As the Washington Redskins worked their way through training camp and the preseason, the team’s abundance of talent at tight end became increasingly apparent.
The Redskins had re-signed sixth-year veteran Fred Davis and fourth-year pro Logan Paulsen in March. The following month, they used a third-round pick to draft Jordan Reed out of Florida. Meantime, Niles Paul, entering his third season, also remained in the mix after converting from wide receiver last year.
Reed’s acquisition had a lot to do with the uncertainty surrounding Davis in the spring. An impressive threat with Pro Bowl-caliber talent, Davis had not fully recovered from a ruptured left Achilles’ tendon in Week 7 of the 2012 season. Neither Reed nor Davis took part in offseason practices (Reed was recovering from a knee bruise).
But once training camp and the preseason got underway, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s experimentation began. All four tight ends contributed in a variety of ways during the preseason games, and once the team formed its 53-man roster, all four made the cut.
In Week 1, Shanahan used the tight ends in varying degrees. But the tinkering will continue as Shanahan, who has not directed an offense with more than three tight ends, tries to maximize the rare collection of talent at his disposal.
“It’s tough to get a perfect rotation, but what we try to do is do what’s best for the team. Each guy has his pluses and minuses,” Shanahan said. “When you have four guys that can play, you want to get them all involved, so you try to get them in at what they do best, but you can’t always put them in specific situations because then it becomes a tendency issue.”
As Shanahan said, all four tight ends come in different sizes, shapes and skill-sets.
At 6 feet 4 and 247 pounds, Davis, the starter, ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash coming out of USC. Paulsen, who started in place of Davis last season and often gets the first nod in two-tight end sets, is the biggest of the bunch at 6-5, 261. Paul is the fastest, boasting 4.41-second time in the 40-yard dash.
Reed may be the most versatile, having played slot receiver, running back, quarterback and tight end at Florida.
As Paul said: “It’s extremely difficult for a defense because they don’t know whether to line up in nickel, base, dime — whatever package.”
The abundance of talent creates options and versatility, but also brings challenges.
Situations lend themselves better to using one tight end versus another. In the base set, Davis makes sense because he is the most well-rounded. On running or max-protection plays, Paulsen fits the bill as a physical blocker.
Paul is still working to define his role on offense, but ranks among the team’s special teams aces. And Reed is still learning the offense and his role.
On Monday, Davis played 48 of the 75 offensive snaps; Reed played 25; Paulsen 16; and Paul one. But the bulk of that snap allotment had to do with Washington trailing all game and being forced to pass more than run. The tight end use causes uncertainty for defenses and the players themselves.
“It’s difficult to get into a rhythm when you have such a fluid position,” Paulsen said. “Coach will say something to you, like, ‘This is what we’re thinking.’ But ultimately, the game dictates what’s going to happen. Like this past week, he told me ‘I expected you to play 30 to 40 plays,’ and I played 15. It’s just the situation of the game.”
Davis and Paulsen have been in slightly similar situations. Two years ago, Chris Cooley was the starter, Davis joined him in two-tight end sets, and Paulsen would play in the occasional jumbo package. Then Cooley was lost for the season, and Davis took over as starter. Last season, Davis opened the year as starter, and Paulsen served as the No. 2 tight end, but when Davis went down, Paulsen became the starter with Paul serving as the second option.
“It’s kind of like it was when Cooley was here,” Davis said. “But we have four now. So, it’s different, but you’ve got to get used to it and understand the momentum of the game, stay focused and come in and make plays whenever you’re called.”
Communication is the biggest key to ensuring a smooth in-game transition from tight end to tight end. And a team-first mind-set is crucial for avoiding frustration, the players say.
“Even if you’re not out there, or even if you’re not supposed to be rotating in on those plays,” Paulsen says, “you have to know exactly what’s going on with the defense and watch and talk to Fred and Jordan, or whoever it may be so if you’re put into that situation you know what’s going on”
“It’s a battle of egos. It’s extremely tricky,” he said. “Each tight end we have does something different. So, everybody just has to be patient and wait for their opportunity to show off and show what they’re capable of in the NFL.”