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NFL Tight Ends Make a Net Gain

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) warms up before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) warms up before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Denver — Tight ends are no longer big plodders who might be mistaken for jelly-belly linemen. They’re athletic, fast, powerful and shifty, traits many of them honed on the hardwood.

Guys such as Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron.

With size and jumping ability, they’re part of a new breed of tight ends changing pro football.

“The big thing is we’re starting to inherit a different type of athlete from the college ranks,” Denver tight ends coach Clancy Barone said. “It isn’t like the old days when those guys were big, thick, square-body blockers or guys that maybe played linebacker in high school and college.

“Now, we’re getting guys that were maybe bigger receivers and they got moved inside to tight end. Maybe a backup quarterback who wants to see the field in college. So, we’re getting more athletic guys who now come to our league.”

Increasingly, the place to find them is in the gymnasium.

“It seems like if you’re a 6-foot-6 power forward in college, you end up going to our league to play tight end,” said Barone, who coached the alpha hoopster-turned-gridiron great, Antonio Gates, in San Diego in 2007-08. “That’s the new generation.”

Cameron, who played hoops at BYU and walked on USC’s team before concentrating on his football career, has quickly developed into one of Cleveland’s top offensive players and is a big reason the first-place Browns have won three straight games since trading running back Trent Richardson.

Graham and Thomas played just one year of college football after helping lead their schools into the NCAA basketball tournament, Graham at Miami and Thomas at Portland State. Yet they’ve quickly joined the list of elite tight ends with the likes of Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez, another former college basketball player.

From March Madness to NFL stardom, they are the vanguards of this towering tight end trend that’s a big headache for defenses in today’s pass-heavy game.

With six TDs in September, unprecedented for his position, Graham was the first tight end ever selected the league’s offensive player of the month, and on Sunday he matched the NFL record for tight ends with his fourth straight 100-yard game. He leads the league with 593 yards receiving.

Peyton Manning’s favorite target in Denver’s shootout win at Dallas wasn’t Wes Welker but Thomas, who caught nine passes for 122 yards and two TDs. That gave him six touchdowns, most by a Broncos tight end since Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe had eight a decade ago.

Thomas, whose 27 catches this season are 26 more than he had in his first two years combined, when he was bogged down by leg injuries, said his basketball background helped him navigate the crash course of NFL football.

He makes split-second decisions, deciphers defenses, anticipates the action, adjusts on the fly, just like he did on the basketball floor, where he was a bully on the blocks. Shielding a defensive back to give the quarterback an opening, he said, is just like posting up a player under the basket to give the point guard a clear passing lane.

Even those who aren’t gym rats are prepping for the pros in college football’s spread offenses, Barone said: “It’s hard to find a tight end in a three-point stance anymore. Everyone’s spread out.”

Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said the tight ends with power forward in their DNA are a matchup nightmare.

“Because they’re so big, they’re faster than the linebackers but they’re bigger than the safeties,” he said. “It’s kind of that hybrid position that everybody covets right now.”

Tight ends have combined for 765 catches, 8,992 yards and 76 touchdowns, the most in all three categories through the first five weeks of any season in NFL history.

The NFL is a master at countering the trend de jour, but finding a retort for the transformer tight end is proving difficult, suggested former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi.

“That special athlete you’re looking for is the guy has the cover skills who can also come down in the box and play the run but also be very athletic in coverage,” he said.

A super safety, if you will.

“Right,” Bruschi said, “the hybrid safety that can be a linebacker and also play the deep third. How many of those are out there?”

Not many.

“Yeah, you’d have to look down some depth charts because those guys are rare,” Bruschi said. “LaRon Landry comes to mind. But you need that hybrid safety/linebacker because of the development of that tight end position that is now Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski. Everybody wants one of those guys.”

And scouts scoping out the talent on college football fields are also asking about that big guy rattling the rims over in the gym.