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Arik Gilbert and the Flex Tight End

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Jamie Squire, Getty Images

So I’ll let you in on a little secret, tight ends don’t have to be just “tight ends” anymore. The position has evolved so much with the proliferation of the spread, that tight ends, if athletic enough, can essentially play both traditional tight end AND wide receiver. Not every tight end can do this, and not every tight end is in an offense that does this a ton (see George Kittle for that), but some of the more spread oriented minds in the NFL and college have revolutionized the position. In general terms, the flex tight end expands the matchup difficulty presented by a tight end. You don’t really want to split your linebackers out to cover receiver routes in space, and you don’t want your 195 pound corner getting absolutely bodied by a 250 pound lion of an athlete.

Now, all offenses will split their tight ends into the slot at least a little bit, but in particular, the Chiefs take this a step further, lining Travis Kelce up at pretty much every receiver position. When you have a guy that big with that degree of ability to run routes, generate separation, and stretch the field, why wouldn’t you?

Arik Gilbert arrives at LSU listed by 247 at 6’5, 253 pounds. In terms of frame and mass, he fits nicely, as a rising college FRESHMAN, into the size paradigm of NFL star tight ends. George Kittle sits at 6’4, 250, Zach Ertz at 6’5, 250, Mark Andrews at 6’5, 256, Travis Kelce at 6’5, 260. Arik Gilbert is no slouch athlete, and no slouch receiver, combining freak traits and production to the tune of 247’s best ever rating for a tight end. As much as we all love Thad Moss, he was limited as a downfield threat, being utilized in this offense primarily as a safety valve underneath or a quick game target, as well as an effective in-line blocker in the run game. Arik Gilbert is a completely different brand of player, someone you can essentially give any route to, whether it be Jefferson’s deep overs, JaMarr Chase’s X options, or Terrace Marshall’s sideline fades.

This is just a little sample into Gilbert’s skillset, here he is running a basic route, which is just an in breaking route, common for slot receivers. He works effectively out of the slot and attacks the middle of the field well. If you really want to see the insane things he does, I suggest checking out his highlight tape because it looks like he’s playing with 7th graders.

Let’s take a look at the Chiefs to see exactly how Travis Kelce can serve as a blueprint for LSU’s usage of Gilbert

So the best way to utilize an athletic tight end is to pop him up the seam on 4 verts. Honestly, it’s just the best play in football period. Now, LSU ran 4 verts this past year, but not actually all that much. With the addition of Gilbert, it’s something I’d like to see A LOT more. Here, Kelce has to make what is known as a “seam read.” If the defense has a high safety in the middle of the field, he bends his route underneath him, making it almost more of an over route. If, like in this case, he’s facing 2-high, he simply continues vertically to split the safeties. (Against 1-high he can stay vertical if the safety flies to the other side). This is a great way of adapting your concept, mid play, to the coverages you’re attacking. It’s just the best, easiest way to get your tight end down the field.

A lot of times, you’ll get a defender trying to carry the TE’s seam route. If it’s a DB, he can body him and easily adjust to a back shoulder throw, his frame blocking the DB from having any chance on it. If it’s a linebacker, he can just dust him. That’s the matchup nightmare inherent to a big, athletic tight end.

Here are a couple more examples of Kelce on 4 verts:

Here lined up in the slot to the field on their 3x1 4 verts (Chiefs most commonly run it from this alignment). The safety is reading Smith’s intentions, so he makes no effort to cap Kelce’s route and shades to the boundary, thus Kelce stays vertical. Alex Smith drops a dime, the safety never leaves his hash so the vert from the #3 is gonna be open, the read is correct by Smith, but Kelce was wide open too.

Here, lined up as a traditional tight end, he doesn’t have a MOF (middle of field) safety capping, and the defense is playing Tampa 2 (ILB carries the middle third of the field) so he stays vertical to split the coverage.

Your tight end, if he’s athletic and talented enough of a receiver, doesn’t have to be limited to the traditional tight end spot or slot. The Chiefs actually put Travis Kelce at X receiver quite a bit. This past year, LSU was pretty rigid with receiver roles, and the X was JaMarr Chase’s spot. I don’t expect to see Gilbert play the X if Chase is on campus, but it’s a creative way to force a corner to defend your 250 pound tight end, and shows the versatility of players like Kelce. Above is 4 verticals again, with Kelce making what is known as a “streak read.” This entails Kelce running 10 yards or so, and if he has vertical leverage, continuing, if not stopping and coming back for the ball. This is something done mostly with outside receivers.

On tape, you can see Travis Kelce running a lot of routes that LSU wide receivers run, which suggests to me that you can just sub Arik Gilbert in for a lot of these over the next few years. We’ve already seen 4 verts, which LSU has in the playbook, but there are a few more concepts run by the Chiefs that are familiar to LSU fans.

Here are the Chiefs and LSU running LSU’s favorite pass concept, doubles, with Travis Kelce playing Justin Jefferson.

Here are the Chiefs with Kelce and LSU with Chase running slot option to the boundary out of empty. The option receiver can break in or out based on defender leverage.

Here are the Chiefs and LSU running a concept known as “spear,” with Kelce and Chase at the X. LSU only ran this concept sparsely last year but I hope they run it more because it is a GREAT man beater.

This all goes to show the versatility of the flex tight end, and how Arik Gilbert can fit into the system LSU runs. He is versatile and talented enough to run any wide receiver route in LSU’s playbook, and Travis Kelce is a great example of how such a player is able to run receiver routes and fit into a drop-back, spread passing game.