As a 6'2", 220-pound high school senior in Birmingham 10 years ago, Cornelius Bennett was everything the University of Alabama was looking for to maintain its tradition of outstanding tight ends. With 4.4 speed in the 40, Bennett had bulled for 1,099 rushing yards from the fullback position, caught 12 touchdown passes when he lined up at tight end, played linebacker and end on defense—and then signed with the Crimson Tide. But Alabama coach Ray Perkins had visions of Lawrence Taylor dancing in his head, and when Bennett reported for his first day of practice at Tuscaloosa he was switched from tight end to outside linebacker.
And that's where Bennett has played to this day, making All-Pro three times in five years with the Buffalo Bills. But even now Bennett thinks of what might have been. He believes he still could play tight end in the NFL. "If I changed today—and I'd love to—I could do it," Bennett says. "It's something I've done all my life, be physical and catch the ball. What's so hard about that?"
Bennett's story is an example of why the NFL tight end has gone from being a multipurpose weapon of the 1960s, '70s and '80s—a real star—to being treated like a third tackle, the stepchild of the offensive line, in the '90s. Offensive coordinators have gone so far as to diagram tight ends right out of game plans, what with the growing popularity of four-wideout formations and the evolution of the fullback-tight end hybrid position known as the H-back.
In 1986 tight end Todd Christensen of the Los Angeles Raiders led the NFL in receptions with 95, and four other tight ends were among the league's top 30 pass catchers. In 1991 only one tight end, Marv Cook of the New England Patriots, with 82 receptions, either ranked in the top 30 or caught 60 passes.
"At the peak of my career, I was a threat on every down," says Ozzie Newsome, the former Cleveland Brown who retired after the 1990 season with more catches (662) than any other tight end in NFL history. "But toward the end of my career a tight end was lucky to be in for 60 percent of the snaps in a game."
So why did the tight end vanish so quickly from the pro landscape? "Two things," says New York Jet coach Bruce Coslet. "The colleges aren't producing them anymore, and the prototype NFL all-around tight end—strong, big, mobile—is playing power forward in the NBA. You give me Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, and I'll make a tight end out of him."
Buffalo's Keith McKeller is one of a handful of promising tight ends in the league today, but he, too, had NBA ambitions. McKeller played forward for four years while at Jacksonville ( Ala.) State, and he had a tryout with the Atlanta Hawks in 1986. When the Hawks didn't sign him, McKeller took the advice of some NFL scouts. He returned to Jacksonville State, from which he hadn't yet graduated, played one season of football at tight end and became the Bills' ninth-round pick in the 1987 draft.
As was the case 10 years ago with Bennett, the decline of the tight end has its roots on the college level. While the average number of passes thrown in an NCAA Division I-A game was climbing from 46.6 in 1980 to 56.6 in '90, coaches looked for new ways to disrupt the more wide-open attacks. One solution was to switch quick, agile tight-end prospects to outside linebacker.
Today the all-around tight end is virtually obsolete. The Washington Redskins use 6'4", 245-pound Don Warren almost exclusively as a third tackle; he has caught 54 passes in the last five seasons. Cook and Jay Novacek of the Dallas Cowboys are terrific pass catchers who usually line up in the slot as third wideouts. The San Francisco 49ers' Brent Jones, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Eric Green and the Vikings' Steve Jordan are the best all-around tight ends, but Green had the only 100-yard receiving day among them last season.
It's going to be up to newcomers like Derek Brown of Notre Dame and Johnny Mitchell of Nebraska, this year's first-round draft picks of the New York Giants and Jets, respectively, to prove there's still a place in the game for the classic tight end—the player who can block a defensive end, make a catch against a strong safety and stiff-arm a linebacker. A dubious NFL watches. "I don't think there will ever be a classic tight end again," says San Diego player personnel director Billy Devaney. "The position really is extinct."