Free Agent Preview: Tight End

Posted Mar 5, 2013

Tight ends are all the rage in the NFL these days, at least if you’re one of the teams lucky enough to have one of the athletic, power forwards in football pads type of players at the position.

Players like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis have picked up the torch from the originals like Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez and San Diego’s Antonio Gates to continue to revolutionize a position that was once thought to be little more than a glorified sixth offensive lineman.

With free agency set to begin on March 12 and a new crop of tight ends coming into the league in April’s NFL Draft, teams remain on the lookout for the next in line to join that group of pass catching tight ends who can stress defenses in a variety of ways.

For the Rams, the need at tight end entering this offseason isn’t as pressing as it might be at a few other spots but it certainly still registers as a position the team will look to improve as it looks for any and every way to make the offense more productive.

Last year, second-year tight end Lance Kendricks bounced back from his rookie season struggles and pieced together a solid performance while playing a variety of different roles within in the offensive scheme.

Kendricks finished with 42 catches (tied for third most on the team) with 519 yards and four touchdowns while working primarily as the team’s “move” tight end but also occasionally playing in line and even working as a fullback after Brit Miller was released.

That yardage total of 519 was the most by a Rams tight end since the team relocated to St. Louis in 1995. He also proved to be an effective run blocker from each of his roles and figures to be a valuable, versatile piece moving forward.

Behind Kendricks, the Rams also got valuable contributions from one of last year’s free agent additions, Matthew Mulligan. Working almost exclusively as an inline blocker, Mulligan was firm in his blocking and even contributed the occasional pop in the passing game with eight catches for 84 yards and his first career NFL touchdown.

Behind Kendricks and Mulligan, the Rams have a pair of promising young tight ends in Mike McNeill and Cory Harkey. McNeill played in 14 games with one start and finished with four catches for 31 yards.

The physically imposing Harkey stands 6’4, 260 pounds and was called up to the active roster after spending the first nine weeks on the practice squad. Known for his blocking, Harkey played in five games, mostly on special teams, and chipped in one catch for 21 yards.

The Rams also have Cameron Graham under team control as he finished the season on the practice squad.

Despite having those five players in place, it seems the Rams could well target some more help at the position though it would seem a bit more likely to come from the draft rather than a higher priced free agent.

Of course, if the Rams did want to dip their toes into the free agent market for a tight end, they’d find their share of intriguing but likely costly options.

As is often the case in the NFL when it comes to free agency, there are a pair of tight ends who would seem like logical fits, at least if you believe in connecting the dots between coaches and former players.

Tennessee’s Jared Cook is a freakish athlete with the ability to stretch the seam and make big plays in the pass game though he isn’t much of a blocker. Rams coach Jeff Fisher originally drafted him with the Titans and there is a connection there.

However, the reason Cook is even set to hit the market is because Tennessee declined to use the tag on him after he insisted that he should get the receiver tag instead of the cheaper tight end tag. Logically, he’ll probably looking for a contract more in line with a wideout than a tight end, which could make him cost prohibitive for the Rams.

One option who isn’t as athletic but fits a similar profile in terms of being more of a pass catcher than a blocker is the Jets’ Dustin Keller. Keller played for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in New York and has a working knowledge of the offense that would make him a natural fit at a cost much lower than Cook’s though it remains to be seen if the Rams have interest.

Gonzalez is also set to be a free agent and while he’s still one of the best in the league and the best tight end to ever play the position, he’s expected to either retire or remain with Atlanta.

The Giants’ Martellus Bennett and Washington’s Fred Davis would also seem like logical fits should the Rams be in the market for pass catching help at the position.

San Francisco’s versatile Delanie Walker, Oakland’s Brandon Myers and Miami’s Anthony Fasano are also scheduled to hit the market.

Baltimore has a pair of restricted free agents that could draw interest on the market in Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson though that will likely cost varying degrees of draft compensation should a team make an offer.

Tight end

1. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta: Still at the top of his game. He’s the best to ever do it. Likely to retire but if he comes back he’ll likely stay with the Falcons.
2. Jared Cook, Tennessee: Dynamic athlete with major upside. Hasn’t had much help from his quarterbacks. Titans would like to keep him but might not be able to afford it.
3. Martellus Bennett, New York Giants: Like Cook, a great athlete without the consistent production. Still likely to get a nice deal from someone.
4. Delanie Walker, San Francisco: Overshadowed by Vernon Davis but a versatile, complete package who will almost certainly draw his share of interest.
5. Dustin Keller, New York Jets: Never been much of a blocker but strong receiving skills could get him a nice deal.

Others to Watch: Travis Beckum, New York Giants; Brandon Myers, Oakland; Anthony Fasano, Miami; Fred Davis, Washington.

Restricted Free Agents to Watch: Ed Dickson, Baltimore; Dennis Pitta, Baltimore; Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets.

Rams Free Agents: None.