Super Bowl LIV is in the books but the NFL is anything but dormant. In fact, the league is about to heat up again as attention turns from the climax of the 2019 season to the beginning of 2020. The Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is only two weeks ahead, and not long after that the market will open on free agency.
The NFL's 2020 calendar year begins on Wednesday, March 18, with free agency kicking off at 4:00 p.m. ET. Whether or not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers intend to be high-end shoppers remains to be seen, but their own list of 19 potential unrestricted free agents means there are many important decisions to be made.
Five weeks remain before free agency, which means time is winding down for the Buccaneers and their 31 fellow NFL teams to deal with their own free agent lists and identify potential targets on other rosters. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the tight end position.
January 15: Offensive Line
January 22: Safety
January 29: Running Back
February 5: Cornerback
February 12: Tight End
February 19: Linebacker
February 26: Wide Receiver
March 4: Defensive Line
March 11: Quarterback
March 18: Outside Linebacker
2019 Output: It's safe to say the Buccaneers' tight end production in 2019 fell short of expectations. While tight ends had never been big producers in Bruce Arians' offenses in Arizona, the coach himself noted that he had never been graced with a pair like O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Howard, in particular, appeared to be primed for a big year after he racked up 565 yards in 10 games and led all qualifying tight ends with 16.6 yards per catch in 2018.
Overall, the combined numbers put up by Howard and Brate wasn't far off their 2018 production, with the exception of touchdowns. Here are the receptions, yards and touchdowns for those two during their three seasons together in Tampa:
What that doesn't show is that Howard played in four more games in 2019 than he did the year before, and his per-catch figure dropped by more than three yards. Howard's yards per target also dipped from 11.8 in 2018 to 8.7 last year. That 2018 mark was elite, comparing favorably to the likes of Travis Kelce (9.0), George Kittle (9.8) and Zach Ertz (7.5). The Buccaneers likely anticipated getting more big plays out of Howard, who started slow and had some notable drops early but was more productive down the stretch. In a four-game run from Weeks 13-16, Howard caught 16 passes for 226 yards.
Under Contract for 2020: The Buccaneers have the opportunity to find out if 2019 was an aberration and the Brate-Howard combination can still be one of the best tight end units in the NFL. Brate still has four years remaining on the sizeable deal he signed in 2018; two-thirds of his 2020 salary becomes fully guaranteed on March 22. Howard is heading into the fourth year of his original rookie contract, but since he's a former first-round pick the Buccaneers also have an option for a fifth year in 2021. The decision whether or not to exercise that option will have to be made this spring.
The Buccaneers also promoted first-year man Codey McElroy from the practice squad near the end of the season. The former three-sport star has an intriguing blend of size and skills but has one career NFL catch. Tight end Jordan Leggett went in the opposite direction, spending most of the second half of the season on the active roster before going back to the practice squad in late December. The Buccaneers re-signed Leggett, who had 14 catches for 114 yards as a rookie with the Jets in 2018, to a 2020 futures contract when the season ended.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: There are no tight ends on that long list of 19 potential unrestricted free agents, but the Buccaneers do have some business to attend to at the position.
Most notably, fourth-year player Antony Auclair is in line to be the team's one restricted free agent. Players fall into that category when they have an expiring contract and exactly three years of accrued free agency credit. Restricted free agents have become less common since the NFL went to standard four-year contracts for all drafted players in the last CBA. Auclair, however, was originally an undrafted free agent in 2017 and he has developed into a strong blocking tight end.
Auclair won't actually become a restricted free agent until and unless the Buccaneers choose to offer him a qualifying offer before the start of free agency. A year ago, the team avoided that process with both Peyton Barber and Devante Bond, simply inking them to one-year deals before the new league year began.
The Buccaneers also have a pending exclusive rights free agent in second-year man Tanner Hudson, who got into nine games last year for his regular-season debut. Exclusive rights free agents can only negotiate with their own teams, so it's highly likely that Hudson will be back, particularly considering the pass-catching promise he showed during a very productive 2019 preseason.
Potentially Available Free Agents: The strength of the tight end position in free agency this year will depend largely on how hard two teams try to keep their own rising stars in the fold.
Those two teams are the Chargers and the Falcons, who have seen Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper, respectively, develop into very productive tight ends. Henry has struggled with injuries the past two years, but has always produced when healthy, particularly in the red zone. He missed all of 2018 with an ACL tear and was sidelined for a month last year with another knee injury but averaged a career-high 54.3 yards per game upon his return. Henry has scored 17 touchdowns in just 41 career games.
Hooper has played in the last two Pro Bowls and has topped 70 catches each of the past two years. His career yards-per-catch rate of 10.5 doesn't necessarily suggest a seam-stretcher like Howard but he's a very reliable target who can line up in the slot and hold his own as an in-line blocker. Both he and Henry could command contracts approaching nine or 10 million per year.
The potential tight end with the most impressive track record is Greg Olsen, but Olsen likely won't be available on March 18. He doesn't have to wait until the market opens to start shopping his services, as he was released by Carolina on February 3. In fact, the long-time Panthers star has already made several visits and could ultimately reunite with Head Coach Ron Rivera in Washington.
Eric Ebron and Tyler Eifert also have some impressive numbers on their career charts, including one 13-touchdown season each. Eifert did that first in 2015 and made it to the Pro Bowl but has since had seriously poor injury luck. However, after playing in just 14 games from 2016-18 he was able to suit up for all 16 for Cincinnati last season, catching 43 passes for 436 yards and three scores. Ebron's big scoring campaign came in 2018, his first of two years in Indianapolis after four somewhat underwhelming years in Detroit. The former 10th-overall pick in 2014, Ebron is much more of a pass-catcher than a blocker and he's been a significant threat around the goal line.
If Arians is looking for another Cardinals reunion the Buccaneers could pursue Darren Fells, most recently of the Houston Texans. Formerly an undrafted free agent in Seattle in 2013, the 6-7 Fells got his first chance to play under Arians in Arizona in 2014, spending three seasons in the desert before logging one each in Detroit, Cleveland and Houston. The 2019 season was actually his most productive as a pass-catcher as he hauled in 34 passes for 341 yards and seven touchdowns.
Teams looking for a tight end primarily to aid in their blocking schemes could go young or old(er) with Pittsburgh's Nick Vannett or Green Bay's Marcedes Lewis. The 6-6, 261-pound Vannett has just 61 catches in four seasons with the Seahawks and Eagles but is a rugged blocker. Lewis doesn't necessarily like the "blocking tight end" moniker and he does have three 500-yard seasons on his resume, but those days are likely past as he hasn't topped 25 catches in a year since 2012. However, he was still blocking at a high level the last two years in Green Bay. He'll turn 36 in May but seems to have something left in the tank.
Other potential values at the tight end position this spring include Charles Clay, Lance Kendricks, Levine Toilolo and Blake Jarwin. Toilolo is another block-first tight end; Jarwin has more upside as a pass-catcher after performing well as Jason Witten's understudy last year. Jacob Hollister had a breakout second half for Seattle last year but would be a restricted free agent in 2020, meaning he is less likely to change teams.
Bucs' Interest Level: Moderate to low.
Rumors persist about the Buccaneers moving on from Howard and/or Brate, but as long as those two remain on the roster there isn't likely to be another significant expenditure at the tight end position. In addition, Auclair is likely to be back and is a perfectly good answer to the third spot on the depth chart due to his blocking ability. The Bucs even have some interesting young pass-catching talent in Hudson and McElroy.
Also, it's possible that relatively low production from the position really is a feature of the Arians offense and not a 2019 bug. The two most notable tight end signings the Cardinals made during Arians' time as their head coach were John Carlson in 2014 and Jermaine Gresham in 2015 (and again in 2016 and 2017). Carlson was coming off two moderately productive years in Minnesota and he would retire after just one season in Arizona. Gresham, a former first-round pick, had five fairly productive years with the Bengals but Cincinnati did not try to re-sign him in 2015 and he eventually joined the Cardinals just before training camp. His highs in three seasons under Arians were 37 catches, 391 yards and two touchdowns.