The main storyline created by the intersection of free agency and the tight end position in 2012 is emanating out of Green Bay. Will the Packers put a franchise tag on budding star Jermichael Finley or otherwise find a way to retain the fifth year tight end before he becomes the most coveted player at his position on the open market?
The eventual resolution of that issue, one way or another, will define how exciting the tight end position is in free agency this year, because Finley's presence would change the talent pool drastically. With him, the tight end crop will be top-heavy but at least intriguing; without him, it is considered one of the weaker positions teams will be able to address on the open market this year.
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that only becomes an issue if they decide to make their own drastic changes at the position. The team could quite simply go into 2012 with the same clutch of tight ends it utilized in 2011. That group would still include a proven veteran with three straight 66-plus-catch seasons, a promising recent draft pick with a combination of blocking and receiving skills, and another young prospect from the 2011 draft the team picked up later in the year. There's even a fourth tight end from the practice squad who saw some regular-season action last year and adds depth to next year's training camp competition.
Still, with a new coaching staff being put in place under Head Coach Greg Schiano and a clear mandate to make use of a favorable free agency spending position, the Buccaneers can't be considered set at any position. With free agency opening in exactly three weeks, Schiano and company will be poring over 2011 game film, upcoming Combine information and the pro scouts' evaluation of the pending market, seeking to identify where upgrades can and should be made. Tight end, like every position on the depth chart, is worth examining in regards to the free agent market and how it might affect the Buccaneers' roster.
The 2012 free agency period begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 13. Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but we can still survey the landscape, in regards to both team needs and the possible pool of free agents, before the opening bell. This is the fourth in a series of position-by-position primers prior to the start of free agency on Buccaneers.com. Once again, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?
After covering the safeties, wide receivers and linebackers we once again cross the line of scrimmage to check out the tight end position. Coming up next: defensive ends. As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Tight End
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
This will be brief: The Buccaneers have no tight ends who are due to become free agents of any type on March 13. That includes unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agency.
Again, that could lead to more season-to-season stability at the position than the team has had in awhile. The Bucs let blocking tight end John Gilmore walk after the 2010 season with the intention of addressing the position in the draft and getting Kellen Winslow a versatile partner for two-TE formations. Former starter Alex Smith was traded after the 2008 season and replaced by Kellen Winslow (the Winslow trade actually came first). Anthony Becht left at the same time. Jerramy Stevens was a midseason cut in 2010.
Even the related pass-catching position of wide receiver is in no danger of free agency poaching as reserve Micheal Spurlock is the only pending UFA or RFA. If new Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan likes what he sees as Josh Freeman's array of targets, he'll be able to keep it virtually intact.
- The potential free agent market
As mentioned above, the presence – or perhaps more likely, lack thereof – of Finley will determine how appealing this year's tight end class is in free agency. A huge target at 6-5 and 243 pounds, Finley nonetheless has elite agility and the speed to play well off the edge of the line. He may not be considered a top-notch blocker, but the same can be said of some of the top tight ends in the game, such as New Orleans' incredibly prolific Jimmy Graham. Finley has 131 receptions over the past three years despite missing 11 games due to injury in 2010. Though his 55-767 line from last year might not have been exactly what the fantasy football players were expecting, he did score eight touchdowns and give the Packers' passing attack another level of unpredictability.
Washington's Fred Davis is somewhat in the same mold as Finley – non-elite blocker but legitimate threat as a pass-catcher despite good size (6-4, 259 pounds). If Finley is not on the market, Davis might find himself in a very enviable position, though a league suspension last year certainly won't help his bargaining power. Veteran Jeremy Shockey, who spent the 2011 season in Carolina, is obviously a proven pass-catcher, with 547 career receptions and 37 touchdowns, and though he has declined from his peak 60-catch years he still had 37 grabs in 15 games last year.
The Dallas Cowboys' Martellus Bennett might be one of the more intriguing figures on the list, the kind of still-developing player who is already an asset but could turn into much more. The brother of Buccaneers DE Michael Bennett, he stands 6-6, 275 and has quickly turned into a very good blocker. Still, his career at Texas A&M, both on the gridiron and the basketball court, suggest that he could be a weapon in the passing game. Some team may believe the only thing keeping Bennett from putting up elite numbers is the presence of Jason Witten, himself one of the best pass-catching tight ends of his generation.
Like Bennett, there are several other potential diamonds-in-the-rough who spent 2011 in reserve roles behind players they are likely to unseat if they stay put. That group includes Indianapolis' Jacob Tamme and Houston's Joel Dreessen, who have toiled in the shadows of Dallas Clark and Owen Daniels, respectively. Tamme had an eye-opening season in 2010 when Clark hit injured reserve after seven games, stepping up to catch 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns. Any chance of building on that performance in 2011 was clipped by Clark's return and the season-long absence of Peyton Manning. Dreessen hasn't topped 36 catches in any of his six NFL seasons thus far but has a career average of 12.4 yards per reception and has 13 touchdowns among his 110 career grabs.
Finally, in the recent breakout category you have Buffalo's Scott Chandler, who may find he had perfect timing in 2011. Chandler bounced around to four different teams during his first four NFL seasons (2007-10) and had just one career catch at the end of '10. However, in 2011 he snagged 38 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns for the Bills.
The tight end cupboard in free agency 2012 is anything but bare, but it lacks the depth and potential impact of such spots as wide receiver and defensive back. That will be especially true if Finley is back in a Packers uniform before March 13.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
The top of the draft is usually a good place for one or two NFL teams to solve their tight end deficiencies, but not for most of them to do so. While most draft classes feature a couple tight ends who are considered immediate difference-makers, rarely is that position heavily featured in the first two rounds.
There were no tight ends drafted in the first round a year ago, and only one in 2010. In fact, the last draft class that placed two TEs in the first round was 2006, with Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis. Even the second round is usually light on tight ends; in each of the last three years, only two tight ends had come off the board overall by the end of the second round.
This year's class isn't likely to put a major dent in that trend. It is considered a mildly impressive group, and certainly not top-heavy. It is possible that no tight ends will go in the first round for the second straight year, though the best options to crack the opening frame are probably Clemson's Dwayne Allen, Georgia's Orson Charles and Stanford's Coby Fleener.
Allen is considered an NFL-ready blocker, and he has displayed the athleticism that make some scouts believe he could grow into a force in the passing game. Fleener put up big-time pass-catching numbers with Stanford's Andrew Luck but isn't considered in Allen's league as a blocker. Charles, a Tampa native, might be more of a potential pick, with slightly less-than-ideal size but impressive athleticism.
Of course, a class of this makeup, with decent second and third-round depth, might be just what a team needs if it is picking high in those two rounds, as the Buccaneers are this year. Tampa Bay picks fourth in the second round and fifth in the third round this year. In 2010, Rob Gronkowski went 10 picks into Round Two; in 2008, Davis and Seattle's useful John Carlson went early in the second round and Bennett was picked up by Dallas at the end of that frame.
Other intriguing tight end prospects who could make a team happy during the first two days of this year draft are Missouri's Michael Egnew, Louisiana-Lafayette's Ladarius Green and Oregon's David Paulson. Egnew struggled a bit at the Senior Bowl but could revive his stock at the combine. As a small-school player, Green is a bit of a prospect, and his 6-6, 240-pound frame will probably have to fill out for him to succeed as an NFL blocker. But he's fast and has displayed good hands, so some teams are sure to be intrigued by his potential. Paulson is another prospect without eye-catching statistics who has at least convinced the scouts that he has a higher ceiling in the NFL.
The 2012 draft class doesn't appear to have a prospect who will crack the top 10, like Davis in 2006 or current Buccaneer Winslow in 2004. That likely means the position will not be a target for Tampa Bay on Day One. However, with a decent crop of middle-round prospects on tap, the Bucs could impact the position if they do not feel satisfied with its current makeup. The team is just one year removed, however, from using a high fourth-round pick on a player, Luke Stocker, it felt could have gone even higher.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
This is a position the Buccaneers have addressed in free agency fairly frequently, especially if one includes 2002 pickups Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley. Neither were officially unrestricted free agents that offseason, having been released by their previous team for cap reasons, but they were important acquisitions for new Head Coach Jon Gruden and the offense he was reconstructing.
Dilger was the starting tight end on that Super Bowl-winning team, Dudley the pass-catching number two at the position. Together, they gave the team 50 catches for 521 yards and five touchdowns – not overwhelming numbers but they were important pieces to the championship puzzle.
Tampa Bay first dipped into the open market at tight end early in the new free agency system. In 1994, the Bucs were able to pry restricted free agent Jackie Harris away from the Green Bay Packers, as movement among that sort of free agent was more common in the 1990s than it is now. Harris had averaged 50 catches, 600 yards and three touchdowns during the previous two years as Green Bay's primary starter and the Bucs thought he was poised to put up even bigger numbers. Harris' first season in Tampa was marred by injuries but he started all 16 games in 2005 and put up 62 catches for 751 yards. At the time, that was the most receptions ever in a single season by a Buccaneers tight end, and the yards were just 35 short of the team record. Harris played two more seasons in Tampa but neither matched his 1995 campaign, again partly due to injuries.
The Bucs added former Jets first-round pick Anthony Becht as an unrestricted free agent in 2005 and he proved to be a solid player in Tampa for the next three seasons, if not necessarily a big-time pass-catching threat. Similarly, John Gilmore came aboard as a UFA in 2008 with the reputation as one of the league's better blocking tight ends and proved that scouting report accurate. He played three seasons in Tampa, too, playing a significant amount in two-TE sets but rarely figuring strongly into the passing game. By contrast, 2007 free agent pickup Jerramy Stevens was known for his receiving skills, and he would catch 72 passes for 759 yards and seven touchdowns over the next three-plus years, highlighted by a fourth-down, game-winning TD in New Orleans in 2007 that essentially clinched the NFC South title that year.
The Bucs' tight end-hunting past looks even stronger if one includes the 2009 trade that brought Kellen Winslow to town. In three seasons, Winslow has hauled in 218 catches for 2,377 yards and 12 touchdowns and is already within shouting distance of the top 10 on the franchise's all-time receiving charts. He has essentially rewritten the single-season record section for tight ends in team history and has not missed a single game despite having to deal with the effects of several previous knee injuries on a daily basis.
Overall, the Bucs have shown since the start of free agency in the early 1990s that they are adept at identifying tight end talent that can come in and help the team immediately.
- 2011 Performance
Winslow led the team in receptions, with 75, and was only eight yards behind WR Mike Williams for the top spot, with 763. He scored only twice but finished the season on an up note, with 13 catches for 119 yards in the Bucs' last two games. Winslow was the team's most consistent target in the passing attack, catching at least two passes in every game and at least four in 14 of the 16. In the 40 games that he has played with Josh Freeman as his starting quarterback, Winslow has hauled in 183 passes. He is not considered an elite blocking tight end, but the Bucs hoped to improve the deceptiveness of their two-TE alignment when they drafted Luke Stocker to pair with him this past season.
That part of the equation didn't quite pan out as expected in 2011, which is of course true of many of the team's plans during that difficult campaign. Considering Stocker a strong performer in both blocking and route-running, the Bucs believed he would pair with Winslow to make the tight end position extremely prolific overall. However, Stocker finished the season with just 12 catches and had only five grabs over the final nine games of the season. A handful of injuries slowed Stocker during the first half of the season and the offense never found its bearing during the second half. It is fair to say that the Bucs consider their Winslow-Stocker pairing an incomplete experiment at this point, with much room for improvement.
Zack Pianalto, a rookie free agent signing with Buffalo last year, came to the Bucs as a waiver claim in early September and eventually settled in as the team's primary third tight end. Collin Franklin, another rookie, got a brief promotion to the active roster in October and was on the practice squad the rest of the time.
Summary: Unless and until the Buccaneers choose to undertake an overhaul at the tight end position, it wouldn't appear to be a main priority on the free agent market. The Bucs are not going to lose any of their current tight ends unless they choose to, and the potential class of players who are on the market won't be deep. In addition, the upcoming draft appears to offer some solid options to any team that wants to tweak its tight end position, or begin building for the future. As with every position on the depth chart, however, it's impossible to rule out any serious restructuring until Schiano and his staff have had a chance to fully evaluate what is on hand.