Free Agency: Tight Ends

| February 22, 2010

An interesting group of free agent tight ends is about to hit the market. There is a lot out there for teams looking to upgrade their blocking and some potentially interesting restricted free agents who could hit the open market. PFF’s Khaled Elsayed takes a closer look at the top free agents …

With Owen Daniels likely to be tendered by the Houston Texans (and coming off a serious surgery), there isn’t much in the free agent tight end market to get overly excited about. That said, there are some interesting options for teams looking at tight ends, especially those looking to upgrade the blocking they get from the position. Without further ado, let’s run down our top five free agent tight ends and look at some other interesting candidates about to enter the 2010 free agent market.

1. Alge Crumpler
A team in need of a starting tight end could do a lot worse than Crumpler as a stop gap. It’s fair to say that he isn’t the threat catching the ball he once was (as demonstrated by only being thrown at 37 times in 2009), but he remains a safe pair of hands (only one drop) and caught 73 percent of balls thrown his way. Where his true value lies is in his run-blocking, both as an in-line blocker and an occasional lead-blocker from the backfield. Crumpler has the base and strength to be effective at the point of attack and was a key component in opening up holes for Chris Johnson in his amazing season. Performances at home against Jacksonville and at Houston acted as blocking clinics for a non-offensive linemen, and will be something teams will note when looking at the available tight end market.

2. Ben Hartsock
It was something of a surprise when the Atlanta Falcons released Hartsock at the beginning of the year, although in hindsight a blessing for the man who had fallen behind Justin Peelle on the depth chart. The run-balanced Jets were quick to pick him up, and it was a marriage made in heaven. The Jets wanted a tight end who could block to complement/replace Dustin Keller, and Hartsock wanted a team that would give him plenty of snaps. Both got what they wanted. Hartsock managed 500 regular-season snaps, and while he was only thrown at four times, his blocking was tremendous. Games against Buffalo and Tampa Bay highlighted this strength, but it was work in the Divisional Playoff game against San Diego and Conference Championship game against the Colts that will catch the attention of teams looking for an upgrade in their run-blocking from the TE spot. He’ll never be the type to catch a lot of balls, but he has shown how much of an upgrade he can offer with his run-blocking, and so will command interest.

3. Benjamin Watson
After never quite living up to his draft status, a change of scenery may be the best for all concerned when it comes to the unrestricted free agent. Watson has the tools that make him the kind of tight end who is most likely to improve a team’s passing attack. And he does so without being a complete liability when it comes to blocking (though poor showings against Houston in Week 17 and at Miami in Week 9 definitely show he is prone to bad games). His greatest strength, as mentioned, is what he can do as a receiver. While not a huge part of the Pats’ passing attack by the numbers, his versatility allowed New England to line him up in the slot or as an outside receiver to create matchup problems. Couple this with a decent 13.9 yards per reception and five touchdowns, and you get the image of a tight end who could find a starting role for a team not looking to their tight end as a big playmaker.

4. Randy McMichael
McMichael is a decent blocker but struggled mightily as a receiver in St Louis. Part of this can be attributed to a lack of playmakers around him, and another part due to the merry-go-round that was the Rams’ quarterback situation. Yet part of this has to fall on the shoulders of McMichael, who had ample opportunity during his 792 snaps on the field to make a good impression, yet was unable to. His seven drops were the fourth-highest among tight ends, and he was thrown at noticeably less than all the guys above him (58 times). It is important, however, to remember this was McMichael’s first year back after a serious injury ended his 2008 season in Week 4. Teams may want to consider this when looking at McMichael’s production as a receiver this year. So there are a number of factors to consider with McMichael hitting free agency, but in all likelihood he’ll be looking to find a role as a No. 2 tight end in a market where his average blocking skills may hurt him.

5. Brandon Manumaleuna
It’s something of a myth that Manumaleuna is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. Often used in a fashion that would make him an additional offensive linemen, Manumaleuna has been caught out a number of times and looked poor for the most part of last season when the Chargers struggled to run the ball. Worse still, Manumaleuna is a tight end who is kept in to pass-block more than most and has not proven to be comfortable in this regard, surrendering 10 total pressures — a poor figure for a “blocking tight end.” On reputation (or if someone caught a strong run-blocking display of his against the Eagles in Week 10 or the Titans in Week 16), a team may bring him in for two-tight end sets and jumbo packages. But the reality is, his generally lackluster performances (highlighted by his displays towards the end of the season against the Chiefs, Cowboys and Redskins) and lack of impact on the passing game (thrown at six times) mean teams would be best of looking in another direction for tight end help.

Diamond in the Rough – Billy Miller
There are some big concerns about Miller. Notably, he’s coming off an Achilles’ tendon injury that ended his 2009 season before it got started, and while he makes this segment because of his 2008 performance, there is a worry that he’s a product of a system in New Orleans that is tight end friendly (as demonstrated by the quick adjustment and success Dave Thomas had in it). In ’08, Miller caught 75 percent of balls thrown his way for 579 yards. He was the epitome of a complete tight end, with some excellent blocking performances throughout the season (the highlight of which came in Week 11 against the Chiefs). If Miller is back to full health, there’s a strong case to be made for him being the most valuable tight end in this free agent class and worthy of a starting spot. If nothing else, a team looking to create some competition should look to bring in Miller to see if he’s the player he showed himself to be in 2008. He’s a guy with little downside but a big upside.

Wild card – The Restricted Free Agents
The truth is, it’s hard to predict what teams are going to do with their restricted free agents at the tight end spot. There are a number of players with the kind of value that will have teams looking to get something back for them. But other teams may not be prepared to commit themselves to forking out money for a player they think doesn’t represent good value. A guy like Tony Scheffler is miscast in the Josh McDaniels system (he caught nine fewer balls despite seeing 133 more snaps), and you wonder if McDaniels would cut ties completely instead of seeking compensation if he decides Scheffler doesn’t fit in with his plans. The Saints found a role for Thomas as an H-Back, but considering the success of Miller the previous year, would the reigning Super Bowl champs be of the opinion they have a system that they can install any mildly talented tight end into and get maximum results for minimal costs? Then there’s Bo Scaife, who was franchised last year. As a result, he cost much more than a team should pay for an average blocking tight end who picked up 440 receiving yards. And then there is Derek Schouman, who was having a career day before his season was cut short in Week 2. Will the Bills stick by him now that they have seen promise in Shawn Nelson? Or will they look past the potential he showed and decide it wouldn’t be cost-effective to tender him? The wild card of this class is really what approach teams take when it comes to tendering the free agents, because if any of these hit the open market, that will definitely shake things up.

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