The NFL is nothing if not a copycat league. It’s why the terms “West Coast Offense” and “Tampa Two” have become generic, and why the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals have both donned black jerseys in the past 10 years.
Although it’s true the NFL is constantly evolving, it’s only ever really being pushed forward by three or four of its brightest thinkers. For every Bill Walsh, there are 100 Eric Manginis. That is not to say the plagiarists get left behind, however. They often make up for their lack of innovation via wholesale appropriation. Whoever’s first can still end up last, while the smartest aren’t always the strongest.
So which fad pioneered by the few will soon be exploited by the whole? Tight ends that are bigger than a Hummer but quicker than a Jetta. “Gargoyles” who stretch the field and create mismatches whenever they’re in the game.
The chances the phrase “the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham” isn’t muttered at least once in every single NFL front office this offseason are zero. The problem, of course, is that players of Gronkowski and Graham’s ilk are exceedingly difficult to find. It will be downright impossible in a free agent market where the best tight end has already been re-signed and the second best is expected to be franchise tagged.
Tight Ends Expected to be Franchise Tagged
1. Fred Davis
Overview: One of fantasy football’s favorite preseason sleepers in 2011, Davis exceeded expectations by hauling in 59 catches for 796 yards and three touchdowns. Only a bad habit of smoking grass after he played on it could mar his breakout campaign. Were he not suspended for the final quarter of the season, Davis would have finished with a final line of 79/1,061/4 had his per-game averages held. The only consistent playmaker in Mike Shanahan’s atypically moribund offense last season, there’s a zero percent chance Davis will be allowed to sign elsewhere despite his off-the-field issues.
Tight End Free Agents
1. Jeremy Shockey
Scouting Report: Despite appearing in more than 14 games for the first time since 2006 last season, a 31-year-old Shockey still managed to catch a career-low 37 passes while tallying fewer than 500 yards for the second consecutive year (and third time in four). No longer capable of abusing linebackers the way he did before age and injury sapped his explosiveness, Shockey settled in behind Greg Olsen on the depth chart before injuries slowed Olsen down the stretch. Never a gifted blocker and now little more than a big target (6-foot-5, 251 pounds) in the passing game, Shockey has nowhere to go but down entering his age-32 season.
Availability: Believed to be seeking a deal similar to the one-year, $3.8 million pact he signed last March, Shockey could price himself out of the cap-strapped Panthers’ plans if he doesn’t lower his asking price. A proven pass catcher in a thin market placing a renewed emphasis on tight ends, it’s not impossible that Shockey might get his $4 million, but it’s certainly unlikely. Unless the Panthers have designs on finding a young Gronk or Graham in the draft, they should make a meaningful effort to re-sign their fifth-leading receiver from 2011.
Prediction: Panthers on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
2. Visanthe Shiancoe
Scouting Report: De-emphasized in favor of promising rookie Kyle Rudolph down the stretch, Shiancoe went without a catch in the Vikings’ final three games last season, and saw his yardage total decline for the third straight year. His 36/409/3 line was easily his worst since arriving in Minnesota in 2007. Always a liability on running downs, Shiancoe is trending toward irrelevance on passing downs, as well, and has little chance of earning a starting job in 2012.
Availability: Rudolph’s rapid development makes it almost certain that Shiancoe will be allowed to walk in free agency, though there won’t be many obvious landing spots for a soon to be 32-year-old player with methodically declining numbers. Shiancoe will be of greater interest to pass-first clubs where he won’t be a liability in run blocking, though he would make sense as a veteran backup in Kansas City as Tony Moeaki works his way back from a torn ACL.
Prediction: Chiefs on a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
3. Martellus Bennett
Scouting Report: A perennial breakout candidate since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2008, Bennett underachieved for the fourth straight year in 2011, catching just 17 passes for a career-low 144 yards. Among others, Bennett found himself out-shined in the Cowboys’ passing game by September signing Laurent Robinson and special teamer Jesse Holley. Inconsistent, immature and never lauded for his hands, Bennett has only really ever excelled at run blocking.
Availability: Although a (slowly) declining Jason Witten will turn 30 in May, the wide expectation is that Bennett will hit the open market. Despite a frustrating four years in Dallas, it’s still possible Bennett’s impressive blocking and measurables (6’6, 267 pounds, 4.67 40 at the 2008 Combine) could earn him a multi-year deal. If nothing else, he should be in line for no shortage of one-year offers from teams who think the main thing he needs at the age of 25 is a change of scenery. In need of more athleticism in their receiver corps and shoring up their run game, the Jets could be a possibility.
Prediction: Jets on a two-year, $5 million contract.
4. Joel Dreessen
Scouting Report: One of fantasy football’s more well-known tight-end handcuffs thanks to Owen Daniels’ injury-prone ways, Dreessen managed to find the end zone an absurd six times in 2011 despite making just 28 catches. A thick 6-foot-4/245, Dreessen is a load of a blocker with usually reliable hands. Dreessen only really excels at blocking, but has no glaring weaknesses, and is a typical “glue” player who executes his assignments.
Availability: The Houston media expects Dreessen to stay put, though it could prove troublesome for the cap-strapped Texans if he draws more robust than anticipated interest on the open market. However, Dreessen’s age — he’ll turn 30 in July — should ensure no one goes overboard in attempting to lure him from the team that made him a sixth-round pick in 2005. That being said, the Texans would be wise to lock Dreessen up before the start of free agency if they’re serious about keeping him.
Prediction: Texans on a three-year, $6 million contract.
5. John Carlson
Scouting Report: A pure pass catcher, Carlson slumped to a 31/318/1 line in 2010 after averaging 53/601/6 his first two years in the league. He never got a chance to rebound last season after tearing his labrum in August — not that he would have bounced back in a Seahawks offense that calls on its tight ends to do little more than block. One of the worst blocking tight ends in the league, Carlson is of little use in systems like the one now being used by Pete Carroll in Seattle.
Availability: Carroll hinted in January the Seahawks would like Carlson back in 2012, but with big-money addition Zach Miller seeing his numbers plummet last season the way Carlson’s did in 2010, returning to the club that made him a second-round pick in 2008 won’t be Carlson’s Plan A. Although he missed just one game his first three years in the league, Carlson’s bum shoulder coupled with his one-dimensional game figures to limit him to one-year, incentive-laden offers. He’d be an ideal fit in a Giants offense that could be low on proven pass-catching tight ends in 2012 if Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum are both lost for the season.
Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $2.5 million contract.
6. Jacob Tamme
Scouting Report: A key cog in the Peyton Manning machine in 2010 after injury knocked Dallas Clark out in Week 6, Tamme plummeted back to earth in 2011 in the absence of Manning and return of Clark. A pure pass catcher who does little in the way of blocking, Tamme is best utilized in a backup role where he can also contribute on special teams.
Availability: Seeing as Tamme limped to a 19/177/1 line last season, speculation on his future has been sparse. He’ll still only be 27 in 2012, however, and will come exceedingly cheap. With the Colts likely to release Dallas Clark, they won’t let their only other proven pair of hands at the tight end position get away as they look to break in a rookie quarterback.
Prediction: Colts on a two-year, $2 million deal.
Other free agent tight ends: Scott Chandler, Kellen Davis, Daniel Fells, Bo Scaife, Leonard Pope, Randy McMichael, Alex Smith, Dante Rosario, Kris Wilson, Donald Lee, Reggie Kelly, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach, John Gilmore, Justin Peelle, Billy Bajema, Tory Humphrey.