Over the past several seasons, more and more National Football League teams have begun utilizing tight ends whose athletic abilities allow them to be just as effective at receiving as they are at blocking.
And two will be on display in the Super Bowl on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heath Miller and the Seattle Seahawks' Jerramy Stevens will be key targets for their teams.
Miller, 6 foot 5 and 256 pounds, and Stevens, 6 foot 7 and 260 pounds, aren't just the kinds of players who can slip a block and get open to give a quarterback an extra option. Instead, they represent the new breed at a position where players are just as likely to break coverage to make circus catches as they are to block.
"When you look at the tight ends coming into the league, their athleticism is amazing," said all-star tight end Tony Gonzalez of the Kansas City Chiefs, a nine-year veteran who is the model to which other players at the position aspire. "When I came into the league, I watched guys like Shannon Sharpe a lot. But it's no longer just some big guy who runs out to make a catch. The typical tight ends of the '70s and '80s are gone."
"Now, you've got guys like me who played basketball, who can go over the top or over the middle and it's a mismatch at any time. The successful teams are using the tight end more."
That's something the Pittsburgh Steelers were slow to recognize before this season, completing fewer passes to their tight ends than any of the other teams a year ago.
Which is perhaps why quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was quick to pick up the telephone and call Heath Miller the minute the standout tight end from Virginia was selected by Pittsburgh with the 30th pick overall in last April's NFL draft.
Miller had been chosen as the country's best college tight end, setting Atlantic Coast Conference records for receptions, yards and touchdowns during his four-year career. And Roethlisberger figured the 6-foot-5 target was just what the Steelers needed.
"I just wanted to welcome him to the team and tell him how excited we were to have him," Roethlisberger said. "How excited I was to have another target."
It turns out the quarterback was right. Miller's 459 yards on 39 catches in the regular season helped give the Steelers' offence a dimension it had sorely lacked.
"It always puts the linebackers and safeties in a tough situation when you have a running game like we do," Miller said. "They have to respect that and it gives the tight end a chance to get open."
Take Pittsburgh's first series during its playoff upset of Indianapolis, for example, where Roethlisberger hit Miller on two of the game's first four plays for gains for 36 and 18 yards en route to a 7-0 lead.
"He gives us a big target down the field that really catches the football," Pittsburgh offensive co-ordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "But I think the reason he has become such a good addition to our offence is that he's done such a good job blocking. You can't say that every time we put him in there, it's to throw him the football. He's held up two ends of his game.
"It's very unique to find a guy with the ability to block like a lineman and catch like a receiver, and that's why he's so valuable. Those guys aren't easy to find, but they're certainly an asset to your offence."
The Seahawks have their own version of a new breed of tight end in Stevens, a fourth-year player who had 45 catches for 554 yards, ranking third on the team in receptions.
Stevens is a former college quarterback who put on 30 pounds to switch positions after his freshman year, eventually leaving college a year early to enter the NFL as a first-round draft choice.
"Tony [Gonzalez] put the glamour in this position," Stevens said. "A lot of tight ends are now making impacts on the game. It used to be there were blocking tight ends and receiving tight ends. Now guys can do both and that makes you more dangerous."
Stevens's development wasn't as quick as the Seahawks had hoped. But, like the 'Hawks, he came into his own this season, maturing to set a franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end and adding six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in the National Football Conference championship game.
"It's taken him a while, but he had never been tight end before his first year of college," Seattle offensive co-ordinator Gil Haskell said. "It took some time, but he's a very big threat with his size and with his speed. To have a tight end that is a threat makes it all different."
Some top Super Bowl performances by a tight end:
Mark Bavaro, Giants, Super Bowl XXI: Four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Larry Brown, Steelers, Super Bowl IV: Three catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
Dave Casper, Raiders, Super Bowl VI: Four catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Billy Joe DuPree, Cowboys, Super Bowl VII: Four catches for 66 yards.
John Mackey, Colts, Super Bowl V: Two catches for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Jay Novacek, Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVII: Seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown.
Dan Ross, Bengals, Super Bowl XVI: Eleven catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Stu Voigt, Vikings, Super Bowl XI: Four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.