INDIANAPOLIS – San Diego coach Norv Turner had a flashback when asked about the 2009 resurgence of pass-catching NFL tight ends.
"It's a lot like what it was 25 years ago with guys like Ozzie (Newsome) and Todd Christensen," Turner said. "You can get mismatches. They're unique types of players."
Unique enough that teams are placing the position under an especially strong microscope at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In an era with so many multi-receiver packages, quality tight ends have never been as valuable - or hard to find. The ability to get a tight end in single coverage down the seam with a linebacker or slow-footed safety is pay dirt for the NFL's best aerial attacks. Nine of the top 10 passing offenses last season had a tight end catch at least 40 passes, with New England being the exception. Only two of the bottom eight passing attacks (Oakland and the New York Jets) had a tight end with 40-plus receptions.
During the 1999 season, Tony Gonzalez led all NFL tight ends with 76 catches for Kansas City. A decade later, that total would have tied for only seventh place.
There were 10 60-catch tight ends for the first time since 2005. Indianapolis' Dallas Clark also became the first tight end with 100 receptions since Gonzalez in 2004.
"Dallas Clark catching 100 passes is crazy for a tight end," said University of Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki, a mid-round prospect who has followed in Clark's footsteps with the Hawkeyes. "You never heard of that five, 10 years ago when I was growing up watching football."
Overall, tight ends caught an NFL-record 2,249 passes for 24,659 yards and 189 touchdowns in 2009. That marks a significant jump from just five seasons earlier, when tight ends compiled 1,945 grabs for 20,249 yards and 147 scores.
But the position also is one of the most underrepresented in recent drafts. The 2009, 2008 and 2007 classes each featured only one first-round selection.
The types of players being drafted also has changed. More teams are ditching the role of an all-around tight end. Receiving skills have become a higher priority, with a backup providing stronger blocking in specialized situations or two-tight-end sets.
This year, the only bona fide first-round prospects are Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham and Florida's Aaron Hernandez. They had 66 and 68 catches, respectively, in 2009.
"There are less and less tight end and fullback types because of the emphasis in college and even high school on the spread offense," Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "What you are seeing are bigger receivers that may have in the past grown into (traditional) tight ends. Now you're seeing 6-foot-3, 220-pound receivers who would have gone inside but are staying outside in the spread."
Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson has a tight end that fits the bill in Jermichael Finley. Finley, 6 feet 5, 247 pounds, is just 22 years old, but he already has learned to take advantage of his size in coverage mismatches. Finley had 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns last season.
"Some of those guys don't become dominant blockers like the old-style tight end, but it's a huge part of the NFL," said Thompson, who made Finley a 2008 third-round pick. "It's not an easy body type to find. It's a good power forward-type looking kid. There are only so many people who can do that."
Physically, the University of Miami's Jimmy Graham fits the bill. At 6 feet -7 and 259 pounds, Graham hopes to follow in the footsteps of other converted college basketball players like Gonzalez and San Diego's Antonio Gates. Although he only played one season of football at Miami, Graham's upside could move him into the first three rounds.
"I've had a lot of basketball players from around the country call me and ask my advice on it," Graham said. "I warn them that it's tough. Nothing is easy in football. I've worked for everything I've gotten.
"But for me, it's a little different. I fouled out in every game whenever I was in college. Now, I can't foul out or get technical fouls. It's great."
As is life for this generation of NFL tight ends.
Alex Marvez interviewed Ted Thompson, Jimmy Graham and Tony Moeaki on Sirius NFL Radio.