Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Tight Ends
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
Marching through our ‘Ranking the 2014 Free Agents’ series we’ve been through the defense (linebackers, edge rushers, interior D-linemen, corners, and safeties) and most of the offense (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, centers, tackles and guards. Today we’re looking at one of the most evolving positions in the league over the past few years.
Gone are the days of the strictly in-line tight end dominating snaps for an NFL franchise. Tony Gonzalez may be retiring (maybe), but his influence on the game will be long felt. Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron, Ladarius Green, are just a few guys that owe Gonzalez for paving the way for their success. More than ever, tight ends are distinguished by their ability to get down the field and stretch the seam instead of their blocking prowess. Of course, there are the rare total packages (see: Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis), but teams tend to mix and match with a combo of pass catchers and blockers.
Most of this year’s free agent class is, unsurprisingly, the former. With the majority of the list coming off injury, or coming in under expectations, there are many teams who will likely look to upgrade via the draft. However, with tight ends in such high demand these days, most of these guys near the bottom of the list are sure to get a look.
1. Jimmy Graham – Stays with New Orleans, Franchise Tag
2013 Grade: +13.4
2013 Snaps: 774
The 2014 TE class is very top heavy, and with the top two guys likely to stay put, you may be wondering why Graham and Dennis Pitta are even on this list. First, it speaks to how barebones the class gets near the bottom. Additionally, when (and not if) Graham finally gets a long-term deal, it will likely set a record for the tight end position. GM Mickey Loomis has said that if the Saints can’t strike a multi-year pact with the massive target, he will be slapped with the franchise tag. While that likely settles his situation for the 2014 season, beyond that we can’t be sure.
Although he came up lame in three of his higher profile matchups of the season, twice against the Seahawks, and once against the Patriots, Graham’s status as one of the most unguardable receiving threats in the game has been cemented. While I won’t comment on his snaps in-line vs. out-wide, as the Saints and his agents may be bickering about those figures in the franchise tag dispute, his on-field performance certainly warrants a lucrative payday. Despite carrying a painful foot injury, a partially torn plantar fascia, for about half the season, he still ran the fifth most routes for a tight end, leading the way in Yards Per Route Run. Although his foot injury sapped some of his big play ability down the stretch, Graham still caught all 8 of his catchable targets of 20 or more yards, finishing behind just Vernon Davis is catches and yards on such plays.
I won’t drag on about a player who is extremely unlikely to hit the open market, but the former basketball players’ situation is worth monitoring. While Graham may be willing to play one season on the franchise tag, he’s unlikely to be so agreeable in 2015. You may recall the Saints had dragged out contract negotiations with Drew Brees in 2012, before striking a deal about 72 hours ahead of the deadline to get long-term contracts ironed out. I foresee a similar situation with Jimmy Graham in 2015, if not earlier.
2. Dennis Pitta – Re-signs in Baltimore
2013 Grade: -0.9
2013 Snaps: 163
Pitta’s 2013 season was highjacked before it even began when he broke his hip early in training camp. He was doubtful to even return to the field in 2013, but defied those odds by returning for the Ravens’ last four games. While he couldn’t provide the difference Baltimore needed to make the playoffs (there were an abundance of other reasons for that), Pitta’s return to the lineup had to be considered a plus. Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson, who had been splitting snaps at about a 2:1 edge to Dickson were less than adequate in providing Joe Flacco with a much needed chain-moving target in the middle of the field.
Although Pitta was eased back into the lineup, playing less than 50% of the team’s snaps in three of his four games, he undoubtedly was a plus for Flacco. A total of 20 of Pitta’s 31 targets came within 0-9 yards of the line of scrimmage, and he reeled in 15 of them. Another thing working in Pitta’s favor is the Baltimore’s hiring of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator. Kubiak’s Texans always lacked a true #2 wide receiver, which left Houston to employ two tight end sets constantly. Owen Daniels was the default #2 receiver, leading to multiple career years, and guys like Joel Dreessen and Garrett Graham even had sizable roles. What may be advantageous for Baltimore, and unfortunate for Pitta, is that the tight end’s price may have come down slightly.
3. Jermichael Finley
2013 Grade: -2.8
2013 Snaps: 259
Jermichael Finley was another tight end that unfortunately dealt with a significant injury in 2013. It speaks to the quality of this tight end class that a player who hasn’t even been cleared to play after undergoing spinal fusion surgery will possibly be the best TE to hit the open market. After dropping 25 passes over the past 3 seasons, and sustaining such a serious injury, Finley’s ranking on this list certainly can come into question. However, he’s that combination of speed and size that offensive coaches gush over. Additionally, the athletic tight end doesn’t line up in the slot as much as you may think. In 2012, his last full season, of the 535 pass routes Finley ran, just 130 of them came out of the slot. With the Packers using 11 personnel more often than many of the other teams in the league, Finley was asked to play in-line more than one might think.
Another issue for Finley has been his relationship with his quarterback. Despite being teammates with Aaron Rodgers since 2008, Finley has taken some steps back in his receiving. Most notably, in 2011 and 2012, the former Longhorn dropped 14 and 9 passes respectively. He vowed he and his QB would get onto the same page, but they never looked comfortable, and Rodgers started finding Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings (in 2011-12), James Jones, and Randall Cobb more frequently. With former position coach Ben McAdoo in New York now, the connecting of dots could find Finley with Giants in 2014. However, he still needs to be medically cleared.
4. Scott Chandler – Re-signs with Buffalo
2013 Grade: -3.6
2013 Snaps: 931
This is where the list takes a bit of a drop-off, with most of the rest of the TEs on here being hampered by injuries or not possessing great movement skills to be considered one of the true elites at the position. Scott Chandler is one of those players who can take advantage of an open middle of the field, but he won’t do anything to stretch the seam or after the catch. Chandler didn’t catch a pass 20+ yards down the field all season, and was only targeted on three such passes. Additionally, Chandler was below average in both run-blocking and pass-blocking, the former of which is an important key to the Bills’ offensive game-plan.
Chandler is suited to be the less athletic member of a tight end tandem. The 7-year veteran was 13th among 18th qualifiers in Yards Per Route Run among tight ends in 2013. Although that’s a pretty accurate depiction of his skill set, he still outpaced players like Coby Fleener, Delanie Walker, and Heath Miller in the category. However, with the less agile Lee Smith still signed for the 2014 season, and possessing better blocking chops than Chandler, Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett may want to get younger and more explosive at the position.
5. Brandon Pettigrew – Re-signs with Detroit
2013 Grade: -8.0
2013 Snaps: 925
Pettigrew is another member of this free agent class who just seems ill-suited to be the #1 TE on a team. He is big-bodied, willing blocker, but has been a disappointment since being drafted with the 20th overall pick in 2009. Despite possessing the body and being asked to block more than receive, Pettigrew only had one above average run-blocking performance of the season. Additionally, the lumbering TE was below average in the passing game as well, resulting in negative grades in run-blocking (-9.1) and receiving (-4.3).
Detroit GM Martin Mayhew has said the Lions are looking to bring back Pettigrew, but they should be able to do better. With Joseph Fauria showing he can be a dynamic weapon in the passing game, especially in the red zone, Pettigrew would have to take a cheaper deal to stick around. With Detroit looking to replicate the Saints’ playbook in 2014, we should see some multiple tight end looks for the Lions soon.
6. Kellen Winslow
2013 Grade: +4.9
2013 Snaps: 342
Kellen Winslow was supposed to be little more than an afterthought in the 2013 season. After a 2012 which saw him catch one pass between two stops in Seattle and New England, was there a team that would be willing to gamble on the 30-year-old, oft-injured tight end? Out of necessity, due to the severe lack of talent on the Jets, Winslow was brought aboard to be the deputy tight end to Jeff Cumberland. Marty Mornhinweg used the aging, but still athletic tight end wisely, realizing that over-using Winslow would result in another knee injury. He played just 342 snaps, running 219 pass routes, over 12 games. However, there was a large disparity in his snaps before and after his suspension in the middle of the season.
Over the first five weeks, Winslow was in on nearly 60% of the offensive snaps. However, following his suspension, he contributed on just about 30% of the snaps. Despite that disparity, Winslow provided some of that seam-stretching ability that he had been known for throughout his career. Especially in the intermediate area, where Geno Smith had some of his struggles, Winslow snatched 13-of-15 targets for 238 yards when targeted between 10-19 yards. Although his off-field issues in 2013 raise some concerns, it shouldn’t have any bearing on his status for the 2014 season. Winslow’s unlikely to receive much attention early in free agency, but in a league that’s always looking for playmakers at the position, someone may be willing to give the veteran a non-guaranteed deal.
7. Dustin Keller
2013 Grade: N/A
2013 Snaps: 0
Dustin Keller is another guy on this list who is recuperating from a season-ending injury. This one came in the preseason, and was about as ugly as you’ll see, with rookie D.J. Swearinger going low and dislocating the tight end’s knee, in addition to tearing his ACL, MCL, and PCL. As unfortunate as the injury was, it opened the door for the emergence of Charles Clay. With Clay entrenched as the starter in Miami, Keller clearly is not expected back in South Florida. His injury was serious enough that he’s unlikely to even get a sniff early in free agency. After injuries marred his 2012 and he couldn’t capitalize on the free agent market, it’s starting to get late for Keller as he turns 30 later this year.
Fortunately for the rehabbing tight end, the rest of the TE market is noticeably thin this season. Additionally, when healthy, he is one of the best “move” TEs on the market, especially with Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta unlikely to hit the open market. In his last full season, in 2011, Keller was 6th among tight ends in Yards Per Route Run, besting other greats at the position such as Davis, Gonzalez, and Witten. Obviously, it may be a big ask for Keller to get healthy by Week 1, but for a team hunting for a bargain at tight end, he could be a cheap pickup before, during, or after training camp.
8. Jeff Cumberland – Re-signs with New York Jets
2013 Grade: -6.5
2013 Snaps: 685
Jeff Cumberland played his second straight season of 600+ snaps in 2013 and heads to free agency as candidate to be resigned by the Jets. Similar to Pettigrew, Chandler, and a few others in this free agent class, Cumberland won’t blow anyone away with his movement and speed. He’s most likely suited for a No. 2 or 1b type role, with a more talented tight end playing ahead of him. Cumberland played as a receiver in college, so it’s not surprising to see him struggle as a blocker. The oversized receiver did actually grade positively in the passing game (+3.5), but was a liability when he stayed home to block. Cumberland sported an -8.3 grade in run blocking and -5.4 when pass protecting. It’s not shocking that the Jets struggled to move the ball when their primary tight end is inept as a blocker.
“Gang Green” needs some offensive upgrades, especially among their pass-catchers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Jets resign Cumberland, especially with Kellen Winslow walking into free agency, but he can’t be a priority. While John Idzik figures to target wide receivers in free agency and the draft, what will he do at tight end?
9. Brandon Myers – Signs with Tampa Bay
2013 Grade: -7.1
2013 Snaps: 861
As we get towards the bottom of this list, it’s starting to become pretty obvious that finding a two way tight end is pretty difficult in this league. Brandon Myers is another example of a solid NFL tight end, but he is just not a willing blocker, and it shows. Since becoming a regular player in 2011, Myers has been an anemic run blocker. Including that season with Oakland, he’s graded out -6.4, -21.4, and -8.8 in run blocking. With the Giants likely looking to get younger at the position, Myers should not be expected back.
Similar to some of the other guys on this list, Myers lacked the downfield explosiveness that coaches desire from their tight ends these days. He was targeted just twice 20+ yards down the field by Eli Manning, leading to a league worst 1.17 Yards Per Route Run, among 18 qualified TEs. Myers is what he is, a safety valve tight end that struggles when he blocks. Myers will likely be competing with the Cumberlands, Pettigrews, and Chandlers for short term deals in March.
10. Ben Hartsock
2013 Grade: +11.7
2013 Snaps: 324
Looking at Ben Hartsock’s age (34 in July), it may be odd to see him on this list with someone like Garrett Graham hitting free agency as well. However, Hartsock’s 2013 was one that saw him excel as a blocker for the Panthers. Despite not catching a single pass from Cam Newton, the aging veteran was the best run-blocking tight end by a pretty significant margin last season. His entire grade of +11.7 is his grade in run-blocking last season, with his closest competitor being Brent Celek, who finished at +5.2. Considering Hartsock logged just 324 snaps in 2013, it’s impressive to see that sort of dominance in the running game.
Because he’s almost exclusively a run-blocker – of his 324 snaps, 218 were run-blocking plays, and he chipped in pass-blocking on 61 snaps – his market will simply not be very big. Age is undefeated in the NFL, but at 34, Hartsock should still be able to provide some punch in the ground game for a reasonable price.
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