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As one starts to think about the schematic elements that could define the 2021 NFL season, the battle between defenses and offenses on the Cover-2/Cover-4 battlefield might be the most critical. As many have detailed, one of the schematic elements we are seeing in today’s NFL is defenses showing two-high looks before the snap, trying to influence offenses into running the football. This is something I outlined in this piece looking at the future of offenses.

We are seeing a rise in these coverages, particularly quarters or Cover-4, at the NFL level. Why might defenses use this scheme? There are a number of reasons but defensive coach Cody Alexander outlined perhaps the biggest reason in his book “Match Quarters:”

By aligning in a two-high shells and utilizing split-field coverages, the defense has created brackets on the inside most WRs. In the modern offense, these slots have become an integral part of the modern passing attack. They are close to the box and force the defense to honor their speed and agility, many times versus a lesser athlete (LB). Though a single-high scheme may give the defense a gapped-out box, the structure has created one-on-one matchups outside and against the slot WRs. The middle of the field (MOF) safety now hast to patrol both hashes and the brackets on the slots are gone.

These defenses, perhaps first implemented to counter dangerous slot receivers and to try and eliminate easy throws to those players, has also worked to give defenses answers for another dangerous offensive weapon in the modern game: The matchup nightmare at tight end. Defenses now have that natural “bracket” on those players as well, given their standard alignments.

Of course, offenses will counter those looks, and having talented players at tight end makes that easier for offensive coordinators. That leads us to the players that some teams might rely heavily upon in 2021. Here are the NFL’s top 11 tight ends.

Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

In the run-up to the 2021 NFL draft a number of different ways were used to describe then-Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pitts. “Matchup nightmare” was a common expression, as was “unicorn.” “Generational talent” was also a phrase used from time to time in articles about the tight end. To be fair, I was among those gassing up Pitts’ as a top player in the class. Pitts made both my Top 11 tight end rankings prior to the draft as well as cracking the top five in the list of wide receivers. I highlighted his play often, whether this video diving into his game against Kentucky: Or on this play against fellow first-round selection Jaycee Horn: The ability to change directions and beat a safety in space: It is expected that Henry and fellow incoming free agent Jonnu Smith are going to be the focus of a new-look Patriots offense. This skill-set will make Henry a big part of what New England tries in the passing game in 2021.

Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

Mike Gesicki Miami DolphinsMike Gesicki Miami Dolphins

Mike Gesicki Miami Dolphins

Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

One way to think about the career arc of Miami Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki is that he is perhaps the poster child for how the modern collegiate tight end acclimates to life in the NFL. Drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, he struggled as a rookie, catching just 22 passes for 202 yards and being held without a single touchdown. But as we have seen, tight end might be the toughest position for young players in the league next to quarterback, given how the usage at the college level differs from how tight ends are used in the NFL. In 2019 Gesicki saw his numbers get a bump, as he caught 51 passes for 570 yards and five touchdowns. Then last season as the Dolphins knocked on the door to the playoffs, he set career-high marks with 53 catches for 703 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 13.3 yards per reception. What makes Gesicki an intriguing option at the position is his ability to separate from man coverage, whether against linebackers as he does here with some change-of-direction skills: The addition of Will Fuller V this off-season should work to create more opportunities for Gesicki underneath and against favorable matchups, which could see the tight end rate even higher on this list next summer.

T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions

T.J. Hockenson Detroit LionsT.J. Hockenson Detroit Lions

T.J. Hockenson Detroit Lions

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Mike Gesicki discussion is a perfect opener for talking about T.J. Hockenson. When the Detroit Lions selected the Iowa tight end early in the 2019 NFL draft, expectations were extremely high. Then when he caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL game, some were already fitting him for a gold jacket and sketching out his bust for Canton. But Hockenson finished his rookie season with just 32 receptions for 367 yards and a pair of touchdowns, playing in just 12 games. The buzz around his debut gave way to discussions about whether it was worth it to draft a tight end in the top ten. Then last year fans were given more reason to hope. Hockenson’s second NFL year saw him pull in 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns, and his NFL adjustment seemed to be well at hand. What helps him is how he was used at Iowa. Hockenson was utilized as a more traditional, in-line TE (as opposed to his teammate Noah Fant, who was used as the move tight end) and that put Hockenson in position to handle the blocking responsibilities NFL TEs face. You’ll see that experience put to used on almost every Lions possession, on plays like this outside zone run: But even at this point in his career, Byron Leftwich was still looking to create opportunities in the passing game for Gronkowski, as he did on this tight end screen against the Chicago Bears: Or on this outside zone design: And what he offers after the reception: Then the blocking, which you see here as he serves as a lead blocker in a run out of a diamond pistol formation: But I also love seeing plays like this, with the tight end chipping on the edge before releasing downfield: Or this play against the Las Vegas Raiders: But then block like this against a defensive tackle: Kittle represents everything you want at the position.