INDIANAPOLIS – It isn’t difficult to tap into a deep vein of conversational excitement with Frank Reich.
Talk about quarterbacks, and his tempo picks up. QBs are his wheelhouse.
Talk about offenses in general, and he’s a fountain of information.
Talk about tight ends, and sit back and listen. Get a couple of special ones capable of creating mismatch headaches for defenses, and the sky’s the limit.
“I could talk all day about that because it’s really a big dynamic,’’ he said. “It’s a really, really important dynamic how you use those tight ends.’’
And trust us, Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni will use their tight ends this season. That’s a core offensive tenet that only figures to be exacerbated by the arrival of Philip Rivers.
The tight end room features Jack Doyle, a two-time Pro Bowler; Trey Burton, one of Chris Ballard’s offseason free-agent acquisitions looking for a bounce-back season after dealing with injuries last year in Chicago; and Mo Alie-Cox, the most imposing blocker of the bunch who continues to develop as a route runner and receiver.
It’s a versatile room, and those in it understand what’s expected of them.
“The tight end position has put up a lot of stats, really productive the last couple of years with Frank and even when we were in Philly and before that,’’ said Burton. “We’re all aware of that and we’re excited just to do our part to help us win.’’
- Over the past two seasons, Colts’ tight ends have an NFL-best 28 touchdown catches. The Eagles are next with 21. Six different tight ends have caught at least one TD pass the last two seasons.
- In 2018, Reich’s first as head coach, Colts’ tight ends ranked 1st in the NFL with 21 TDs and 3rd with 108 receptions. The TDs were a single-season record by the position while the receptions were the 5th-most.
- According to The Athletic, from 2014-19 Rivers has targeted his tight ends an NFL-high 36.3 percent of the time. The Eagles are next (31.9 percent).
- In 2014, Antonio Gates generated 69 catches and 12 TDs for the Chargers. In 2017, Zach Ertz earned the first of three straight Pro Bowl appearances with 74 catches and eight TDs with the Eagles. In ’18, Eric Ebron was selected to his first Pro Bowl on the strength of 66 catches, 750 yards and 13 TDs, a Colts’ record for a tight end and tied for the third-most by a tight end in NFL history.
The common denominator? Frank Reich. Over the past six seasons, his fingerprints are all over what’s happened with the Chargers (2014-15), Eagles (’16-’17) and Colts (the last two seasons).
Again, that phase of the offense – finding mismatches with athletic tight ends, and exploiting it – is part of Reich’s DNA.
“The dynamic on the tight end, that evolving, is just being around some great ones,’’ he insisted. “When I was here before, being around Dallas Clark, seeing what he could do. Then you’re around Antonio Gates, then you’re around Zach Ertz, then Trey Burton in Philadelphia. Then you come here and Ebron has a monster year for us.
“I think part of the reason for that is just the great athleticism of tight ends, where they are almost like a receiver and you just get matchups that you like. It’s a team game, but within the game, there are these little matchups that you try to find and create and take advantage of.
“One of those, I think, is at the tight end position.’’
For the Colts and Rivers to be able to maximize their tight ends, it’s incumbent upon Burton to put a frustrating 2019 behind him and be the productive player he was in 2017-18. That’s when he managed a two-year stat line of 77 catches, 817 yards and 11 TDs.
To put it simply, Trey Burton needs to come up with his best Eric Ebron impersonation. When Ballard opted not to re-sign Ebron in the offseason – he signed with Pittsburgh – he filled the void with Burton, whose contract had been terminated by the Bears.
In the Tale of the Tape, Burton is 6-2 and 238 pounds; Ebron is 6-4, 253.
Sirianni was quick to offer a comparison.
“Eric is a bigger man, probably has a little more speed than Trey,’’ he said. “Trey, in my opinion, has a better feel as far as route-running ability. Eric sometimes got open on raw athleticism and Trey has great athleticism, but sometimes he gets open on feel. But Trey does have phenomenal quickness.
“Eric’s probably just a bigger, faster version and Trey is a little bit smaller, quicker than Eric and then has good instincts.
“But both (are) phenomenal players. Obviously Eric had a lot of success in this offense and we know Trey will as well. When Trey was with Frank in Philadelphia, was special there.’’
Burton’s final two seasons in Philly – 60 catches, 575 yards, six TDs – convinced the Bears to sign him to a four-year, $32 million contract during the 2018 offseason. He had a good initial season with the Bears – 54 catches, 569 yards, six TDs – but injuries derailed him in ’19 and led to his release in April.
Burton has been a constant during training camp. He’s adept at finding openings in the secondary and appears to be a legitimate run-after-the-catch threat, especially with Rivers’ knack for hitting his receivers in stride.
“I’m fortunate to walk into an unbelievable tight end room with a bunch of good players who are trying to help each other out,’’ he said. “Definitely getting situated pretty well and excited for the year.’’
It’s no surprise he’s comfortable with his role in Reich’s offense. It’s actually similar to the role he played with the Bears.
“Yeah, it’s definitely easy,’’ Burton said. “It’s something that I feel like suits me really well. It’s something that in a way comes naturally to me.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.