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January 16, 2012

Wanted: Big, sure-handed tight ends

He went to high school on the West Coast. He's going to college in the Midwest. So it would only make sense that Taylor McNamara's favorite NFL athlete plays in New England.

Actually, it only makes sense when you consider McNamara is one of the top tight end prospects in the country - part of a new breed at the position that block as well as a lineman and catch as well as receivers. It's a style best epitomized by the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.

"I think he's redefining the position," McNamara said. "I love watching what he's doing."

McNamara, a four-star recruit of out of San Diego (Calif.) Westview, made his comments earlier this month at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. Or just after Gronkowski broke the NFL regular-season records for receiving yards (1,327) and touchdown receptions (17) by a tight end.

After Saturday's NFL playoff games - easily the greatest single-day in tight end history - you have to believe everyone is watching the tight end position now.

Gronkowski tied the NFL postseason record for TD catches (at any position) with three in the Patriots' 45-10 victory over the Broncos. His tight end teammate, Aaron Hernandez, had a TD catch and a 43-yard run.

Meanwhile, over in the NFC, Niners tight end Vernon Davis had seven catches for 180 yards and two TDs - including the game-winning score in the final seconds of the Niners 36-32 win over the Saints. And even with that effort, he barely topped his counterpart on the Saints, Jimmy Graham, who had five catches for 103 yards and two TDs.

The four are showing the tight end can be not only a weapon but a first option for pro teams. And with the NFL being a copycat league, you have to figure teams will start searching for tight ends who can do more than just block.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said college teams already are.

"Colleges aren't recruiting more tight ends, but they are focusing on recruiting more athletic and versatile tight ends," he said. "The days of the 'sixth offensive lineman' that was the old tight end are fading fast. With more emphasis on spread offenses and more focus on creating mismatches, recruiting a tight end who can flex out and still get linebacker or safety coverage is essential."

The 6-foot-5, 235-pound McNamara - an Oklahoma commit - certainly fills that bill as the No. 2 tight end recruit in the country. So does Kent Taylor, a 6-5, 220-pounder from Land O'Lakes (Fla.) High, who is the top-ranked recruit and headed to Florida.

Taylor and McNamara are both members of the Rivals100. Four others join them in the Rivals250.

The position certainly is on the rise. Five years ago, when Gronkowski was a senior at Pittsburgh (Pa.) Woodland Hills, only three members of the Class of 2007 made the Rivals250. Gronkowski wasn't one of them.

Farrell feels the importance of the position is changing with the game.

"Today's tight ends are too big and athletic to be covered by most safeties and too fast and agile to be handled by linebackers," he said. "Getting a versatile, athletic tight end who can stretch the field has become much more important than getting one that can block. But if you can find a tight end who can do both, like Gronkowski, then you've hit a home run."

College offenses are slowly getting into the act.

Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, a Class of 2009 three-star recruit from Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger, led the way with 63 catches for 803 yards and five TDs this past season. Seven others had more than 50 grabs.

If McNamara has his way, the number of catches - and the number of tight ends making them - will only grow. Starting with himself.

When it came to make his college choice, McNamara chose Oklahoma because of its history at the position.

"Oklahoma has always used the position so I think it will be a great place for me to show what I can do," he said. "They say they can use me the same way."

After seeing what Gronkowski and others can do, you can bet more schools will be looking for players they can use that way, too.



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