DENVER (AP) — 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 like 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.
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