Lee Smith managed to play tight end in the NFL for 11 seasons, despite none of those including 100 receiving yards. The well-regarded blocker announced his retirement Tuesday.
Smith spent his NFL days with the Bills, Raiders and Falcons, playing in Atlanta for one season. He will walk away after 16 games with the Falcons, having assisted in Cordarrelle Patterson‘s late-career running back breakout.
“I couldn’t feel more blessed that I get to step away on my terms,” Smith said, via AtlantaFalcons.com’s Scott Bair. “It just doesn’t happen that way very often. Yet here I am, a stiff-as-hell fifth-round draft pick who found himself a niche-y role and figured out a way to stay around.”
A 2011 Patriots draftee out of Marshall, Smith landed with the Bills via waiver claim that September. He signed a three-year, $9MM deal with the Raiders in 2015. In Oakland, Smith worked alongside a three-Pro Bowler offensive line to help Latavius Murray to a 1,000-yard season. The Raiders re-signed him in 2018, but Smith rejoined the Bills a year later — on another three-year deal worth $9MM — and was part of the team’s resurgence.
Buffalo traded Smith to Atlanta during the 2021 offseason. Although the Falcons rostered Hayden Hurst and top-five pick Kyle Pitts, Smith played 311 offensive snaps this season. Smith finished his career with 73 catches for 523 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Falcons will make an adjustment to their two-tight end sets in the weeks to come. They placed Hayden Hurst on IR due to the ankle injury he is battling.
Hurst did not practice this week. The fourth-year tight end played 23 snaps in Atlanta’s loss to Dallas and has played alongside Kyle Pitts in every Falcons game this season.
Blocking tight end Lee Smith, however, is good to go for Thursday’s game, according to the team. Smith missed the Cowboys game due to a back issue. Atlanta also elevated tight end Parker Hesse from its practice squad ahead of its game against New England.
Atlanta traded for Hurst last year, but the team’s new regime replaced him as the primary tight end by selecting Pitts fourth overall in April. Hurst caught 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns in 2020. While Pitts is now the leader of this group and has emerged as one of the NFL’s most promising rookies, Hurst still has 20 receptions through nine games.
Although the Falcons traded second- and fifth-round picks for Hurst last year, they declined the ex-minor league baseball player’s fifth-year option. Hurst, 28, is due to be a free agent in March. The former first-round pick would have a few games at the end of this season to make a final impression for tight end-seeking teams.
The Bills are trading veteran tight end Lee Smith to the Falcons, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link). Buffalo will get a 2022 late-round selection in the swap.
Smith signed a three-year, $9MM pact with the Bills in May 2019, but that deal was heavily front-loaded. Today’s trade leaves no dead money on Buffalo’s books and will clear $2.25MM in cap space. Smith was due a $250K roster bonus on March 21, as Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic tweets.
Now 33, Smith has caught just 64 passes for 458 yards over his 10-year career. But his blocking ability has allowed him to stick in the pros for as long as he has, and he will now take those skills to Atlanta. He will likely serve as a replacement for Luke Stocker, another veteran TE known more for his blocking prowess than his receiving talents.
The Bills have run into COVID-19 trouble. They are placing Dawson Knox on their reserve/COVID-19 list. The second-year tight end tested positive for the coronavirus, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets. The Bills confirmed the positive test.
Fellow Buffalo tight ends Tommy Sweeney, Lee Smith and Nate Becker (practice squad) have been identified as close contacts and will also miss Sunday’s game against the Jets. Sweeney was already on Buffalo’s PUP list.
This game becomes the latest to monitor as one that could cause a schedule change. The timing is similar to Cam Newton‘s positive test weeks ago, and with the league’s beefed-up protocols in the wake of Newton’s positive and the Titans’ outbreak, the Bills will be extremely shorthanded at tight end. A rookie UDFA, Gilliam was already on Buffalo’s active roster along with Knox, Smith and Kroft. The Bills have Kroft and Gilliam available at the position ahead of Sunday’s Jets rematch. The latter has yet to play in a game.
Kroft’s wife going into labor and delivering the couple’s baby Friday morning led to the veteran tight end being spared from this chain reaction, per Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). Kroft attended Bills practice Friday, but Schefter notes his missing position meetings allowed him to avoid getting caught up in this potential outbreak. A former Bengals draftee, Kroft signed with the Bills last year. Knox and Kroft each have six catches this season — most among Bills tight ends; the latter has scored two touchdowns.
The Bills have signed tight end Lee Smith to a three-year deal, according to a team announcement. The pact is worth $9MM and is heavily frontloaded, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). The deal is also front-loaded to give Smith more money in Year One and includes fully guaranteed pay for 2020.
Smith offers almost nothing as a receiver, as he has averaged just 49 receiving yards per season in his eight years in the league. However, he’s long been considered to be one of the league’s best blocking tight ends.
With the Bills, he should continue to do more of the dirty work in a group that also includes Tyler Kroft and third-round pick Dawson Knox. Meanwhile, seventh-round choice Tommy Sweeney is in line to be the team’s No. 4 tight end, but he’ll have to lock down his spot in camp this summer.
The Raiders have cut veteran tight end Lee Smith, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). Rapoport posits that Smith could reunite with his old offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who is now the tight ends coach of the Titans, and Paul Kuharsky of PaulKuharsky.com feels that Tennessee will indeed pursue Smith (Twitter link).
Smith’s release comes as something of a surprise, as Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has shown a fondness for veterans of his ilk, and he is one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. But he offers almost nothing as a receiver, as he has averaged just 49 receiving yards per season in his eight years in the league.
Plus, Oakland just added TE Foster Moreau in the fourth round of last week’s draft, and the club already has a blocking tight end on the roster in Derek Carrier. Luke Willson, who signed with the Raiders last month, is the most prolific receiving TE on the roster.
Smith signed a three-year deal with the Raiders last March, but he made it through just the first year of that contract. Oakland creates just under $2MM in cap space with the move.
Jordy Nelson appears to have a second Raiders season on tap. The longtime Packers wide receiver signed a two-year deal with the Raiders, but some speculation existed about the rebuilding team moving on after one season.
Jon Gruden confirmed Friday that Nelson will return next season. The Raiders also moved up a $3.6MM Nelson roster bonus to be paid today rather than in 2019, Field Yates of ESPN.com tweets.
“If you watched Jordy play carefully the last four weeks when he’s been healthy, you see what he’s capable of doing, … I think you can even see better and better days ahead,” Gruden said, via Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area (Twitterlinks). “So yeah, he’ll be back. … Normally when you hand out a bonus for next year’s season, there’s a pretty good chance those guys are coming back.”
That puts Tahir Whitehead, tight end Lee Smith and linebacker Kyle Wilber in line to be Raiders in their to-be-determined city next season. The Raiders paid Whitehead his $3.325MM bonus, with Smith collecting $1.1MM and Wilber $500K, Yates adds. These moves will spread out said bonuses’ cap hits across 2018 and ’19.
Nelson will be 34 when next season starts. He said earlier this week (via Bair, on Twitter) he wanted to play at least one more season. Jared Cook leads the Raiders in receiving, but Nelson has, to some degree, bounced back from a dismal 2017 with 661 receiving yards on one of the NFL’s worst offenses, bumping his yards-per-catch average from a career-low 9.1 (in the largely Aaron Rodgers-less ’17 Packers slate) to 12.2 with Derek Carr. While the latter figure is still below his prime work, Nelson is one of the NFL’s oldest wideouts.
The Raiders should now be set at tight end for the 2018 campaign, as they had already signed free agent Derek Carrier on Tuesday. Smith and Carrier will join starter Jared Cook to give Oakland a diverse group at the tight end position.
Smith, 30, has never been an offensive force, as his career-high in season receptions sits at 12. However, he will essentially act as a sixth offensive lineman when on the field, as Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 13th-best pass-blocking tight end in the league.
NFL free agency will get underway on Wednesday, March 14th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. We’ll start today on offense, before getting to defense and special teams later this week.
Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each offensive position. The rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts that each player is expected to land in free agency, they are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account. Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents are not listed here since they are unlikely to actually reach the open market. The same goes for players who have been franchise tagged or transition tagged.
We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some guys than you are, so we encourage you to make your voice heard in our comments section to let us know which free agents we’ve got wrong.
Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by offensive position for 2018:
Drew Brees is included here, but by his own admission, he’ll be re-signing with the Saints rather than testing the open waters of free agency. Unless the Saints lowball their franchise QB, it’s hard to see him leaving New Orleans.
Case Keenum put together a tremendous season for the Vikings, but he doesn’t have a history of success beyond 2017. There will be plenty of interest in Keenum, but only after QB-needy teams strike out on Cousins. The incumbent Vikings could re-sign Keenum, but right now, it seems like they are intent on exploring the Cousins waters first.
There isn’t a ton of footage on A.J. McCarron, which made his placement on this list awfully tricky. We know this much: McCarron did well in place of Dalton in the home stretch of the 2015 season and his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was salivating at the chance of landing him before the Browns bungled the trade with the Bengals. McCarron’s relative youth is a plus (he won’t turn 28 until September) and his lack of experience can be looked at as a positive. Unlike some of the other names on this list, he hasn’t run up his NFL odometer.
What will NFL teams make of Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford this offseason? Not long ago, both seemed like quality starting options. However, there are serious injury questions about both players and any team signing them will either look to backstop them with another decent option or ask them to come onboard as a QB2. With that in mind, one has to wonder if Bradford would consider retirement if asked to hold the clipboard for another signal caller. Bradford has earned upwards of $110MM over the years in the NFL, so it’s safe to say that he has enough money in the bank to call it quits if he wants. For now, he’s intent on playing.
Colin Kaepernick‘s placement on this list is sure to draw some strong reactions from his fans and detractors alike. Looking purely at his football ability, there’s no question that he belongs on someone’s roster. At minimum, Kaepernick profiles as a high-end backup, even after a year out of the game.
Quarterbacks coaches have long believed that Mike Glennon is capable of great things, due in part to his height. At 6’7″, he can see over any defensive line, but he hasn’t done much on the field to prove that he is a quality Week 1 starting option. Josh McCown, who is a decade his senior, edges him here for his surprisingly strong performance in 2017 at the helm of a weak Jets offense.
Carlos Hyde didn’t have the kind of platform year he was hoping for, but he’s still just 26 and could headline a running back by committee group.
Jerick McKinnon‘s placement on this list figures to be controversial, but his athleticism and pass-catching ability can blow a game wide open. No one will bank on McKinnon to carry the ball 20 times per game, but he can be a real difference maker for a team out there.
Can Frank Gore outrun father time? History indicates that he can’t and so does his 3.7 yards per carry average in 2017. You have to give credit where credit is due, however. Gore has been ruled out by many for years, but he has not missed a regular season game since the 2010 season. He’s also just one year removed from cracking 1,000 yards and he almost did the same last year.
For most teams, Allen Robinson would be a franchise tag candidate. However, that may be too much of a luxury for the cash-strapped Jaguars. He presents a fascinating free agent case. Robinson missed all but three snaps of the 2017 season after suffering a torn ACL, but he’s the most talented wide receiver on the board in the eyes of many. His 2015 season – 80 catches, 1,400 yards, and a league-leading 14 touchdowns – makes GMs drool. His quieter year in 2016 (73 catches, 883 yards, and six touchdowns) is less worthy of salivation. His 2017 season, of course, was a lost cause. For all the question marks, you can expect Robinson to see more dollars than any other free agent WR this year, particularly since Jarvis Landry has been held back by the tag.
Some in the football world may prefer Sammy Watkins for his big-play ability, but his down contract year amidst a capable offense is cause for concern. His injury history doesn’t do him any favors either. No matter your feelings on Watkins, there’s no debating that this year’s WR market has a top tier comprised of just two players – Watkins and Robinson. With few quality receivers out there, they’ll both get paid.
Marqise Lee represents a much less sexy option (speaking in football terms, of course), but he had the most receptions of any Jaguars receiver in 2017 (56) and finished second in receiving yards (702). Teams looking for a quality WR2 in free agency could do a lot worse than Lee and he’ll be far cheaper than the two-man top tier.
Danny Amendola hauled in 61 receptions for 659 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season and continued his strong play in the playoffs. However, teams will wonder if he can thrive in his age-33 season while playing outside of the Patriots’ offense. It’s also quite possible that he never tests the market as his stated preference is to remain in New England.
After that, you’ll notice a pretty significant drop off. That’s because this year’s WR class isn’t all that deep. Terrelle Pryor had to settle for a one-year prove-it contract last year and, to put it mildly, he did not prove it. Paul Richardson caught 44 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns in 2017, but that marked his first NFL season of real note.
Trey Burton spent most of the year behind Zach Ertz on the Eagles’ depth chart, but he emerged late in the season and set himself up nicely for free agency. Given his age and potential, there’s no question that he is the belle of the ball at tight end.
The rest of the tight end crop is not nearly as inspiring. Jimmy Graham has enjoyed back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons with the Seahawks, but he’ll turn 32 in November and he’s no longer the monster playmaker that he was in New Orleans. He had ten touchdowns in 2017, but his 9.1 yards per reception average is a career low.
Odds are, you have Tyler Eifert ranked over Austin Seferian-Jenkins given the fact that Eifert has played just ten games over the last two years. ASJ, meanwhile, rebounded from personal issues to post a 50-catch season for the Jets. Personally, I’m picking Eifert based on upside. Hopefully, we can still be friends.
Offensive line play is down across the board and evaluators around the league have been openly complaining about an increasing dearth of tackles coming out of college. That makes for a generally uninspiring lot in free agency.
Nate Solder battled through injuries in 2017 and did not miss a game. He’s no longer a top-flight option, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 32 tackle last year, meaning that he’s starter quality at left tackle. You’ll notice that three of the top five tackles on this list are Patriots. There’s little chance that the Pats let all three get away.
Justin Pugh offers the ability to play both guard and right tackle, though he might not do either one particularly well.
Andrew Norwell is the undisputed king of this category after netting an All-Pro selection in 2017. Norwell also earned a career-high 88.8 overall score from Pro Football Focus, which positioned him third in the entire NFL amongst guards. A team with greater means than the Panthers might have used the franchise tag on him. Fortunately for rival teams in need of interior help (such as the Giants), they won’t cuff him with the one-year placeholder.