NFL coaches are using athletic tight ends to take advantage of mismatches more than ever.

A record 15 are on pace to catch 50 or more passes this season. The tight end has become a leader, instead of a complementary player, in passing attacks.

“I think it is probably the position that has evolved the most in the last 10 years,” said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith.

In 2003, only four tight ends had at least 50 catches, according to STATS, LLC.

In a copycat league, it’s no surprise the successful trend seems to be gaining momentum. Whatever dilemma offensive coordinators face, increasingly tight ends have become a big part of the solution:

• Looking to beat zone defenses? Find a tight end matched up with a smaller strong safety or slower linebacker.

• Looking to open up the offense? Sign a big tight end with good hands who can get up field.

• Starting a young quarterback? What better safety valve than a massive target in the middle of the field.

As a result, six of the top 15 receivers in the league this year are tight ends.

“If you’ve got a tight end that can win the one-on-one battles, then they’re definitely going to get the ball a lot,” said Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, who often seeks out Chris Cooley in games. “It’s not about how fast they are, it’s how smart they are to find the open zone.”

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez says mismatches are the key.

“If you’re a tight end and you can get down the field and get open and catch in traffic, it creates a huge matchup,” said the future Hall of Famer. “When it’s third and 6 and you’ve got a big body who actually has some skill to get open, that matchup is there because you’re going against a strong safety or a linebacker.”

Philadelphia’s Brent Celek, enjoying a breakout in his third season, has eight catches in each of his last two games, providing the Eagles a big lift as Kevin Kolb made two fill-in starts for the injured Donovan McNabb. Celek says it helps to have a corps of good receivers.

“I think you’ve got threats all over the field,” Celek said. “You’ve got running back that are good running backs. You’ve got wide receivers that can stretch the field. It just allows you to be open in the middle. We’ve got good receivers everywhere.”

It also helps inexperienced quarterbacks like Kolb to know they have that big outlet, who is usually the closest receiver to them when they’re under pressure.

“Sometimes you’ve got to run up in the pocket and the first person you see is the tight end,” Campbell said. “Why? Because that’s their little huntin’ ground.”

It seems nowadays every team is looking to develop the next Gonzalez or Antonio Gates. Gonzalez, the 10-time Pro Bowl pick who is the only tight end to top 11,000 yards receiving, says the position has become more high-profile in his 13-year career.

“I think it has become more of a glamor position,” said Gonzalez, who is in his first season with the Falcons. “Young kids are starting to say ‘OK, I want to play tight end.’ When I was younger, there was Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates that were really out there catching huge numbers, but there weren’t many tight ends who were doing that much.

“It has kind of changed since I came into the league, because of guys like Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow, Todd Heap. … It’s starting to be a big-time position.”

The Falcons acquired Gonzalez from Kansas City in the offseason. He has 13 catches and leads the Falcons with 260 yards receiving and two TD catches. No Falcons tight end had more than 15 catches for the 2008 season.

Miami Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell says teams are copying the way Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has used Dallas Clark and other tight ends.

“The easiest throw is over the middle where a quarterback doesn’t have to make a lot of reads,” Bell said. “You’re starting to see tight ends run crossing routes where the quarterback can just drop and see in the middle of the field.

“With Peyton Manning and the Colts and the way they run their offense, that opened stuff up for everybody else. Teams are starting to take notice and everybody else is trying it and having success.”

Jacksonville’s Marcedes Lewis, one of 20 tight ends with at least two touchdown catches this season, says credit goes to the versatility and athleticism of the players at the position.

“We’re all hybrids,” Lewis said. “It’s about being able to run and taking advantage of matchups. When you have a tight end that can block and run, it’s hard to book him. You can’t just say he’s a blocker or he’s a receiver, so we’re going to play him this way.

“It used to be that you could tell what teams were doing by the personnel they had on the field. It’s not like that anymore. All these cats can run block, pass block, get down the field, catch balls, make people miss. That’s exciting for us.”

The misconception is that these “hybrids” are smaller. According to STATS, the average size of NFL tight ends has changed very little from 1999 — 6 feet, 3.78 inches and 254.7 pounds — to 2009 — 6-4, 255.4 pounds.

Clark is tied for third in the league with 26 catches. Gates and Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller each have 24. Jason Witten of Dallas and Celek each have 23 catches — and Celek has played only three games.

San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, leads tight ends with three TD catches, only one shy of his career high. He said he’s enjoying being part of the rise at the position.

“It is nice. I respect that. I’m happy that it’s like that,” Davis said. “I’m excited that I get to have the opportunity to be one of those guys getting opportunities to catch the ball.”


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