With the NFL’s preseason schedule getting underway this week, it’s the first real chance for fans to get a glimpse at how their favorite teams look this season. For many teams though, it also marks the start of a war of attrition — in the early days of training camp and the preseason, there are several clubs around the league that have already sustained multiple injuries at a specific position.
One of those teams is Washington. Scot McCloughan, Jay Gruden, and company have watched in recent days as the club’s tight ends have fallen one by one. Jordan Reed is battling a hamstring issue, but he’s in better shape than Niles Paul, who will miss the year after fracturing and dislocating his ankle last night. Logan Paulsen‘s season is also in jeopardy, as he may require toe surgery that could sideline him for most or all of the year.
The injuries leave Washington shorthanded at the tight end spot. Reed, who has caught 95 balls in his first two seasons, can probably handle the starting job if he’s healthy, but Paul and Paulsen were viewed as nice complements who were likely to make the roster, with the former contributing his pass-catching abilities while the latter served as more of a blocker. None of the other three tight ends on Washington’s roster – Chase Dixon, Je’Ron Hamm, and Devin Mahina – have appeared in a regular season NFL game, so a veteran addition may be needed.
Of course, the free agent market for tight ends isn’t exactly overflowing with talent at the moment. Former Bengals tight end Alex Smith, who played under Gruden in Cincinnati, would have made some sense, but he signed with the Saints last week. Earlier today, Adam Caplan of ESPN.com tweeted out a list of possible targets for Washington, including Zach Miller, Fred Davis, Tom Crabtree, Mike McNeill, Michael Palmer, and Kory Sperry.
Since then, ESPN.com’s John Keim has reported (via Twitter) that Miller isn’t an option, Dianna Marie Russini of ESPN has reported (via Twitter) that Washington isn’t interested in Davis, and Crabtree himself has removed his own name from the list. McNeill, Palmer, and Sperry could be possibilities for Washington, but they certainly aren’t inspiring alternatives; none of those three players has recorded more than a single reception in a season since 2012.
There are a couple other intriguing veterans on the tight end market, but neither currently appears to be a viable option for Washington. Former Packer Jermichael Finley, who suffered a significant neck injury during his last game with Green Bay in 2013, seems unlikely to continue his NFL career, despite initially saying he wanted to return to the field. One semi-retired veteran who would like to play for Washington is Chris Cooley, who said this week that it would “literally be the greatest thing in the world” to join his old team. However, so far at least, it doesn’t appear that interest is mutual.
Even if Washington doesn’t like any of the options currently on the free agent market, there should be many more choices in early September, when teams start making cuts to pare their rosters down from 90 players to 53. But McCloughan may not want to wait that long to add someone, since that wouldn’t leave much time for a new player to get acclimated to Washington’s offense.
The trade market is another avenue the team figures to explore, and one logical trade target would be Vernon Davis, who was drafted by McCloughan in 2006 and could benefit from a change of scenery after struggling mightily last season in San Francisco. According to Keim (Twitter link), however, Davis is “not a realistic option” for Washington, which makes sense. Even if the Niners were willing to move him, the veteran tight end earns a base salary of $4.35MM this year, the final season of his contract, and Washington will likely be seeking a cheaper stopgap option.
Still, there are plenty of potential trade partners around the league, such as – for instance – the Titans. With Delanie Walker, Anthony Fasano, and Craig Stevens almost certainly assured of roster spots, Tennessee also has tight ends Phillip Supernaw, Chase Coffman, and Tevin Westbrook in camp, and fourth-round fullback Jalston Fowler will likely see some time at the position as well. A team like the Titans has the depth to accommodate a deal with Washington, if they so choose.
Ultimately, while a trade might make the most sense for Washington, a big-name acquisition like Davis is unlikely. I expect the front office to keep a close eye on depth charts around the league, targeting young players with promise and/or potential release candidates, perhaps offering up a late-round or conditional draft pick for someone they like. If the trade route isn’t fruitful, signing a veteran free agent for depth purposes may be Washington’s only real play, whether it happens now or in a few weeks. Otherwise, the team may find itself leaning heavily on multiple unproven young players at a key offensive position.