Position now filled with better athletes

In the first four years of his NFL career, Jermaine Wiggins had to overcome the ignominy of being an undrafted college free agent, was released by three different clubs, auditioned more times than a Broadway wanna-be and never caught more than 18 passes in a season.

Despite earning a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots in 2001 and playing in the title game with the Carolina Panthers last season, Wiggins was viewed, literally and figuratively, as a journeyman, a tight end who never seemed to be quite the right end for a team's needs. His career receiving totals entering the 2004 season: 50 catches, 482 yards, eight touchdowns.

Through the first 11 games of this season with the Minnesota Vikings, though, Wiggins has 47 receptions for 465 yards and four scores. Signed by the Vikings as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and taking full advantage of the rare opportunity presented him when Minnesota standout tight end Jim Kleinsasser suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the year, Wiggins has become a key cog in the team's high-octane offense.

The onetime afterthought isn't exactly a guy with afterburners but, on a unit rife with big-play wide receivers, Wiggins has become a nifty short-range complement. His projected numbers for the season -- 68 receptions, 676 yards and six touchdowns -- are staggering by his past performance standards.

Generally regarded as one of the NFL's premier tight ends, Kleinsasser, by comparison, had 46 catches in 2003, a career best.

Vikings players have hung a nickname, "Garbage Man," on Wiggins, because, as tight ends coach John Tice noted: "He's not the prettiest-looking player running around out there, but he picks up all the garbage underneath and gets the job done."

For this season, the moniker is particularly apropos, given the adage about one man's trash being another person's treasure. Because in 2004, Wiggins and dozens of other tight ends around the NFL have risen from the bottom of the scrap pile in terms of skill-position significance to near the top of the heap.

Two months ago, in a late-September "Tip Sheet" item that in retrospect now seems way ahead of the curve, we suggested that, while tight ends had taken on new prominence in offenses league wide, it was still not a golden age for the position. Heading into the final month of the season, however, it might be time to revisit that assessment. By just about every measure, this has been the breakout year for a position whose respect level never really reflected its overall importance.

This season, with three tight ends currently among the league's top 10 pass-catchers, the position is red-hot.

In 1983, Todd Christensen of Oakland, Kellen Winslow Sr. of San Diego and Cleveland's Ozzie Newsome, all tight ends, of course, finished 1-2-3 in receptions. Tight ends this year probably won't repeat such an unparalleled trifecta. But there are certainly more tight ends, and in increasing volume, with big-time skills than there were 23 years.

For some reason, there has been a happy convergence this season of rules emphasis and emerging young tight end studs, and that has clearly highlighted the position. Never has the position been so prolific and, suddenly, so hyped.

"Oh, yeah, people seem to be a lot more conscious of it now," said Atlanta Falcons star tight end Alge Crumpler, rewarded earlier this week for his all-around skills with a new six-year, $27 million contract extension. "To me, and people around the game, I think it has always been an important position, but one that was overlooked. And that's probably because the (receptions) numbers weren't there, you know? But now, besides everything else we do, tight ends are catching the ball, putting it in the end zone, making really big plays. And people are saying like, 'Wow, how about all these tight ends, huh.'"

Uh, wow, indeed.

There are currently seven tight ends leading their teams in receptions. If that doesn't seem like a lot, well, consider this: Only four tight ends led their clubs in catches over the last three seasons and just a dozen in the past five years. Eleven tight ends either lead their teams, or are tied for the club lead, in touchdown catches. There are three tight ends in the top 10 receivers and only once in the last eight campaigns has there been even one tight end in the top 10 at the conclusion of the season.

At his current pace, San Diego tight end Antonio Gates, arguably the fastest-rising star at the position, will finish with 100 receptions, which would break the tight end record of 96 catches by Ben Coates of New England in 1996. With 11 touchdown receptions, Gates has already shattered the franchise mark, established by Hall of Fame tight end Winslow, and is just one shy of the league modern-day record that five players share.

Two other tight ends, Eric Johnson of San Francisco and Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, are on pace for 90-plus receptions. Five others project to more than 60 catches. Dallas second-year tight end Jason Witten, who had 35 receptions as a rookie in 2003, is on pace to improve his production by 140 percent. Three different tight ends, including relatively anonymous players like Steve Heiden of Cleveland and Buffalo's Mark Campbell, have posted three-touchdown performances this season.

"The numbers really are kind of mind-blowing," acknowledged Indianapolis Colts tight end Marcus Pollard, who has combined with teammate Dallas Clark (who is averaging an amazing 19.8 yards per catch) for 11 touchdown receptions in an offensive design that often employs dual tight ends. "I've been around (for 10 seasons), and I've never seen anything like it. I guess it's about time, right? But it really is remarkable."

Even more remarkable is that the numbers have come despite the absence of some big-time tight ends. Todd Heap of Baltimore, who has perhaps the best hands of any tight end in the NFL, has played in only two games because of an ankle injury. Kellen Winslow, projected as the next great player at the position, sustained a season-ending broken leg in his second outing of the year. Kleinsasser played in just one game before going onto the injured reserve list.

Also notable is that the league has lost some of the best pass-catching tight ends of all-time to retirement in the past year -- career leader Shannon Sharpe, Frank Wycheck and Wesley Walls (who scored 12 TDs in '99) -- and they have barely been missed.

"There's kind of a new breed of tight end coming on," said Gates, a former college basketball power forward, who is leading the reemergence of the position. "And there seem to be, from what I've heard and seen, more of them."

Given the hybrid demands of the position, which require diverse abilities that encompass skills sets typically innate to wide receivers, fullbacks and offensive guards, it has never been very easy to unearth tight end candidates. Cobbling together a depth chart at tight end typically meant converting some players from other positions: teaching an offensive lineman to catch the ball and, in other cases, bulking up a wide receiver.

The 49ers' Johnson, on pace for 94 catches, was a college wide receiver at Yale, who was probably a step too slow for the NFL at that position. At tight end, though, and in the West Coast offense, the last player ever chosen by Bill Walsh in the draft, is a good fit.

But personnel directors have been better in recent years at locating tight ends, some of them in unusual places. The best young tight ends in the league include two former hoops players, a onetime track and field star, a former high school wrestler and a former prep all-star quarterback. "You take 'em," said Newsome, general manager of the Ravens and a Hall of Fame tight end, "where you can find 'em."

True enough. But the colleges are doing a better job, too, at last, in churning out high profile tight end prospects like Jeremy Shockey and Winslow.

The explosion at the position, in terms of statistics, is partly attributable this season to the new emphasis on the illegal contact rule. Linebackers and safeties can no longer grab or paw at tight ends beyond the five-yard legal "jam" zone and offensive coordinators are devising new methods to clear out the middle of the field, so they can run unimpeded tight ends through the hashes, usually with mismatches.

It has taken a while for defensive coordinators to catch up, as evidenced by last week's game in which the Saints had little concept of how to check Crumpler in the secondary. On the first snap of a two-play drive on which Crumpler scored the winning touchdown, the Saints tried to bracket him with a pair of linebackers, and he beat them both for a 27-yard catch. On his 20-yard touchdown, on the ensuing snap, Crumpler used his physical advantage on Jason Craft to reach up over the tiny cornerback for the score.

Offensive coordinators are also using diverse personnel packages with tight ends to create advantages. A few weeks ago, the Colts used Clark in the slot on what typically would be running downs, and forced Minnesota to play its "base" sets. Matched up against a slower linebacker, Clark frolicked through the secondary.

But the man against whom all other league tight ends are measured, Gonzalez of the Chiefs, insists that the reincarnation of the position is attributable more to the players than to the way the game is being played.

"I think that, when you look for excuses as to why tight ends are having such big years, you kind of (diminish) what guys are doing individually," Gonzalez said. "Changing the (illegal contact) rule, changes in formations and stuff, sure, that's all a part of it. But the fact is, you look at a guy like Gates, and it's clear there are simply better athletes at the position now. You take Gates, who isn't tall enough to play forward in the NBA, but who has great athletic skills. He's sort of an in-between guy size-wise but, athletically, he is outstanding. We're seeing more of those kinds of players now and it's going to continue."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.