Free Agent Market For Tight Ends

When is a tight end not a tight end? An arbitrator may be tasked with answering that question sometime in the next few weeks, as the Saints and Ravens contemplate designating Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta as their respective franchise players. Both Graham and Pitta lined up as receivers for more than half their snaps in 2013, meaning they can make a strong case that they ought to be eligible for the franchise salary for a wide receiver rather than a tight end. Considering that gap figures to amount to about $4-5MM, it’ll be an crucial distinction for the players and their clubs.

For our purposes, we’ll continue to think of Graham and Pitta as tight ends, even if their pass-catching abilities and athleticism mean they’re split out more often than not. As tight ends, Graham and Pitta represent the two most appealing options on the open market, but there are a few intriguing names out there for teams in need of an upgrade.

So which clubs might be on the lookout for a tight end next month? The Ravens, Packers, Lions, Bills, and Jets are among the teams that will need a replacement if their prospective free agents sign elsewhere. The Falcons will be in the market for Tony Gonzalez‘s successor. And the Patriots, with an offensive scheme that requires multiple pass-catching tight ends, figure to survey the free agent landscape as well, though they may ultimately address the position in the draft.

Here’s a look at some of this year’s options:

First tier:

It goes without saying that Graham is far and away the best player in this group, and ranks near the top of the free agent class as a whole. His career numbers and the NFL’s CBA both suggest he should be paid like a wide receiver, but even if he does become eligible for that kind of money, the Saints won’t let him get away. As Drew Brees‘ top receiving option, Graham will either return to New Orleans on a long-term contract or as the club’s franchise player.

Pitta is a trickier case — unlike Graham, he’s probably not worth an eight-figure salary for one year, so it’d be a risk for the Ravens to use their franchise tag on him. Still, before he injured his hip, Pitta looked poised to improve on a 2012 season that saw him catch 61 balls for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. If he can be had for a salary in the $5-7MM range, Pitta could be a nice alternative to Graham.

Second tier:

The 2014 tight end class isn’t particularly top-heavy, but there are several players jockeying for position a few rungs below Graham and Pitta.

Jermichael Finley represents the player with the most upside in this group, but he’ll be recovering from concussion issues and a spinal injury that will cast doubt about his long-term future in the league. He’s reportedly on track to be cleared for action, but any teams willing to invest in the talented Finley will have to proceed with caution.

Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers, and Brandon Pettigrew, who all turn 29 this year, won’t ever be elite tight ends, but they’re reliable targets who remain capable of catching 50 balls in a season. Meanwhile, though former Pro Bowlers Dallas Clark and Kellen Winslow may have been elite at one point, their best years are behind them, making them inexpensive second-tier alternatives.

Teams in search of a little more youth and upside may target players like Garrett Graham, Jeff Cumberland, or Andrew Quarless. Graham in particular had an impressive 2013 campaign, racking up 49 receptions and five TDs in 13 games for the Texans. Cumberland and Quarless could be capable of posting similar numbers in the right situations this season — they’re only 26 and 25 years old, respectively.

Ed Dickson and Ben Hartsock are among the remaining second-tier options available for teams this offseason, and they bring two entirely different skill-sets to the table. Dickson has totaled 100 receptions over the last three seasons, but ranked 64th among 64 qualified tight ends using Pro Football Focus’ metrics (subscription required), due to an abysmal run-blocking grade. On the other end of the spectrum, Hartsock wasn’t a factor in the Panthers’ passing game, but easily ranked as the league’s best run-blocking tight end using PFF’s advanced stats.

The rest:

While most of the players mentioned above could get by as starters, at least in a pinch, teams likely won’t want to head into 2014 with any members of this group in the starting lineup. Still, Dustin Keller and Jeff King, who both missed 2013 due to knee injuries, have been solid in the past and could contribute if they’re healthy. Clay Harbor and Jim Dray may each be good for another 25 receptions in 2014, and guys like Bear Pascoe and Jeron Mastrud graded well as blockers over the course of a few hundred 2013 snaps and should draw interest as situational players.

Among the other familiar names: Kellen Davis, who only has 50 career catches since being drafted by the Bears in 2008; Jake Ballard, whose one solid season with the Giants in 2011 represents the lone bright spot on his NFL resumĂ© so far; and Fred Davis, who has the talent to move the needle for a team if he’s reinstated — but with an indefinite suspension hanging over his head, he’s increasingly looking like a lost cause.

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