Tight end is probably the most diverse position in football today, with many tight ends playing positions and roles with opposite skill sets. Tight end can mean an in line blocker for an under center team, a glorified fullback for a shotgun spread team or a matchup problem in the slot for an air raid team. It’s the positional assignment stuck on Jaylen Samuels because no one knows what else to call him. Clemson functionally has had two tight end roles the past few years, a starter focused more on receiving, and a blocker backing him up. Jordan Leggett and Garrett Williams occupied those roles last year. This year Milan Richard and a combination of DJ Greenlee and Cannon Smith filled those roles.
Milan Richard was fine as a receiver in his first year as a starter. Not someone an opponent would have to game plan for, but a player they’d have to account for. He ran his routes and had fairly reliable hands, but was unlikely to beat his man one-on-one or provide much of a threat downfield.
The problem is that he’s replacing an NFL-caliber tight end, the sort of players that are changing the game at the next level. Jordan Leggett required either an elite athlete or bracket coverage. He changed the way defenses played Clemson, and seriously limited the options available to opposing defensive coordinators. ScElliot were able to align and motion him pretty much anywhere on the field and give teams headaches. Leggett gave the Clemson offense a down the middle deep threat they lacked this year. Last year he was targeted on 11% of throws, and had 7 touchdowns. Leggett wasn’t much of a blocker either, but you can live with that for that sort of receiving.
Milan Richard was targeted around 6% of the time, accounting for one touchdown. Richard, like the rest of the Clemson passing game, would tend to disappear in the red zone. Some of this was outside Richard’s control, Clemson passed the ball significantly less this year. Kelly Bryant isn’t Deshaun Watson. Clemson went from targeting Leggett on third down to relying on Cain and Renfrow. Still, towards the end of the season Richard was beginning to disappear as a receiver, accounting for just four catches for eight yards during the Tigers last five games. Of Richard’s 210 receiving yards 70 came against Kent State.
His blocking left a lot to be desired, both in the box and on the perimeter. Clemson seemed to be one of the worst screen teams in the country, and Richard certainly played his part. On the perimeter he was tentative, allowing smaller defenders to push him back on several occasions. In the box he wasn’t any better. That’s a problem on a team that typically would typically run the ball forty times and throw a handful of screens a game. Some of Richard’s problems as a blocker could have been addressed by using him as a receiver in RPO’s, but Bryant rarely actually threw the pass.
Backups DJ Greenlee and Cannon Smith slid into the blocking back role Clemson backup tight ends have held for years after Garrett Williams was hurt. Greenlee, an undersized but willing blocker, was even able to get a few receptions after four years in the program. He had a significant catch against Florida State. Great teams have to be able to develop role players like him.
Cannon Smith began taking more and more of Greenlee’s snaps as the season went on, and he had both more size and receiving upside than Greenlee. Smith was a major contributor on special teams as well. Smith and Greenlee were both called upon in the red zone and short yardage for their ability to block. The duo accounted for seven receptions this season while playing almost 350 snaps. Greenlee’s eligibility is exhausted, Smith might be able to show us more next season, but they were not on the field to catch the ball.
Overall the tight end play didn’t leave you thrilled, and while it’s hard to expect to replace an NFL player I’m not sure we expected this steep of a drop off in production. It seems like the limitations at tight end gave Clemson’s offense a significantly lower ceiling this season. With three experienced players returning, and questions about all three, it will be an interesting position to watch over the offseason. There’s enough depth that Clemson should be able to find a decent tight end, but we’ve seen the difference a great tight end can make.