attack the deep third of the defense, the focus falls on his ability to make receptions against tight coverage over the middle of the field. With a strong-armed, aggressive quarterback such as Andrew Luck, there should always be opportunities for Allen to attack the middle of the field and make these kinds of plays.
To make receptions over the middle of the field, your tight end needs excellent ball skills and the ability to work through contact.
On this play, Allen runs a simple curl route. Something he did regularly for the Colts as a rookie. Luck puts the ball on Allen's inside shoulder, slightly off target, so Allen is forced to work back towards the ball in front of the defensive back covering him. Not only does he reach out to catch the ball with his hands in front of the defender, he also absorbs the contact to control the football into his chest before peeling away from the defender to finish the play moving forward.
Allen had to show off excellent recognition and proactive ball skills on this play, but he didn't really have to absorb a big hit.
That is something he didn't have to do a huge amount during the 2012 season, but that is because of his ability more than anything else. The tight end is officially listed at 6'3" and 265 pounds, but he has a slender frame that allows him to be very quick on the field. When he reacts to passes over the middle of the field, he can contort his body to protect himself even when he leaves his feet. This makes it very difficult for defensive backs to line him up and land a big hit when the ball arrives.
When Allen was forced to absorb big hits, he did so without any obvious side-effects. This not only makes Allen a very effective receiver over the middle of the field, it also makes him a very dangerous redzone receiver.
The Colts should be a run-heavy redzone offense again next season, but Allen's presence on the field will tempt them to mix in more passes than Coby Fleener ever did last year.
Bruce Arians was the Colts offensive coordinator in 2012. Arians offense primarily focused on throwing the ball down the field and Allen proved to be an important part of that offensive philosophy. As previously indicated, Allen was a matchup problem in man coverage and he showed the athleticism to make big plays down the field. However, his biggest play of the season came on a screen pass against the Detroit Lions.
It's unclear if current Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will use Allen on screen plays, but he definitely should. Allen has the athleticism to outrun linebackers and eat up space between defensive backs, but he also has excellent vision. He showed that vision early in this play when he immediately used his blocking to escape to the sideline for a 40 yard gain.
Arians used Allen on screen passes five times during the 2012 season. On those plays, Allen averaged 15 yards per reception.
Even though Allen doesn't project to be a top performer in fantasy during the 2014 season, his all-around talent should allow him to outperform his average draft position. Allen is strong, quick, has good straight-line speed, has excellent ball skills, an impressive blocker and a good route runner who consistently showed excellent effort as a rookie. The only concern over his ability to produce in 2013 should be centered around his health.
Allen himself believes he is back to 100 percent ahead of training camp.
LeVeon Bell Debate
LeVeon Bell is the 18th ranked player on Football Guys for redraft leagues. He is the 10th ranked running back on Football Guys for redraft leagues. In PPR, he is the 11th ranked running back and 18th overall player. The Football Guys staff overall appears to be relatively high on Bell entering this season, but there was still some debate about his status between staff members this week.
The debate was sparked by Jay Wood, who pointed out that there are essentially no stats that suggest Bell is as good as his reputation. Wood correctly pointed out that Bell's yards after contact wasn't impressive but was met with retorts that suggested those numbers weren't fair to the back because most of his good work came from his vision and ability to avoid contact completely.
All of the debate can be read through here, but because I found the argument so compelling, I decided to take a deep dive into Bell's rookie season even though I've touched on his ability on numerous occasions before.
According to Pro Football Focus(Subscription Required), Bell ranked 22nd in the NFL in yards after contact in 2013. He averaged 2.11 yards after contact per rush, almost a full yard less than Chris Ivory who led the league with 3.01. However, the notable thing about Bell's yards after contact is that he finished 14th in the NFL in total yards after contact because 516 of his 860 total yards came after contact. He forced 36 missed tackles, good enough for 12th in the NFL and good enough to be one of only 15 players who broke more than 30 on the year.
I don't have any qualms with the yards after contact statistic. It is useful. However, I think it is misrepresented in how it is used.
The argument against Bell is that he didn't find yards that most other backs wouldn't have got because he didn't average big yardage after contact. The problem with this is that finding yards that most other backs wouldn't isn't about being able to break tackles, it's about being able to put yourself in positions to not have to break tackles. The most consistent backs in the NFL are players who have excellent vision and an understanding of their blocking schemes in relation to what the defense is doing. Those backs know how to create running lanes with their movement behind the line of scrimmage before bursting through the running lanes at the perfect time.
While Bell will likely never be an elite running back because he does lack the ability to break tackles like Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson or the speed to create big plays like LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, he does share those other traits that the elite backs in the NFL can boast.
Vision is a general term that we use with NFL running backs that doesn't really do justice to what it refers to. We use vision to explain how running backs find holes in the defense or miss holes in the defense and leave yardage on the field. However, as far as I can tell, that is much too simplistic. For me, there are three layers to vision: Intelligence, Recognition and Manipulation.
Intelligence refers to the running back's ability to understand and execute the design of each individual run play required of him. The back must understand how to read the play as it develops and make a good decision before or at the line of scrimmage to find space down the field. He must also understand the subtleties of how to properly execute counter plays or draw plays and when he needs to be more patient opposed to being more aggressive.
On this play against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 7, Bell is lined up alone in the backfield in a tight formation. Every single one of the Steelers players outside of Ben Roethlisberger and Bell are on the line of scrimmage in position to block. The Ravens are in their base defense with three down defensive linemen and four linebackers in position to stop the run.
Bell receives the ball as he is angled towards the left guard spot on the line. There are two clear running lanes for Bell to attack, the green lane is where the play is designed to go, while the red lane is the one that actually looks more promising at this point of the play. We know that the green lane is the one that the play was designed to through because of how the blocking develops
Heath Miller and Kelvin Beachum initially double-teamed the Ravens right defensive end at the snap. However, as the play develops, Miller leaves Beachum's side to move onto the second level. On the second level, Miller and Ramon Foster, the Steelers left guard, double team the Ravens right inside linebacker. While that is happening, Bell is hesitating behind the line of scrimmage and watching that area of the field.
Importantly, Bell runs right behind Beachum instead of running straight to the lane outside of him. If Bell had run straight to the hole, he would have been taken down by the right outside linebacker who is working his way inside the outside tight end Will Johnson. Bell's subtlety on this play allowed him to get onto the second level without being contacted by a defender. His patience allowed the blocking scheme to develop in the way it was designed to and his awareness allowed him to compensate for a failed block from Johnson outside.
Once he gets to the second level, Bell is taken down by the left inside linebacker, but not before he has gained more than five yards.
There were many pitfalls in this play for Bell to fall into. Had he rushed to the red running lane when he initially got the football, he likely would have met a defender less than three yards down the field because left guard Foster would have had two defenders to block. Had he not kept his head up and simply been aggressive running through the green lane after waiting for his blocking to develop, he would have given the outside defender a better chance to take him down for less than two yards or at the line of scrimmage.
Recognition refers to how quickly the running back is able to read the defense and understand what he needs to do to get the most out of a given play. It's fine to be able to rewind and pause the tape to understand where each defender is and how that blocker lines up against him, but the running back needs to do this in less than a second if he is to get the most out of disrupted plays. Being a running back is about being reactive rather than proactive. You can never anticipate disruption in the play or a fully blown assignment, but you have to be able to react to it almost instantly if you want to get the most out of your blocking.
In Week 4, Bell made his debut against the Minnesota Vikings in London. He scored his first career touchdown in the first quarter on a disrupted play that put the emphasis on him to create yardage. The offense initially lined up with Bell alone in the backfield, two tight ends to the right and another tight end motioning across the formation behind the line of scrimmage. The Vikings have six defenders close to the line of scrimmage and three more behind in the box.
Because the Vikings left defensive tackle immediately penetrated upfield at the snap, Bell is met face-to-face by an obstacle at the same time as Roethlisberger puts the ball in his chest. Bell appeared to be watching the defensive tackle before he received the ball, because he didn't take another step before pushing laterally off his left foot to move towards his right tackle. Based on how Roethlisberger placed the ball in his chest and the angle Bell took before he received the ball, the play was designed to go through exactly where the defensive tackle penetrated.
This means that Bell had to recognize the disruption in the play before he even got the ball and react to it as he got the ball.
Bell's lateral quickness and vision on this play was phenomenal and it ultimately set him up to run inside of the pylon for the touchdown. Significantly, Bell wasn't contacted by a defender on this play so none of these yards would count as yards after contact, but it's hard to argue that it was Bell's blocking or the play-design that allowed him to get to the end zone.
Manipulation is the rarest trait that is currently evident in the professional game. Every single back who makes it to the NFL is able to find a running lane when the offensive line presents one to him, but few understand how to create one when there doesn't initially appear to be one there. Backs who are comfortable with their Intelligence and Recognition are able to elevate their actions on the field to the point that they use their movement before the line of scrimmage to set up defenders on the second level or defenders who are engaged with blockers to drag them away from where the back wants to go.
Against the Detroit Lions in Week 11, Bell broke off a 13-yard run off of right tackle without being touched by a defender before he reached the second level. Again, this wasn't due to quality blocking, but rather Bell's impressive vision as he showed off how he is able to manipulate the defense. The key cut to manipulate the defense on this play comes as Bell crosses the line of scrimmage.
As Bell slides towards the right side of his offensive line behind the line of scrimmage, the left defensive end for the Lions has inside position on Bell's edge blocker. There is also a defensive back lurking behind that defensive end, so Bell has to manipulate two players if he wants to create space for himself to run into on the second level.
Bell hesitates in the hole for a moment. He bobs his head forward as if he is attacking the inside shoulder of his tight end, before dropping his right foot so that he doesn't actually move forward. Both defenders are drawn forward and infield by this movement, but they don't allow their momentum to carry them too far out of position. Both players are still in good positions to react to Bell's movement.
After pulling his head back up, Bell plants his right foot outside of his edge blocker. This pulls both of the defenders towards the sideline to create space on the inside. Bell executes a hard cut back inside of his edge blocker to escape into open field. This subtlety, patience and awareness allowed him to manipulate the two defenders who were initially in good positions to stop him from getting a good gain.
Bell proved to be very talented as a runner during his rookie season, but even more importantly he proved to be a very consistent performer for the Steelers also. His inconsistent production was the result of playing behind an offensive line that was missing its most important piece, center Mike Pouncey, and a second-year right guard who was still adjusting to the NFL for much of the season. Combine those two issues on the interior with subpar tackle play on the outside and it would have been difficult for many backs to replicate what Bell did last year.
When you solely look at the number of missed tackles Bell forced and the average yards after contact that he achieved in 2013, he compares favorably to Trent Richardson. Bell and Richardsona aren't that dissimilar, but Bell has quicker feet and much better vision. That is why he was significantly more effective than Richardson in somewhat similar situations last year.
It can't be denied that Bell doesn't have elite power or explosiveness, but he does have exceptional quickness and enough power to overrun defenders when he powers his legs through contact. Any concern over Bell's 2014 production should revolve around the Steelers situation on offense and the additions of Dri Archer and LeGarrette Blount to the backfield rotation.
More from Cian Fahey:
Pushing the Pocket: Evaluating Different Situations Approaching MidSeason - October 16
Pushing the Pocket - Odell Beckham Jr. and Branden Oliver - October 10
Pushing the Pocket: Kyle Orton and What He Brings to the Buffalo Bills Offense - October 2
Pushing the Pocket: Bishop Sankey and the Tennessee Titans Offensive Line - September 24
Pushing the Pocket: Can LeVeon Bell Sustain His Production? - September 18
Pushing the Pocket: Markus Wheaton's First Start, Mike Wallace's Frustration - September 9
Pushing the Pocket - Geno Smith is Being Overlooked - September 1
Pushing the Pocket: Looking at the Early Promise of Allen Hurns and Jerrick McKinnon - August 26
Pushing the Pocket: Tony Romo, Ryan Tannehill, and Jay Cutler - August 25
Pushing the Pocket - Lamar Miller and Maurice Jones-Drew - August 12