EAGAN — From 2006 to 2013, only four NFL teams got over 8,000 yards of production from their tight ends.
One was the San Diego Chargers, aided by Antonio Gates, one of the most consistent tight ends in NFL history. The Cowboys, paced by Jason Witten’s four 1,000-yard seasons, weren’t far behind. And the Saints, featuring Jimmy Graham’s pair of 1,000-yard seasons, slotted in third.
Then there were Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans, who produced over 1,000 tight-end yards per year without the aid of a single 1,000-yard season in that time span. Owen Daniels was their premier option, but he only exceeded the 800-yard mark once. Kubiak, the Texans head coach and offensive shot-caller, found a way to produce largely with a group of unheralded Day 3 draft picks including Daniels (fourth-round pick), James Casey (fifth-round pick) and Joel Dreessen (sixth-round pick).
There were no Jimmy Grahams, Jason Wittens or Antonio Gates. No Shannon Sharpes from his Denver days.
Now an offensive advisor with the Vikings, Kubiak looks to help unlock that type of production in Minnesota where this is considerable talent in the tight end room.
“I think Gary has a real good feel for that position,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who is helping shape the Vikings offense with Kubiak’s influence. “Historically, he’s had a bunch of good ones, going back to Shannon Sharpe, some of the guys he had in Houston and Denver. Certainly, he has a good feel for the type of player that fits our scheme and we’ve had a lot of really good discussions. I think you see it in practice. … There is certainly a place for those players in our scheme.”
‘The key is being versatile’
With the addition of second-round pick Irv Smith Jr. in April’s NFL Draft, coupled with Kyle Rudolph’s contract extension that solidified his status in Minnesota, the Vikings have constructed a deep tight end room for Kubiak, Stefanski and position coach Brian Pariani, who spent Kubiak’s entire Houston tenure coaching tight ends with the Texans.
To add to the mix, second-year man Tyler Conklin has shown improvement throughout camp, while the currently-injured David Morgan is the team’s best blocking tight end when healthy. Even NAIA product Brandon Dillon has flashed.
Whether the Vikings keep three or four players at that position, they’re guaranteed to have a group that will athletically challenge defensive backfields from sideline to sideline.
“They’re asked to do a lot,” Kubiak said of his tight ends. “You want them to be good in the line of scrimmage in the run game, now you want them to be a great route runner, so I think you ask a little bit more of them. The key to being a good tight end is being versatile, being able to move and do a lot. So to get that done, you have to ask a lot of them.”
The Texans drafted James Casey to be a tight end and fullback option in 2009 and caught 66 passes in his four-year Houston stint. Now the tight ends coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, Casey looks back and says that quickness and toughness are keys to being a tight end in Kubiak’s system.
“You’ve got to be tough because a lot of times you’re overmatched against these big defensive ends,” Casey said in an interview with Zone Coverage. “Throughout practices when you’re doing those 9-on-7 inside run periods you’d better be tough or you’re not going to last very long.
“And I think he values quickness too. I think you need to be a quick guy if you’re playing tight end because a lot of that wide zone run scheme that he runs, you’ve got to be a quick player to cut off that back side C-gap when those defensive ends are in 6-techniques head up on you.”
The Vikings have shown some heavy looks this camp, none more unique than when they split Rudolph and Smith out wide while sticking fullback C.J. Ham in the slot. Showing heavy looks can keep a defense in its bigger personnel packages, but having the threat of an athletic tight end like Smith opens the door for play action, where quarterback Kirk Cousins excels, against a slower defensive unit.
“If you get that extra tight end in the game or extra fullback in the game that’s just another gap that the defense has the protect against,” said Casey, “and then especially if you get a guy like you had in Owen Daniels that can motion out wide and can get out like a receiver and be an adequate pass catcher — which it probably feels like in the guy they drafted Irv Smith — so now the defense is going to sit there and look and say, ‘OK, they’re in 12 personnel, but really one of these tight ends could be a viable option in the pass game,’ so now they’ve got so many more formations they’ve got to defend against.
“If you’ve got two tight ends and they can be lined up all over the place in formations it’s hard for those defenses to get lined up sometimes, and if they don’t get lined up, they get out of gaps, and that’s what gets those big run plays and you get those play-action passes down the field.”
It seems evident through two weeks of camp the Vikings will be utilizing multiple tight ends in the passing game. Minnesota hasn’t had a second tight end with more than 10 catches since Rhett Ellison (11) in 2015. That may change this year as Kubiak says they’ll seek to keep Rudolph fresh and work in some of the younger targets.
“We’ve got some guys that can go in there and help him out, keep him fresh, those types of things,” Kubiak said. “I think that’s extremely important. Kyle’s a very smart route runner, he’s got a big, big body, but I think it’s our job as coaches to make sure we’re doing the right things with him, keeping him fresh as a player, and with these young kids we’ve got to go with him I think we’ve got a chance to do that.”
‘Fairly but not necessarily equally’
It would be an oversight to discount the human side to Kubiak’s relationship with tight ends over the years, particularly during and after his time with the Texans.
Daniels spent eight years with Kubiak in Houston. After Kubiak was fired in 2013, the coach recruited Daniels to play with him in Baltimore while Kubiak acted as offensive coordinator. When Kubiak was hired as the Denver Broncos head coach in 2015, he brought Daniels there as well.
“I was trying to take him with me as far as I could take him,” Kubiak told Zone Coverage.
He ended up taking him to the acme as the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 over the Carolina Panthers, bringing Kubiak and Daniels’ decade together full circle. Casey also joined that 2015 Broncos team for part of the season — like Daniels, it was the final year of his career.
“To share that bond the rest of your life, that’s pretty cool,” said Kubiak.
The theme of following Kubiak isn’t uncommon. Pariani and offensive line guru Rick Dennison have joined Kubiak at multiple coaching stops, along with a handful of other players like defensive end Antonio Smith (Houston and Denver) and current Vikings receiver Jordan Taylor (Denver and Minnesota).
Casey tried summing up how Kubiak cultivated that type of loyalty.
“I thought he was just unbelievable as far as the respect factor because a lot of the professional athletes they just want you to treat them like men,” said Casey, “and that’s what he would do. I just always remember him saying he would treat everybody fairly but not necessarily equally.
“He would tell you to your face if you weren’t doing something right. That’s what he wanted as well. If we had any problems as a player, ‘If you’ve got anything wrong, any kind of issues, you can come see me.’ And as a man, you can always respect that. … He kind of went above and beyond as a coach trying to instill some values in guys that he’s coaching.”
Many of Kubiak’s relationships with former players remain strong. He and Casey last chatted at the NFL Combine, while Kubiak and Daniels got together for a golf outing the week before training camp got started.
Considering both players followed him to numerous NFL franchises, it shouldn’t be surprising they continue to seek out Kubiak’s company.
“It makes you feel old,” Kubiak said, “when you coach guys for 10, 11 years and they come back to say hello.”