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Free Agency Focus: Tight Ends

Posted Mar 3, 2016

As our position-by-position survey of the potential free agent market continues, we check out the tight ends, where the options appear more limited than at some other spots on the depth chart.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have five tight ends under contract for the 2106 season, including three who are 24 or younger and two who displayed significant pass-catching potential last year. That's a good thing, because this does not appear to be the best offseason to add talent to that position.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - DEFENSIVE ENDS

The 2016 NFL Draft, by most accounts, is far thicker with defensive prospects and especially deep along the defensive line. Pass-rushers, defensive backs and, yes, quarterbacks, are currently dominating the top 10 picks in most mock drafts. Scour those same mocks for a tight end or two and you'll often come up empty. For instance, there are five expert first-round mock drafts on NFL.com at the moment, and three of them are completely devoid of tight ends. One wedges Arkansas TE Hunter Henry in with the last pick of the round, the other optimistically slots him at #25 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But this is supposed to be an analysis of the free agency period, right? Well, the draft and free agency go hand-in-hand. Teams hoping for a significant upgrade at the tight end position will surely note the slim pickings in the rookie pool, and that could up their desire to go shopping on the open market. Thus, you have more teams competing within what is not an especially deep group of veteran options, either.

The Buccaneers will head into 2016 hoping to make third-year man Austin Seferian-Jenkins the centerpiece of their tight end efforts. They will acknowledge, of course, that Seferian-Jenkins' first two NFL seasons, while loaded with promise, have been marked by a string of injuries. If that proves to be an issue again next fall, the depth chart still features a strong blocking tight end in Luke Stocker, an intriguing young pass-catcher in Cameron Brate and a proven all-around veteran in Brandon Myers. Tevin Westbrook, who got a late promotion to the active roster last season, rounds out the current group.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - WIDE RECEIVERS

Even with Seferian-Jenkins' nine-game absence in the middle of the schedule last year, the Bucs got a combined 65 catches for 814 yards and eight touchdowns from their tight ends in 2015. That's a bit short of elite production at the position, but the Bucs have seen enough from Seferian-Jenkins and Brate, in particular, to believe those numbers can go up in 2016. Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who called the shots for the Bucs' offense in 2015 as it set a team record with 6,014 net yards, has a history of getting the most out of the tight end position.

In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency on March 9, Buccaneers.com is taking a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when the market opens, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering.

So, after previously checking out what the market has to offer at defensive end, wide receiver, guards/centers, linebacker, running backs we now turn our attention to…

Tight Ends

Again, there's not exactly a plentiful bounty of tight end options on the market this year. Pro Football Focus does not have a tight end among its top 50 potential free agents (though three do fall between 54 and 69). NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling worked together on a list of the top 99 (for some reason) free agents and were a little more optimistic, with four tight ends ranked between 38 and 48. None come without question marks, however.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - GUARDS & CENTERS

The interesting thing about this year's potential free agent tight ends is that four of them come from just two teams. Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates could depart the Chargers while the Colts may see both Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener hit the market.

Gates, of course, is one of the all-time greats at the tight end position but he's also closing in on 36 years old and has played nearly 200 NFL games. Last year was the first time since 2010 that he missed five or more games, though he still provided excellent production at times. Over the last two seasons, Gates has a total of 125 catches for 1,451 yards and 17 touchdowns. It's reasonable for a team to believe he has a year or two of similar production left; in fact, that may be exactly what the Chargers think about their long-time star. Gates has the feel of the type of veteran free agent who stays put and finishes his career with the home team.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - LINEBACKERS

If that happens, could Green look for a new opportunity? Two years ago, Green looked poised to replace Gates, if perhaps gradually, when he averaged 22.1 yards on 17 catches and scored three touchdowns. That hasn't happened – 56 total catches and 4 TDs over the past two years, plus some injury issues – but the talent is there. This is one of the few tight ends on the market that might convince a team he is on the verge of a breakout.

Fleener may be the only other one in that category. A high second-round pick in 2012, Fleener followed his Stanford quarterback, Andrew Luck, to Indy, leading to high expectations. He has speed and can work the seams and in 2014 he averaged 15.2 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns. Fleener's numbers grew annually during his first three years with the Colts, and if that trend had continued in 2015 he'd probably be preparing for a much more interesting run through free agency. Instead, he topped out at 491 yards last year, averaged just 9.1 yards per catch and scored three touchdowns.

The Colts also drafted Allen in 2012, in the third round, and he actually had a better debut campaign than Fleener, with a 45-521-3 line. He lost most of his sophomore campaign to injury, however, and has not broken out in the two years since. Though he had eight scores in 2014, his 2015 production was his worst yet, with a 16-109-1 line and an anemic 6.8 yards per catch. Neither Colt tight end wowed the evaluators with their blocking last year, either. There is still a chance, however, that one or more teams puts stock in the talent Allen showed in '12 and '14 and give him a chance to break out in a new environment.

READ: FREE AGENCY FOCUS - RUNNING BACKS

If Fleener and Allen had bad timing with their introduction to free agency, the opposite was true for the Saints' Ben Watson and the Browns' Gary Barnidge, the latter of whom never even made it to free agency. Watson took advantage of the Jimmy Graham-shaped hole in Drew Brees's arsenal and shockingly put up the best receiving numbers of his distinguished 12-year career. Watson's quaff from the fountain of youth probably earned him another two-year NFL contract…most likely to stay in New Orleans, however, as the Saints appreciated what he did last fall. That's how it went down in Cleveland with Barnidge, who had quietly worked his way through a serviceable first six NFL seasons in Carolina and Cleveland, never catching more than 13 passes in a given year. His stunning 1,043-yard breakout last fall earned him a new three-year deal in December.

Perhaps the Bears' Zach Miller can take advantage of Barnidge's absence from the market. Miller was a surprise in 2015, as well, though not to the same magnitude as Barnidge, helping Chicago get by without Martellus Bennett for a stretch and catching 34 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns. Several of those grabs were of the highlight-film variety, earning Miller a higher profile around the league after he had last caught an NFL pass in 2011. He's 31 now, but he still might be able to parlay that one good run with the Bears into a new deal somewhere.

Long-time 49er Vernon Davis has never had to worry about a lack of name recognition, but his steep decline in production the last two years will surely limit the suitors this spring. Davis was traded to Denver last year, which earned him a Super Bowl ring but not a prominent spot in the Broncos' offense. All told, over the last two years, the 32-year-old former Pro Bowler has a 64-640-2 line. Though they didn't reach the same career peaks as Davis, Marcedes Lewis and Jared Cook both had seasons along the line that earned them a big contract. Neither subsequently made the leap to another level, however. Cook has been the more productive of the two in recent years, catching between 39 and 52 passes in each of the past five seasons.

Here and there in recent years, the Buccaneers have taken to the free agent market to add free agent depth at the tight end position, most recently with Myers in 2014. Tom Crabtree was a breakout hope in 2013 that didn't really pan out. John Gilmore in '08 and Jerramy Stevens in '07 made some decent contributions in blocking  and pass-catching respectively. Anthony Becht, a former first-round pick of the Jets, came aboard in 2005 and gave the team several solid seasons as a starter. Depending upon how they feel about their current five, the Bucs could try to do the same sort of thing with Jermaine Gresham, Andrew Quarless or Clay Harbor.

Bucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: Low

The Buccaneers have youth and depth, potential and steady veteran presence at the tight end position heading into 2016. That doesn't rule out the possibility of attempted upgrades at one or more of the spots, or depth signings to guard against the chance of injury. However, given that neither free agency nor the draft offers a particularly deep group of options this year, the chances of a very significant signing at the position seem low.