It is a good year to be in need at some positions in this free agency class, and not a great year to be in need at others. Right now, the 2012 tight end crop falls into the latter category, but that’s not to say there’s no talent available at the position.
In this copycat league more than one of these free agents-to-be have the kind of abilities that will get teams thinking about their own version of Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. However, the depth is simply not there after the top of the class. Teams that miss out initially may be reduced to focusing on the draft or trying to coax some improved play out of one of the series of underperforming players available.
With that said, we will focus only on a fab five of potential free agent tight ends, breaking down their key numbers and the draw they may have to any potential suitors.
1) Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 25
2011 Grade: -5.0 (+3.6 as a receiver)
Key Stat: Finley tallied 12 dropped passes in 2011.
Behind the Numbers: If there’s one tight end in this class that can compete with the freakish athleticism of guys like Gronkowski and Graham, it’s Finley. At 6’5, 243 lbs, Finley is often lined up in the slot or out wide for the Packers. So much so that he is angling to be designated as a wide receiver and not a tight end for negotiating purposes. Helping his case is that he looks completely at home in that role. He has the kind of athleticism that makes it almost impossible for defenses to match up against. In an ever-increasing passing league, his limitations as a blocker become less relevant (Graham or Aaron Hernandez are equally absent in that area). Finley’s problem in 2011 was dropping the ball. He did it a dozen times, and many of them were not difficult catches, but rather passes he should be catching in his sleep. The drops got firmly inside his head, but that’s something that isn’t likely to stick with him long term, and a receiver can get through to the other side of that. If the Packers allow him to hit the open market (and the franchise tag is seeming ever more likely), then some team is going to pay him big money with designs on making him their version of the impossible matchup.
2) Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 25
2011 Grade: +7.8 (+8.2 as a run blocker)
Key Stat: An athletic specimen, Bennett had just 144 receiving yards last season.
Behind the Numbers: Martellus Bennett is a strange player, having become in the NFL almost a polar opposite of his pre-draft billing. A former Texas A&M basketball star, Bennett was seen as another in this new breed of athlete tight ends who could be a weapon in the pass game, but who would likely struggle as a blocker. For the Cowboys, operating behind Jason Witten, he has been a stud as a blocking tight end in their two-TE sets, but has struggled to make an impact as a receiver. In his four seasons in the league, he has just 85 career catches (Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham topped that this season alone, and Brandon Pettigrew came close with 83 catches in 2011). The athleticism is still there, and it is possible that stepping out from the shadow of one of the league’s best will allow him to grow in that regard going forward. The interesting thing about Bennett is that he blocks extremely well, which a rare commodity even for the top tight ends. He may be more attractive to teams that still like to establish the run game before they take to the air.
3) Joel Dreessen, Houston Texans
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 30
2011 Grade: +10.7
Key Stat: Six penalties cost him exactly the 2.4 PFF grade which he needed to surpass Tony Gonzalez for fifth place for tight ends in 2011.
Behind the Numbers: The only thing working against Dreessen is his age. Entering the season at 30-years-old is never the best selling point to teams looking to extend multi-season offers in free agency. Dreessen has had some impressive play to make them overlook that fact though. He also does not have significant tread on his tires despite his age, having only seen three seasons as a significant portion of the Texans’ offense. The Texan is a capable blocker in both the run game and as a pass protector. While his receiving numbers won’t blow anybody away, he does have touchdowns of 43 and 56 yards in the past two seasons. That demonstrates a big-play ability some won’t give him credit for at first glance. He won’t compare to the previous two players in terms of athleticism, but a team could do much worse than look to him for an answer to their problems at the position.
4) Fred Davis, Washington Redskins
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: -2.3 (+9.2 as a receiver)
Key Stat: The 366 yards after the catch trailed only five TEs last year despite missing the final four games of the regular season due to a suspension.
Behind the Numbers: In truth, Fred Davis may have been higher up this list had there not been off-field concerns thrown up by his suspension for failing a drug test. Those same concerns may well reduce Davis to the franchise tag as well. That way the Redskins can keep him around for a season and see if he keeps his nose clean rather than losing him and risk having him explode elsewhere. Davis is a legitimate receiving threat, and put up impressive figures in Washington despite a rotation of poor quarterbacks and little else taking the focus off him. He is a flat out poor run blocker, but as we have pointed out earlier, the list of people that seem to be bothered by that grows smaller by the season. If Washington does allow Davis to hit the open market, teams will have to weigh up his potential playmaking ability against the risk that another off the field incident will see him suspended for a full year.
5) Jeremy Shockey, Carolina Panthers
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 32
2011 Grade: +3.6
Key Stat: For the fifth time in his 10-year career Shockey played 15 games; he’s never had a full 16-game season.
Behind the Numbers: Shockey was once upon a time the next great thing at tight end. Coming out of the University of Miami, Shockey was part of the great train of dominant tight ends they produced. Unfortunately, none of them went on to fulfill their promise at the NFL level to the degree the pre-draft hype suggested they all should. Shockey, for his part, was held back primarily through injuries, which have blighted him throughout his career. He showed last season that he can still get the job done and be an effective weapon for a team, especially if he is used as part of a platoon of TEs rather than alone as the primary guy.