Each of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' last three head coaches were gifted with a veteran tight end not long after taking over at the helm.
Jon Gruden (2002) and Greg Schiano (2012) both welcomed a former Indianapolis Colt aboard as their new number-one tight ends, with Ken Dilger coming aboard in '02 and Dallas Clark in '12. Raheem Morris' first-year offense featured former Cleveland Brown Kellen Winslow, who moved to Tampa in an offseason trade in 2009. While that trio of moves is really just a consequence, it does highlight the fact that the Buccaneers have not been shy about addressing the tight end position with outside, veteran help.
Could they be looking to do the same in 2013?
Even staying with the 2012 status quo would involve some sort of new contract work, as Clark is due to become an unrestricted free agent in March. He joins what could be a fairly large group of tight ends on the move, as this year's market appears to have a nice mix of youth, experience, potential and proven production. At least, that's the case in late February; the landscape could look a bit different by March 12, the opening day of free agency.
With the recent NFL renaissance at the tight end position, this is not an insignificant issue. Some of the league's best offenses have tight ends at or very close to the center of their attacks, with players such as Rob Gronkowski in New England, Jimmy Graham in New Orleans, Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta and Jason Witten in Dallas putting up numbers one used to associate with the game's best wideouts. Some teams, such as the Patriots, are even finding ways to work multiple pass-catching tight ends into significant roles in the offense.
Thus, while it likely won't draw the very biggest deals this spring, the tight end position could be one of the most fertile markets for teams with money and cap space to spend. Will the Buccaneers be among those shopping the tight end aisle? As we do at each position in our free agency primers, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- 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 2012?
As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff. We now look at the tight end position after previously addressing the defensive line, wide receivers and safeties.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Tight Ends
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
Just as was the case at safety with Ronde Barber, there is only one name on this tight end list, but it's an important one. Dallas Clark, who ranked fourth on the team with 47 receptions and third with four TD catches in his first year with the team, is due to hit the market after playing on a one-year contract.
Clark has played 10 NFL seasons and racked up 474 career receptions, which means his 47 grabs in 2012 almost exactly matched his per-season average as a pro. That's misleading, of course. Clark started his career in Indianapolis fairly slowly, with four straight season of 37 or fewer catches, but then exploded with one of the most prolific three-year stretches ever by a tight end. Emerging as a favorite target of Peyton Manning, Clark had 235 receptions, 2,570 yards and 27 touchdowns from 2007-09. He was then slowed by injuries the next two years before coming to the Buccaneers after Indianapolis cleaned house and started over with rookie QB Andrew Luck in 2012.
Thus, it is difficult to predict exactly what the Buccaneers could expect from Clark if he returned for another season to work with QB Josh Freeman. Meanwhile, 2011 draft pick Luke Stocker has two years left on his contract and third tight end Nate Byham, signed in early October last year, is still under Buc control for 2013. The team also re-signed 2012 seventh-round pick Drake Dunsmore after he spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad, and will get another chance to look at surprise undrafted free agent Danny Noble, who made the 53-man roster but spent much of last year on injured reserve.
- The potential free agent market
Ranked simply by 2012 production, the amazingly ageless Tony Gonzalez is the clear number-one name on the market after his 93 catch, 930-yard, eight-touchdown season for the Falcons. Gonzalez turns 37 on Wednesday, however, and more importantly he seems to be choosing only between retirement and one more season in Atlanta.
Fortunately, the cupboard is far from bare even without Gonzalez in the mix. Among the tight ends apparently headed for free agency (barring any deals to re-sign with their current clubs before March 12) are Washington's Fred Davis, Tennessee's Jared Cook, Oakland's Brandon Myers, San Francisco's Delanie Walker, Miami's Anthony Fasano, the Jets' Dustin Keller and the Giants' Martellus Bennett.
Because the tight end position carries a lower tender offer figure than most opinions, pending free agents at the position can be attractive targets for a team's franchise tag. That was the case with Washington and Davis last year, though few expect the Redskins to double down with the tag again this year because that carries with it a significant bump in the tender offer. However, there is heavy speculation that the Titans will tag Cook, and it's possible the Giants will do the same with Bennett, who happens to be the brother of Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett, also a pending unrestricted free agent.
Davis suffered an Achilles tendon injury last year after getting the franchise tag but was a breakout performer in 2011 with 59 catches for nearly 800 yards…and he is still just 27 years old. Cook is even younger, at age 25, and has two straight seasons of 44 or more grabs, so he would likely be a top target for TE-hungry teams if the Titans choose not to lock him down. The 27-year-old Myers might be the most intriguing name on the list after he came out of nowhere to catch 79 passes for 806 yards in Oakland this past season.
Actually, Walker might be even more intriguing, though he comes in a bit under the radar because he was not even the starter in San Francisco. Walker has never caught more than 29 passes in a season and he's not the biggest tight end out there, but he's a speedy and versatile athlete who also excels on special teams. It's unclear whether he would thrive as a #1 tight end on a team that doesn't happen to feature Vernon Davis, but there's little doubt he would be an asset to any club that signed him.
Keller had four seasons of very consistent production in New York, averaging 53 catches for 640 yards and four touchdowns from 2008-11 before being limited to eight games last season. Fasano might actually be underrated; he has caught between 31 and 41 balls in each of the last five years in Miami and is considered a very good run-blocker with a big 6-4, 255-pound frame.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
And yet, despite all of that, the draft might actually be the better route for teams seeking an impact tight end this year. While there may not be a Vernon Davis or Tony Gonzalez type to go among the top 10 or 15 picks, there is a deep group of tight ends that could go in the second half of the first round and throughout the second. One thing this year's class has is speed, which is certainly attractive to those teams who would like to find a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, a la Jimmy Graham.
Check out the NFL Scouting Combine numbers from the tight ends' session on Saturday in Indianapolis. Five different tight ends ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.7 seconds, and another four came in at about 4.75. Arkansas's Chris Gragg led the way with a sizzling 4.50 score, but most analysts believe the two players vying for the top spot of the tight end rankings are Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz.
Eifert had the better 40 time of the two, but both impressed on the bench press and both are about 6-5 and 250 so they are likely viewed as complete, two-way tight ends by most scouts. Gragg completed his workout-warrior turn at the Combine by also turning in some of the best scores at his position in the vertical leap, the long jump and the three-cone drill, though he had injury problems at Arkansas and is not a likely pick in the early rounds. When the action turned to actual route-running and pass-catching, Eifert and Ertz stood out.
Florida's Jordan Reed, San Diego State's Gavin Escobar, Michigan State's Dion Sims and Cincinnati's Travis Kelce are all among the top prospects at the position, too. The 285-pound Sims might be a target for a team looking for a block-first tight end, though he also has intriguing speed for his size and good pass-catching skills. Escobar, who is more of a receiver than a blocker and perhaps not as complete a prospect as the other two E-men, performed well at the Combine, also.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
In a way, the Bucs have almost always gone outside the organization for their best pass-catching tight ends, although not always specifically through free agency.
Of the 11 40-catch seasons by tight ends in franchise history, only three were turned in by players who started their NFL careers in Tampa: Calvin Magee's 45 in 1986, Jerry Bell's 43 in 1985 and Alex Smith's 41 in 2005. The top six seasons on that list all belong to Kellen Winslow, Jackie Harris, Dallas Clark and Jimmie Giles, all of whom came to the Bucs after a previous NFL stop.
Of course, Winslow and Giles were trade acquisitions, and Clark was a free agent only after being released by the Colts. Only Harris, who was actually a restricted free agent when the Bucs pried him away from the Packers in 1994, technically belongs in this discussion.
However, the Bucs' have actually been pretty active at the tight end position in free agency if one includes pickups such as Clark, who caught 47 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns last year. Similarly, Tampa Bay imported Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley in 2002; 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.
It didn't take long for the Bucs to use free agency to grab a tight end. The first collective bargaining agreement was put in place in 1993, and in 1994 the team swiped Harris from the Packers, at a time when movement by restricted free agents was more common than it is today. 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.
Clark came to the Bucs after a long run as one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets in Indianapolis. One of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history, he took some time to carve out a significant role in the Bucs' offense in 2012 but hit his stride by midseason and actually produced the fourth-highest reception total by a tight end in team annals.
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.
- 2012 Performance
Clark's contributions are detailed above. His 2012 season was something of a comeback after his last two campaigns in Indianapolis were marred by injuries. He played in all 16 games for the Buccaneers and was an important part of the offense in the second half of the season, even if his final numbers were not in the same category as his best seasons with the Colts.
Clark did provide the vast majority of the production in the passing game by the Bucs' tight ends. Second-year man Luke Stocker added 16 grabs for 165 yards and one score and Nate Byham caught three passes for 18 yards and a touchdown. Stocker and Byham both provided strong blocking, however, having a hand in a very good season on the ground for the Buccaneers' offense.
The Buccaneers might be looking for some more dynamic production out of the tight end position in the seasons to come, but Clark, Stocker and Byham formed a fairly useful trio in 2012.
Summary: The Buccaneers have gotten at least 47 catches from their #1 tight end in each of the last four years, but Kellen Winslow is no longer around and Dallas Clark is headed for free agency if he doesn't re-sign with the team before March 12. Depending upon what happens with Clark, who just played his 10th NFL season, the Buccaneers may be looking for a new #1 at the position. That could come internally, if Luke Stocker is ready to step up and take over a prominent role in the passing game, or it could be one of the team's offseason targets. The draft is relatively rich at the position, and high in the second round seems like a good spot to cash in on that pool of players. However, free agency comes first and there are some rather noteworthy names available via that route, as well. The Buccaneers could need help at the tight end position, and this appears to be a good year to find it.