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Tight ends take center stage in AFC, NFC title games

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, in just his second season, broke the NFL’s single-season receiving record with 1,327  yards.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, in just his second season, broke the NFL’s single-season receiving record with 1,327 yards.

From Gonzo to Gronk to Graham, tight ends are running past, around and through defenders at an unprecedented rate. Hey, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski does all of those things on one play.

Once a glorified tackle, the position now requires the skills of a receiver — and a power forward. Speed, size, athletic ability, power, intelligence all are in the mix.

Along with nicknames, apparently.

“The tight end position is taking off,” said San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, who also is called Duke; his dad is Big Duke and he was Little Duke as a kid before growing to 6-foot-3, 250 pounds. “It’s almost as if you have to start playing tight ends with cornerbacks nowadays because they’re fast, these guys are strong and they’re making plays — they’re making plays like wide receivers.”

Nobody has made more plays at the position in one season than Gronkowski, who became an All-Pro in his second NFL season by catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. The yards and TDs are records, accomplished with plenty of power and flash.

“The guy is a beast,” Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, but that seems to be a common description for most outstanding tight ends in what a Hall of Famer from the position, Shannon Sharpe, dubs “the golden age” for tight ends.

Gronkowski mixes size (6-6, 265) and speed with great hands. Huge, great hands. He doesn’t drop the ball, and when he grabs it, he’s nearly impossible to tackle.

“He has run over a few guys,” noted fellow Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who along with Gronkowski has been dubbed the Boston TE Party.

If not for his production, the Saints’ Jimmy Graham would have established an NFL mark with his 1,310 yards. He had 99 catches and scored 11 times.

Seven of the top 17 players on the receptions chart this season were tight ends: Graham; Gronkowski; Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew; Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, the career leader in just about every receiving category for the position; Dallas’ Jason Witten; Hernandez; and Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow.

Considering that teams use two, and often three, wideouts per play, that’s highly disproportionate. And impressive.

“When I was playing,” said Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, who retired in 1990 and now is general manager of the Ravens, “the majority of tight ends were point-of-attack guys. You would line up on the line of scrimmage next to the tackle and we were basically two-back oriented.

“Now, tight ends are getting opportunities to be extended away from the tackles, able to stand up on the outside as receivers. These guys are getting taller, bigger and faster or as fast as guys in the past. If you were 6-3, 245 you were a big tight end at that time, and now they go 6-5, 260 or 270 and are just as athletic.”

The New England connection, or whatever sobriquet they come up with, is doubly dangerous. Hernandez’s numbers (79 catches, 910 yards, seven touchdowns) might have gotten Pro Bowl consideration a few years back.

Hernandez was drafted in the fourth round out of Florida in 2010, two rounds after the Patriots took Arizona’s Gronkowski. As rookies, they combined for 87 receptions for 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns. Gronkowski eclipsed that by himself this season.

They offer a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators — and probably cause lots of sleepless nights for the linebacker, safeties and even cornerbacks who sometimes must cover them.

“Gronkowski has really stepped up and become one of the better tight ends in the league,” Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “He can block and you can tell that he has great chemistry with the quarterback. He has really, really good ball skills in tight spaces. And I think that’s what separates him from some of the other tight ends in the league.”

Gronkowski and Hernandez, who also has been used as a running back in New England and broke a 43-yard run against Denver in a 45-10 rout last week, have become close friends. They don’t see each other as competition anymore.

“It was definitely weird at first,” Gronkowski said. “We always knew about each other and everything, but it has been two years now. We are buddies now, we are good buddies. We have a lot of fun together and that is all in the past and we don’t even think about it anymore, really, that we were competing against each other. We are just trying to help each other out now.”

Few teams have anything close to the luxury of a pair of tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez. Newsome drafted Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta on consecutive picks in 2010, the same year the Patriots grabbed their terrific TEs. He is confident they will become major cogs in the Ravens’ offense: Dickson and Pitta combined for 94 catches, 933 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

“Dennis is already a very savvy route-runner, and Ed is a bit better at the point of attack,” Newsome said. “They are big and can run and can only get better.”

Davis has gotten so much better for San Francisco as he has matured during his six-year career. He had 67 catches and six touchdowns this season, then was unstoppable against New Orleans in the divisional round with seven receptions for 180 yards and two TDs, including the winner with 9 seconds remaining.

“I think he possesses different talents. I think they all possess different talents,” said Giants safety Antrel Rolle, who had to deal with Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley last week and Gonzalez the previous game. “I think he’s a lot faster than pretty much every tight end that you’re going to face in this league. I think he’s definitely amongst the fastest, if not the fastest. I think that’s what puts him over the edge in the tight end category.”

What also puts so many of these tight ends in powerful positions is their basketball backgrounds. Gonzalez probably could have played in the NBA after a two-sport career at Cal. San Diego’s Antonio Gates, still a force despite a slew of injuries in his nine NFL seasons, played only hoops at Kent State. Graham was on the varsity at Miami, Fla., although he had more fouls than points (290 to 220) and even suggests he tried football because he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble.

Giants tight end Jake Ballard said players learn how to use their bodies and hands playing basketball, how to box out and go up for rebounds. All of those contribute to their prowess in football.

“A lot of us at the position learned from basketball and use those skills all the time (in football),” Ballard said.

Newsome believes colleges are making it easier to find tight ends, and they are more refined when they reach the NFL.

“Colleges are going more to the spread,” Newsome said. “So tight ends are asked to be extended away from tackles all the time and being more involved in the passing game as receivers, not as blockers. They come into the league with a better understanding of pass routes, of their roles in the passing game.

“Definitely the colleges have discovered what kind of a weapon a tight end can be.”

So have the pros.