Restricted Free Agent Tight Ends
1. Bear Pascoe
Scouting Report: A third-stringer originally slated to see time at fullback in 2011, Pascoe instead ended up playing over 500 snaps at tight end. He made precious few contributions, however, notching just 12 catches while again failing to turn into the fearsome blocker he was forecasted as when he was drafted out of Fresno State. If not for a Week 17 hurdle over hapless Cowboys CB Terence Newman and a four-catch Super Bowl performance, Pascoe would have remained anonymous.
Availability: Pascoe was a non-tender candidate until the Super Bowl, where both Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum suffered torn ACLs. Now the most experienced and able-bodied tight end to suit up for the G-Men in 2011, Pascoe should be back for a fourth season in the Big Apple despite his athletic limitations and stagnation as a blocker.
Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $1.26 million contract.
2. David Johnson
Scouting Report: Despite being a blocking specialist, Johnson managed to make at least one catch in 10 of 16 games in 2011. The problem? Eight times, he tallied exactly one catch. The result was a career best but still uninspiring line of 12/91/1. Johnson is a highly-average blocker who turns into a below-average one on running downs.
Availability: Although Johnson hasn’t excelled in any area since entering the league as a seventh-round pick in 2009, he also hasn’t struggled. Still just 24 years old, he figures to return to Pittsburgh with Heath Miller entering his age-30 campaign.
Prediction: Steelers on a three-year, $2.5 million contract.
3. Kory Sperry
Scouting Report: Signed off the practice squad in November 2010, Sperry ended up sticking with the Bolts through the end of 2011. Despite above-average athleticism and a reputation as a catch-first tight end, however, he made just five grabs for 104 yards during his 23-game stay on the active roster. Those numbers are made even less impressive by the fact that Antonio Gates was inactive nine times during that span. Worst of all, Sperry proved to be a liability as a blocker, especially in the running game.
Availability: Two months shy of his 27th birthday, Sperry has given little indication he’s ever going to break out, but if there’s one thing teams are always willing to take a chance on, it’s players with above-average athleticism. With San Diego’s tight end corps not getting any younger, the Bolts should give Sperry another shot.
Prediction: Chargers on a one-year, $1.927 million deal.
Other restricted free agent tight ends: Matthew Mulligan, Jeron Mastrud, Michael Palmer.
1. Dallas Clark
Overview: Things went from bad to worse for Clark in 2011. One year after seeing a typically promising season cut short by an unusual wrist injury, Clark struggled through neck and leg ailments while watching his numbers fall off a cliff in the absence of Peyton Manning. Limited to 17 games the past two years, due a non-guaranteed $3.3 million salary in 2012 and five months shy of his 33rd birthday, all signs are pointing toward Clark being another victim of the Colts’ wholesale rebuild. Old, increasingly injury prone and without a track record of success without Manning under center, Clark will likely be limited to incentive-laden offers if/when he becomes a free agent.
Prediction: Released in early March.
2. Kellen Winslow
Overview: Although Winslow’s balky knees made it increasingly difficult for him to separate last season, they didn’t prevent him from posting a superficially solid line of 75/763/2. “Superficial” because while Winslow remained adept at swallowing up the ball and falling down, he did little else for a young team that came apart at the seams following a 3-1 start. Just five of Winslow’s 75 grabs went for 20 yards or longer, while he averaged a minuscule 3.2 yards after the catch. If not for his nine-catch, 132-yard outburst against the Packers’ historically bad pass defense in Week 11, Winslow would have finished with weekly averages of 4.4/42 instead of the 4.7/47.7 he ended up with. With all the guarantees from the six-year, $36.1 million contract he signed in 2009 paid, Winslow is a good bet to hit the open market.
Prediction: Released on the eve of free agency.
3. Chris Cooley
Overview: Once one of the NFL’s most durable pass catchers, Cooley suited up for fewer than eight games for the second time in three years in 2011, and wasn’t productive when he did manage to get onto the field. The eight catches for 65 yards Cooley posted in five games was roughly what dynamic young teammate Fred Davis averaged per week. Due an untenable $3.8 million heading into his age-30 season, Cooley is squarely on the chopping block as an unusually awash in cash Redskins team looks to get even further under the salary cap. For his part, Cooley has said he has “no doubt” he’ll be back in Washington, so it’s possible he’ll be amenable to returning at a bargain-basement salary.
Prediction: Stays with Redskins after pay cut.
4. Todd Heap
Overview: Heap was able to parlay a renaissance 2010 campaign into a two-year deal with the Cardinals last summer. But if 2010 was his renaissance, 2011 was his dark ages, as a curiously lingering hamstring injury limited him to just 10 games and career-lows nearly across the board. Heap’s scheduled 2012 salary of $2.15 million is reasonable for someone with his pedigree, but increasingly injury prone and on the wrong side of 30, he’ll at least be “asked” to take a pay cut. How much faith the Cardinals have in 2011 third-round pick Rob Housler could play a large part in Heap’s future.
Prediction: Released at final cuts.
5. Anthony Fasano
Overview: After averaging 34.6/440.3/4.3 his first three years in Miami, Fasano had his typical campaign in 2011, snagging 32 balls for 451 yards and five touchdowns. Perfectly acceptable numbers, but less so when they are a player’s absolute ceiling and he’s due $3.6 million the next season. New coach Joe Philbin figures to install a more open and tight-end friendly offense in Miami, but Fasano’s limited athleticism and speed make it highly unlikely he’d be able to take advantage of it. With GM Jeff Ireland on the record as wanting an “explosive young tight end,” Fasano is at least in line for a restructuring.
Prediction: Stays with Dolphins after pay cut.
6. Ben Watson
Overview: Coming off an out-of-nowhere career year in 2010, Watson regressed sharply in 2011, and was sent to injured reserve in Week 14 after suffering his third concussion of the season. After averaging 4.3 catches for 47.7 yards in 2010, Watson’s per-game averages plunged to 2.8/31.5 as he struggled to stay on the field and the Browns made a point of getting backup Evan Moore more involved. Watson’s current scheduled salary of $2.88 million is too much for a 31 year old on a team that needs to feature Moore more in 2012.
Prediction: Released on the eve of free agency.
Other release candidates: Matt Spaeth, Will Heller.