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Young tight ends in rare company


Flowery Branch, Ga.-- When Tony Gonzalez was recently asked about the new crop of apprentice tight ends on the Atlanta Falcons roster, he simply said, "I hope they listen."

Blessed with 13 seasons in the NFL, the ten-time Pro Bowler knows every rookie needs a veteran to show him the way, just as he had.

Though the difference in talent was vast, Gonzalez, a 1997 first-round draft pick by Kansas City, credits journeyman tight end Ted Popson for helping him learn the ropes. Popson's final year in the NFL was 1998, one year before Gonzalez began his string of ten consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.

Gonzalez, who has two years remaining on the contract he signed in 2006, has given no indication that he intends to retire early. The tight end who often reminds anyone that will listen that he's never won a playoff game is seeking that reward and then some to cap his NFL career.

The Falcons franchise believes what he says and that perhaps played a role in their draft plan this past offseason.

There was a popular belief during the 2010 draft season that the Falcons would use a high selection on the heir apparent to their Hall of Famer. Instead, they will enter training camp with 31-year-old veteran Justin Peelle, second-year Falcon Keith Zinger, and two undrafted rookies in Colin Peek and Michael Palmer.

Peelle provides the veteran backup experience desired, but between Peek and Palmer, the Falcons may have a diamond in the rough to groom under Gonzalez. Before they accomplish anything with Atlanta, they need to do just as the senior tight end says: listen.

Listening will help them learn a role that Head Coach Mike Smith describes as one of the most complicated on the team.

"The tight end is without a doubt one of our most complex positions simply because of what we do," Smith said recently. "We ask them to be very multiple. Not only do they play the fullback position but they also play the tight end position."

Smith believes Peek, a key contributor to the 2009 National Champion University of Alabama, and Palmer, a Stone Mountain, Georgia and Clemson University product, have the rare good fortune to learn those complexities from a player that many believe is the greatest of all time at his position.

"These guys have a great opportunity to work with a player of the stature of Tony Gonzalez that's definitely going to be a Hall of Famer," said Smith. "They can learn a lot, not only about his work ethic, but also how to catch the football and run routes. What they're seeing, they can go and talk with him and Tony is going to be a guy that is going to be a very good mentor for all these guys."

So far the young tight ends appear to be listening and recognize their advantage. Peek, whose injury history hurt his draft stock, was considered one of the more well-rounded blocking and catching tight ends available in the 2010 class.

It's no coincidence that Peek, at times, shows flashes of Gonzalez' attributes, they're traits that he's patterned his game after and he knows he's fortunate to begin his career with him.

"Tony Gonzalez, to me, is the greatest tight end of all time," Peek said last week. "It's a blessing and an honor to be able to play under someone like that, especially to be able to pick his brain, see what he does, see him every day on the field, and how he works. It's truly a blessing to work with someone like that."

Gonzalez contends that the young guys just need to learn the basics, come to work every day, and continue to possess a belief in their ability and there's no reason to believe the torch couldn't be passed from one all-timer to the next.

"These guys have a lot of talent and there's big upside there," he said. "Just like when I came in, they've got to learn the fundamentals, learn the technique, and learn the verbiage. I think probably the most important part of it is confidence. That's really what makes a great NFL player, knowing that you can get it done. That takes time and practice."

It's an attitude that has served Gonzalez well. Often seen after practice getting extra hits in on the blocking sled or taking precise, cut-and-catch drills before practice begins, his work ethic is near legendary.

Watching the player whose next catch in a regular season game will include him in the company of six others in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions is a good way for Peek and Palmer to begin their NFL careers.

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