The tight end (TE) is a position in American football, Arena football, and formerly Canadian football, on the offense. The tight end is often seen as a hybrid position with the characteristics and roles of both an offensive lineman and a wide receiver. Like offensive linemen, they are usually lined up on the offensive line and are large enough to be effective blockers. On the other hand, they are eligible receivers adept enough to warrant a defense's attention when running pass patterns.
Because of the hybrid nature of the position, the tight end's role in any given offense depends on the tactical preferences and philosophy of the head coach. In some systems, the tight end will merely act as a sixth offensive lineman rarely going out for passes. Other systems use the tight end primarily as a receiver, frequently taking advantage of the tight end's size to create mismatches in the defensive secondary. Many coaches will often have one tight end who specializes in blocking in running situations while using a better pass catching tight end in obvious passing situations.
Offensive formations may have as few as zero or as many as three tight ends at one time. If a wide receiver is present in a formation, but outside the tight end, the wide receiver must be positioned behind the line of scrimmage (see figure at right), since he is in the backfield, not on the line. If two tight ends are on the same side of the line of scrimmage, one must be behind the line of scrimmage, or the one not at the end of the offensive line has to report himself as non-eligible receiver. Also the offensive coordinator could use the tight end for a fullback.
The advent of the tight end position is closely tied to the decline of the one-platoon system during the 1940s and '50s. Originally, a rule derived from the game's evolution from other forms of football limited substitutions. Consequently, players had to be adept at playing on both sides of the ball, with most offensive linemen doubling as defensive linemen or linebackers, and receivers as defensive backs. At that time, the receivers were known as either ends or flankers, with the end lining up wide at the line of scrimmage and the flanker positioned slightly behind the line usually on the opposite side of the field.
As the transition from starters going "both ways" to dedicated offensive and defensive squads took place, players who did not fit the mold of the traditional positions began to fill niches. Those who were both good pass catchers and blockers but mediocre on defense were no longer liabilities; instead, a position evolved to capitalize on their strengths. Many were too big to be receivers yet too small for offensive linemen. Innovative coaches such as Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns saw the potential of having a larger receiver lined up inside, developing blocking techniques and passing schemes that used the unique attributes of the tight end position.
Greater use of the tight end as a receiver started in the '60s with the emergence of stars Mike Ditka and John Mackey. Until then most teams relied on the tight end's blocking as almost a sixth offensive lineman, rarely using them as receivers. In addition to superb blocking, Ditka offered great hands receiving and rugged running after a completion. Over a 12-year career, he caught 427 passes for over 5,800 yards and 43 touchdowns. Mackey brought speed, with six of his nine touchdown catches in one season being breakaways over 50 yards.
Starting in 1980 the Coryell offense debuted tight end Kellen Winslow running wide receiver-type routes. Tight ends prior to Winslow were primarily blockers lined up next to an offensive lineman and given short to medium drag routes. Winslow was put in motion to avoid being jammed at the line, lined up wide, or in the slot against a smaller cornerback. Former Chargers assistant coach Al Saunders said Winslow was "a wide receiver in an offensive lineman's body." Back then, defenses would cover Winslow with a strong safety or a linebacker, as zone defenses were not as popular. Strong safeties in those times favored run defense over coverage speed. Providing another defender to help the strong safety opened up other holes. Winslow would line up unpredictably in any formation from a three point blocking stance to a two point receiver's stance, to being in motion like a flanker or offensive back. Former head coach Jon Gruden referred to such multi-dimensional tight ends as "jokers", calling Winslow the first ever in the NFL. Head coach Bill Belichick notes that the pass-catching tight ends that get paid the most are "all direct descendants of Kellen Winslow", and there are fewer tight ends now that can block on the line.
In the 90s, athletic Shannon Sharpe's prowess as a route-runner helped change the way tight ends were used by teams. Consistently double-covered as a receiver, he became the first tight end in NFL history with over 10,000 career receiving yards. Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates pushed the position toward near wide receiver speed and power forward basketball skills. At 6' 6" Rob Gronkowski brought height, setting single-season tight end records in 2011 with 17 touchdowns—breaking Gates' and Vernon Davis' record of 13—and 1,327 receiving yards, surpassing Winslow's record of 1,290. Jimmy Graham that season also passed Winslow with 1,310 yards. Six of the NFL's 15 players with the most receptions that year were tight ends, the most in NFL history. Previous seasons usually had at most one or two ranked in the top.
In the Arena Football League the tight end serves as the 3rd offensive lineman (along with the center and guard). Although they are eligible receivers they rarely go out for passes and are usually only used for screen passes when they do.
As for Canadian football, tight ends are no longer used in the CFL. Tony Gabriel is a former great tight end in Canadian football.
Some plays are planned to take advantage of a tight end's eligibility (i.e. that they may lawfully catch a forward-passed football). At times, the tight end will not be covered by the defense, a situation that rarely occurs with the regular receivers. The tight end is therefore considered another option for the quarterback to pass to when the wide receivers are covered. The tight end is usually faster than the linebackers who cover him and often stronger than the cornerbacks and safeties who try to tackle him. However, tight ends are typically chosen for their speed and catching ability and therefore tend to have less blocking ability. Size does not affect catching ability. There could be tight ends on both sides of the line.
At the extreme end of this spectrum are 'hybrid' tight ends that are drafted primarily for their pass-catching abilities. Often, these players are talented athletes with near-receiver-like speed, coupled with the imposing physical size and strength of a traditional tight end. Offensive schemes often seek to take advantage of this type of player by placing him in space, often treating him as an extra receiver. Sometimes in a two-tight-end set, one tight end could be motioned out or audibled out to the slot.
In the National Football League (NFL), the tight end is usually larger and slower than a wide receiver, and therefore able to block more effectively. It is the job of the tight end, along with the fullback, to open up a hole in the defense for the tailback to run through. Tight ends can also be used along with the offensive linemen to protect the quarterback during passing plays. Often, tight ends are employed in a fullback position called "H-back" in which he is still beside the tackle, however off the line of scrimmage, and may even deploy a 3-tight-end sets or 4-tight-end sets, with one or two of them in H-back position, with only one wide receiver, even none to make the formations legal. Tight ends may also pass block like other offensive linemen. Some teams employ tight ends solely to block, however this position is sometimes filled by an offensive lineman who has reported to the referee that his number is now an eligible receiving number; this makes him "Tackle Eligible".
Most old offenses (due to the introduction of the West Coast Offense) now use tight ends more as receivers than blockers. Traditionally tight ends were just blockers eligible to catch passes; however, now tight ends are more like bigger and slower receivers who can also block more effectively than most wide receivers. Most tight ends are generally large in size with an average height of 6'3" and a weight exceeding 240 lbs. The origin of the two tight end set is unclear. The Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins have been credited with being the first teams to use two tight ends as part of their base offense.
With the fullback position phasing out, tight ends may also cover rushing duties, or even as a reverse-play option in the slot.
Tight ends are, on average, usually among the taller members of the team. Their large size has an effect on their speed, as tight ends are often not as fast as wide receivers or running backs; this is not always the case, though, with the quickest tight ends achieving a 4.38 forty yard dash time (Vernon Davis). Regarding position, they are usually among the heavier players on the team on average, with only defensive and offensive linemen and linebackers weighing more.
Specific skill positions typically are issued jersey numbers in a restricted range. In collegiate and high school football (in most states), tight ends are restricted to numbers 41–49 and 80–89. In the NFL, numbering regulations state that tight ends must wear numbers 80–89 or, when those are unavailable, 41–49.