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Tight ends are changing how defenses are constructed

Tavon Wilson, drafted in the second round in April, is a “tweener”  type of player the Patriots hope can help combat athletic tight ends.

Stephan Savoia/AP

Tavon Wilson, drafted in the second round in April, is a “tweener” type of player the Patriots hope can help combat athletic tight ends.

On the second day of the NFL draft, there was an audible “Huh?” across the country when the Patriots selected Illinois defensive back Tavon Wilson with the 48th overall pick.

Most draft experts, and even some NFL personnel executives, thought the 6-foot, 205-pound Wilson was a mid-round pick at best because he didn’t really have a position. Not a corner. Not really fast enough to play safety in space. Certainly not big enough to convert to linebacker.

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In Seattle, many observers couldn’t see Kentucky safety Winston Guy, a sixth-round pick, fitting onto the Seahawks roster. Tough to figure out, at 6-1 and 218 pounds, where a player like Guy would fit.

Well, they do. Thanks to rise of the tight end in NFL offenses, defenses are increasingly becoming the Island of Misfit Toys.

“The length that tight ends have and if they have some blocking abilities, they provide you with a tough matchup,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Any time a tight end is a good receiver, some people think you have to put a defensive back on him because they’re good receivers. Sometimes that plays into their hands because they have such a size advantage. You’re basically trying to cover a power forward with a point guard.

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“Sometimes a better matchup is a bigger linebacker type that can at least line up with him size-wise and not get horsed around too bad. All of that is contingent upon what you have available on your team from a cover standpoint in dealing with those tight ends.”

Enter the tweener.

The term used to have a negative connotation when it came to players that didn’t really fit at defensive end or outside linebacker. But in recent years, those players have found a place in the NFL.

The new tweener is the defensive back/linebacker combination. They have become the counter move to the athletic tight end.

“That guy is important now,” said Buccaneers veteran defensive back Ronde Barber. “Whether he’s a safety first or a corner first, you definitely need somebody who is skilled enough to be able to match up with a wideout or a tight end. I know we’ve had issues with it over the years. Even the past two years, we’d bring in another corner and let the corner cover the tight end because of the matchup athletically. So it’s a continuing issue and as these more and more athletic-type tight ends come in, it’s tough to deal with.

“It’s hard to see how this deal doesn’t continue where every team is going to have a guy like that. I know that’s what they look for. You look for those types of guys now in the draft.”

If you’re looking at what’s next in the NFL, look to the college game. That’s why Patriots coach Bill Belichick has great relationships with college coaches such as Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Chip Kelly, and often visits them on campus. The college game has really changed thanks to the rise of the spread offense.

“You’re seeing the safeties get smaller because they have to go cover a slot receiver,” said Senior Bowl executive director and former Browns general manager Phil Savage. “Are there linebackers in college football that are probably undersized at 225 or 235 pounds to play in regular defense but could cover a tight end and play that position as a nickel or dime linebacker? Absolutely.

“The game in college has become so space-oriented that these kids now are more apt to be cover players than be point-of-attack defenders. Most of the defensive players now are run-around, speed-oriented players. They’ve gotten smaller: smaller edge rushers, smaller linebacker because they have to cover a lot of ground out in space. You have smaller safeties because they’re having to line up with the third and fourth wideout in coverage. It’s really a fascinating study.”

Belichick has long been interested with those types of versatile defenders, even back to his Browns days, where Savage was in the personnel department. The “star” is a fifth defensive back that ideally would be a little bit stronger than the cornerback most other teams prefer in the slot. The “money” is a sixth defensive back that is a safety/linebacker hybrid.

In recent years, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo have been targeted for those spots. Now it’s Wilson and sixth-round pick Nate Ebner.

In theory, those players are an even bigger asset now against tight end-driven offenses because they can stay on the field on multiple downs, especially against the (also rising) no-huddle attacks.

“That’s going to become an important position,” said NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell. “That guy has to match up on people. That kind of guy can play a [Rob] Gronkowski, or at least has a chance. Belichick’s way of saying the defense has caught up to the spread offense, with all the speed and pressure packages that make it tough to protect, is to put two tight ends on the field.

“We can line up in base offense and pound the ball against your smaller people if you choose to go with a sub package. Line up base, we’ll split out Hernandez and who are you going to put on him?”

That’s why it’s important to find hybrid players that can play inside. It allows cornerbacks to stay outside.

The Seahawks use a “bandit” back that fills the same role as the “money.” Former Patriot Lawyer Milloy, who manned a traditional safety position, has given way to a younger player like Guy.

“There are so many things that a guy has to deal with that he almost has to have a real natural sense, because you can’t coach everything because of all the floating and moving around that he’s asked to do,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “Well Winston gets it; he just gets it. He’s a hitter, he plays the ball well, he’s really fast, he’s 216 pounds, big kid. He’s got a real knack for rushing the passer, he looks like a pass rusher when he’s coming. So he’s really been a pleasant surprise. We had hoped that he would be able to do these things, and he’s on that package. I think it’s a fantastic draft pick for us.”

There is a catch, however. Fangio said those hybrids certainly have value now. But it’s a battle to get them on the roster.

“That’s always the issue,” he said. “If he doesn’t fit in some of the stuff you’re going to be doing on a regular basis, then it becomes a luxury player and some teams have a hard time carrying those kind of guys.

“The good teams, the smart teams, understand that you need players on defense because defense has to defend a variety of offenses on a week-to-week basis. On offense, you determine what you play. There is a spot for a guy like that on a roster, but sometimes it’s hard to fit them in.”

The other way to combat the rise of the tight end is to put an increasing premium on bigger cornerbacks. The Patriots may have reached a little in taking 6-2 cornerback Ras-I Dowling with the 33d overall pick in 2011. But he can defend the taller tight ends if need be.

The Jets have Antonio Cromartie (6-2). The Patriots’ tight ends were part of the reason the Bills jumped at taking Stephon Gilmore (6-1) with the 10th pick this year.

“First of all, you have to be big enough to match up against the [Patriots] tight ends — especially in our division,” Bills general manager Buddy Nix said. “What they will do, and the same thing we do, is spread you out with five receivers and then run the football. You have to have a guy who can tackle. And this guy is very physical as a corner.

“You guys see that what we’re facing most every Sunday when they spread out guys that have tight end numbers on them and run like receivers, they’re big. You just have to have corners that can match up with them.”

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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