As an example, one coach recently asked, "Realistically, how much of a problem does a TE as a pass blocker pose in modern football?" He went on to say, "I say this because now that everyone's trying to go to some type of spread and put as many small, quick guys on the field as possible, TEs are becoming an almost endangered species on teams who want to throw." There were other observations about the ongoing usefulness of the tight-end position. Although I agree that just holding up a freak like Antonio Gates doesn't get you far (good luck finding those), I do not think the position is so useless or impractical as some have implied. (Beware, this post is kind of wonky and technical.)
Homer Smith discussed the role of the TE/H-back as a triple threat: he can block, release vertical (in a way that a back cannot), and can block for a few counts and release on a delayed pass, and therefore make two guys cover him. Here is what Homer Smith explained:
It takes a sixth frontal player (not counting the QB) to pull an identifiable pass defender into the front and to give the blockers something to work with to keep the center off the island. It takes the sixth, just as it takes him to deal with a blitz.
Which is a better sixth [blocker, a tight-end or a runningback]? A TE is more of a threat with the delayed pass that makes the pass defender on him stay at bay while the TE blocks the rusher. I think a TE is the better.
Anyway, this is not so black and white, RB versus TE. It's all shades: imagine lining up with a FB in the I. Now the FB cheats over; he lines up in a two-point stance, behind the guard at 4 yards. Now behind the tackle at 3 yards. Now he splits the tackle with his inside leg, at about 2 yards. What is he? A FB or an H-back? He can BOB the linebacker, no? He can still kick out for power, release into the flat, maybe even take a handoff if he comes inside enough. Now he steps over maybe another foot, etc. Now suddenly he's a tight-end/h-back all the way? And all those advantages are lost?
Also don't confuse personnel with position. You can put anyone you want there. I don't see why your RB is some invaluable pass blocker, despite the fact that he has to work on carrying the ball, catching the ball, and blocking in the run game, while the TE is just helpless?
Nothing wrong in HS in having a division of labor for these positions. On most teams I've been around, the TEs spend more time practicing with the OL than they do the receivers. If you want a glorified slot guy, then sub a receiver in and go from there. Or use a FB type (if you're got one).
Bottom line: it's an exceptionally useful thing, and don't be straitjacketed by black and white conceptions. The advantage of the four wide spread was a division of labor thing -- you could put four wides out there and get mismatches against the other team's base personnel, and often get them out of their base looks. You might not have a good TE or fb, so you didn't put one out there; you looked for advantages elsewhere. Nowadays with everyone being spread, is that really the case that just going four wide gives you all these mismatches? I'm not so sure; using a TE -- or alternating between TEs, FBs, and slot receivers -- seems to me the better move.
I consider my base offense to be 3 WR, 1 QB, 1 RB, and then a hybrid H-back position. That H-back position can be a true slot receiver (routes and jet sweeps), a FB, a true TE/H-back (either as a blocker or hybrid guy, though those are quite rare), or even just a 2nd RB. Depends on the guys you have, what you're trying to accomplish, and also your depth (can do a lot of great things if you have a couple of kids who fit the above descriptions and then just sub them in and out to give different looks).
But unquestionably, TE is maybe my favorite position. True, it's not always easy to find a good one, but it helps a lot. (And the two best formations in football might be trips closed and a TE/wing set, with a TE and a wing player to one side, and either a split end and flanker or a twins look).
Finally, one of the concerns was that a tight-end is in poor position to pass protect:
To me, a RB who starts out deeper in the backfield is in much better position to pick up blitzers, chip DEs, or even take a DE 1-on-1. . . . Now, compare that to a TE, who is always on the end of the line and is really only in position to pick up somebody coming off the edge. He also has far less time and room for error in diagnosing a blitz or stunt and getting his body where he needs to be.
I disagree; it is best not to overthink this. One, if you're having that many problems you can always back the TE up to be an H-back so he can see more. Second, you can make a very simple call ("solid") if the DE lines up on or outside the TE and the LB lines up inside. If both the DE and LB come (and don't twist) the tackle takes the LB and the TE takes the DE; if the LB doesn't rush then the TE passes the DE off to the tackle before releasing. You do get into the matchup issues, but it's not so ridiculous like he can't get there or will just whiff. It's just a simple area principle.