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Column: Modern offenses call for modern tight ends (Ohio State…)

It’s a dinosaur no more.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Semifinal Game Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Travis Kelce, a two-star high school prospect at Cleveland Heights, is now a two-time Super Bowl champion. Most recently, the tight end recorded six catches on six targets for 81 yards and a touchdown versus the Eagles. The 33-year-old Kelce was the “Mr. Reliable” the Kansas City Chiefs needed with an injured Patrick Mahomes in the pocket.

Kelce didn’t get too much recruiting love from the Power Five, let alone Ohio State. He had seven offers coming out of high school from Miami (FL) (a notable exception), Pitt, Akron, Eastern Michigan, UConn, Cleveland State and Cincinnati. He certainly was not on Ohio State’s radar back in 2008. And yet now, he is the favorite target of one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL.

How did this happen? It might just have something to do with the shifting role of tight ends.

Mahomes and Kelce have changed the view of the tight end position in a way that led to major shifts in just a few years’ time. For an offense that was nearly unstoppable with Mahomes’ legs and arm, Kelce made the Chiefs actually unstoppable because Mahomes had a reliable outlet in short- and mid-yardage situations. Cue Iowa’s TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant both going in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft and quickly becoming among the most valuable offensive assets in the league. See expanded roles for George Kittle, David Njoku and Mark Andrews. And see the high-profile, mid-season move of Zach Ertz to Arizona to fill a void for a mobile Kyler Murray — and Philadelphia continuing to target Dallas Goedert, who had six catches for 60 yards in the Super Bowl.

When tight end Kyle Pitts was drafted No. 4-overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2021, a lot of folks thought the Falcons were reaching. Atlanta could have traded their pick and gotten him later in the first round. After all, there are just nine tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were the faces of the position for many years before Rob Gronkowski teamed up with Tom Brady for what was easy to view as a fluke.

But that attitude doesn’t reflect this changing role of the tight end at the professional level, which naturally trickles to the collegiate players who will fill those spots in years to come and the college programs which fit these players in schemes that make them ripe for NFL careers.

We’ve seen that shift play out at Georgia, where tight end Brock Bowers led the Bulldogs in receiving. Bowers had four catches for 64 yards in the College Football Playoff semi-final against Ohio State, where the Buckeyes actually did a good job defending him. While Bowers is not eligible for the NFL Draft in 2023, many mock drafts have multiple tight ends going in the first round this year as pro squads see the value of a dynamic player at this position. Fellow Bulldog tight end Darnell Washington could be another first-rounder in 2023. In terms of other foes Ohio State has lost to in recent memory, Michigan has also leveraged the tight end position far more than the Buckeyes.

Why does all this matter for Ohio State? Offensively, the Buckeyes have not been a tight end forward squad. Why would they have to be? Under Ryan Day, Ohio State has followed a model of downfield passing balanced with a strong, standalone running game. With the stable of receivers Brian Hartline has recruited in recent years, there’s not been a need for a short outlet, though Day will certainly work tight ends in the rotation in the red zone to offer more size in short-field situations.

Things have shifted moderately this season as Cade Stover has taken a more active role in the offense, catching 406 receiving yards and five touchdowns on the season. What’s interesting about those catches though is that they’ve come in situations other than the red zone. But it’s not a fully evolved strategy.

As injuries mounted at the running back position in 2022, Ohio State’s prolific offense shifted to be far more one-dimensional as the regular season wore on. In lessons learned for 2023 and beyond, it would have been a boon to have another fold to add some optionality beyond downfield passing (since we know those screens to Emeka Egbuka just weren’t doing it). And that fold just might be a more active tight end.

Tight ends also play an important role as an extension of the running game, since they’re naturally better blockers in a three-receiver set. It gives the quarterback more optionality, as the Mahomes/Kelce combo has made clear, in both run/pass option and traditional passing situations.

The Buckeyes seem to be addressing this void, bringing in four-star tight end Jelani Thurman, the third-ranked tight end in the 2023 recruiting class. How Thurman will be leveraged in the post-Stroud offense remains to be seen.

On the other side of the ball, the role of the tight end runs in tandem with the role of linebackers. A long, long time ago, I wrote about the declining role of linebackers at both the collegiate and NFL levels in favor of speedy edge rushers and shiftier safeties. Those positions could see a resurgence of their own in response as teams look to cover more dynamic tight ends.

When we consider the macro trends of where the tight end position is heading at the professional level, it’s clear that things are going a certain way. Bowers could very well be another high-first-round pick when his time comes. Ohio State, meanwhile, isn’t quite developing tight ends in the same way it’s been churning out receivers as of late. The last Ohio State tight end to go in the first round was Rickey Dudley to the Oakland Raiders in 1996. Since then, tight ends have been selected in rounds 3-5, and none have played on the level of Kelce (also a third-round selection). Then again, who has?