There was a time not so many years ago when the tight end was as anonymous in the National Football League as the right guard, someone to be felt in line-of-scrimmage collisions but not seen in the game summary.
No more. Tight ends are major weapons in the offensive arsenal during an era of wide-open passing strategies. Still larger than the average bear, tight ends are hybrids, bigger than wide receivers and especially defensive backs, but nearly as strong as the behemoths manning the interior line.
The Indianapolis Colts are one of those teams who like a safety valve, all-purpose tight end as an insurance policy for the quarterback.
Coach Frank Reich wants Philip Rivers to always feel someone will be available for a throw when a herd of defensive linemen is thundering down on him, someone big, strong and waving in a semaphore system that shouts, “Me! Me! Me!”
One of the quieter signings in free agency the Colts executed was picking up tight end Trey Burton from the Chicago Bears. They inked the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Burton the night before the draft, so he was a little bit overshadowed by those developments. Plus, he was recovering from injury, so there were question marks. And with Jack Doyle in-house, there did not seem to be a desperate need at the spot.
They could be bookend tight ends if Burton is 100%, exactly a year after it was Doyle who had to come back from injury.
Doyle is the incumbent. He has been with the Colts since 2013. He made two Pro Bowl teams, in 2017 with 80 catches and last year by averaging 10.4 yards per grab on 43 catches.
At 6-6, 262, Doyle is a bigger version of Burton and is signed for three years. Even though the coronavirus has disrupted practices and face-to-face meetings, Doyle has tried to get to know Rivers.
“I love hearing him talk during the meetings,” Doyle said of those conducted through forms of technology, “and the way he talks ball is really cool, so I feel a little connection there already, and we will just build off that.”
Doyle and Burton were undrafted out of college. Burton, 28, won a Super Bowl ring with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played the last two seasons for the Bears. After securing a four-year deal with Chicago, Burton caught 54 passes in 2018. He struggled with a groin injury much of the 2019 season and then had hip surgery in December.
Since Doyle also had hip surgery, he should know what Burton is experiencing in rehab and could be a sounding board for him.
Burton said he was surprised the team let him go but thinks he should be healthy by training camp, whenever it is.
Doyle called Burton “awesome,” saying, “I’ve respected and appreciated Trey’s game from afar for many years now. We both came in that undrafted role, started on special teams and then made our way up. He’s just an athletic guy.”
Before Mike Ditka became a well-known coach and television commentator, he played a significant part in inventing the modern tight end role with Chicago. He was about 6-3, 230 pounds and was a ferocious blocker. But he also caught 427 passes. The Baltimore Colts’ John Mackey heightened tight end awareness, too, around the same time.
More recently, Tony Gonzalez, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, became the first tight end to catch 1,000 passes in a career. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce is on such a pace after making 103 catches in 2018 and 97 last year.
Gonzalez once said tight end is one of the most challenging positions because it requires the blend of strength and pass-catching and “it’s not easy to balance those two.”
Not someone as renowned on statistics alone is Rob Gronkowski, who was as critical a target for Tom Brady in New England as any of the outside receivers.
It is unclear how often Doyle and Burton might simultaneously play because teams juggle formations calling for solo tight ends and multiple tight ends.
For all of the passes Doyle catches, he is not a little man wannabe in a big guy’s body.
“I love blocking,” Doyle said.
That’s a true confession, a little bit like choosing a tuna fish sandwich over lobster.