Top 10 Free Agent Tight Ends 2017: Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook top difference makers in solid free agency class
By Neil Dutton. With the value of quality pass catching tight ends rising every year, a top tier talent probably will not make it to free agency, let alone the free market. But, that doesn’t mean a second level talent, if landing in the right scheme and system, could not become a star in 2017. Below are the top ten tight ends with expiring contracts, looking to get paid when the new league year begins. (All salary cap figures are courtesy of OverTheCap.com)
2016 Stats 55 receptions, 701 yards, 7 touchdowns
The resurrection of the “Two Tight End Band” for the New England Patriots never materialized in 2016 as Rob Gronkowski started and ended the season injured. However, Bennett’s form ensured that the Patriots tight end position remained relevant. The Patriots have over $68 million in cap space, and given what must be a growing concern regarding the long-term health of Rob Gronkowski, they may be keen to lock up Bennett. However, like his brother, Bennett has a history where he expects top dollar for his services. After the Patriots Super Bowl victory he seemed keen to emphasise the bargaining power of his latest accomplishment. The Patriots may decide instead to look to the NFL Draft for a cheaper alternative. The Oakland Raiders could use an upgrade at tight end as could the Miami Dolphins. Dolphins coach Adam Gase worked with Bennett with the Chicago Bears, and with Jordan Cameron likely to be released and Dion Sims a free agent (see below), Bennett would offer another weapon on an improving offense.
- Jared Cook
2016 Stats 30 receptions, 377 yards, 1 touchdown
On paper, the stats for Jared Cook do not look impressive. However, injury limited him to just 10 games for the Green Bay Packers in 2016. When healthy, he was heavily involved in the offense as the season went on. Cook saw eight targets in two of the last three games of the regular season, and posted a 13-178 line in these contests. Aaron Rodgers is simply the best quarterback he has ever played with, and these late season numbers suggest there is developing chemistry between the two. The Packers, notoriously gun shy to sign free agents, will not be keen to delve into the market again, and should look to extend Cook instead. As Jeff Fisher is no longer in the NFL, it is unclear which other coaches would be tempted to take a chance on Cook. Jared Cook would probably be best served staying where he is.
- Cameron Brate
2016 Stats 57 receptions, 660 yards, 8 touchdowns
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally grew weary of the antics of Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and released him, Brate emerged as one of the better young tight ends in the NFL. He saw three or more targets in 14 of the 15 games he played, had 30 or more yards in 10 games, and emerged as one of the more reliable red zone threats around the league. He reeled in seven passes for scores inside the opposition’s 20 yard line. Brate ended the season on IR, but is expected to make a full recovery. As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, Brate is a near certainty to be back with the Bucs in 2017. If he shows that 2016 was not a fluke he could be in line for a big payday down the line.
- Jack Doyle
2016 Stats 59 receptions, 584 yards, 5 touchdowns
Doyle started the 2016 season with 13 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in his first three games for the Indianapolis Colts, which would have been good for a 69-730-10 line if he’d been able to keep it up over 16 games. He could not sustain the pace, failing to crack 50 receiving yards in nine of his last 13 games. Given that fellow tight end Dwayne Allen was equally uninspiring, the Colts may look to use some of their near $51 million in cap space to keep Doyle around, but they are not likely to break the bank to keep him.
2016 Stats 44 receptions, 583 yards, 2 touchdowns
With the Washington Redskins in 2016, Vernon Davis showed he could still produce. The clear second tight end to Jordan Reed, Davis was still a solid contributor on offense, with at least five catches in five games and over 50 receiving yards in six. The Redskins look set to get younger at wide receiver, and have yet to begin exploring ways they can keep Davis around. The Redskins are seventh among teams with the most cap space heading into the 2017 season, and if Davis will accept a deal befitting his age (he’ll be 33 when the season starts) he should remain in the burgundy and yellow for at least another season.
- Dion Sims
2016 Stats 26 receptions, 256 yards, 4 touchdowns
Sims was a low floor, low ceiling option in the Miami Dolphins offense in 2016, never seeing over four targets in a game and seeing two or less in seven. He was a fairly safe option, reeling in 74 percent of his total targets, and his four touchdowns came in a four-game span in which he snared half of his total receptions and over half of his total yards (13-132). The Dolphins must add a playmaker at tight end, but Sims ability to chip in as a pass catcher and his ability as a blocker makes him someone the team could look to keep around. But if Sims prices himself out of the market, the Denver Broncos would be a good landing spot, given their blocking woes and lack of spark at the tight end position.
- Ryan Griffin
2016 Stats 50 receptions, 442 yards, 2 touchdowns
The Houston Texans tight end spot became something of a hidden gem in fantasy football in 2016. After languishing in the doldrums in Bill O’Brien’s first two seasons in charge as head coach, Ryan Griffin, C.J. Fiedorowicz and rookie Steven Anderson all took advantage of quarterback Brock Osweiler’s inability to connect with his outside receivers, with Griffin and Fiedorowicz both snaring at least 50 passes. However, with Anderson and Fiedorowicz still under contract, and the Texans with the eighth least amount of cap space, they may look to move on. Griffin is just the sort of under-appreciated talent that would flourish in a multi-faceted offense like the one run by the New England Patriots. And if the Patriots move on from Martellus Bennett, Griffin would be a low-cost alternative for roughly the same role. It would make Griffin’s family very proud.
2016 Stats 37 receptions, 391 yards, 2 touchdowns
Jermain Gresham had a surprisingly productive season for the Arizona Cardinals, a team that as a rule does not rely on tight ends to do much more than block. But the offensive line issues that the team experienced in 2016 meant that quarterback Carson Palmer was forced to check down more than he wanted as the season progressed, and Gresham a beneficiary of the dump off check downs. Gresham may have been more useful to the Cardinals if he’d worked on his blocking, as he graded out terribly according to Pro Football Focus metrics. With Cardinals set to give Carson Palmer another go as the team’s starting quarterback, possibly his “last hurrah,” the team will look to protect him better in 2016. To do this, the Cardinals will need a tight end adept at blocking. This means the Cardinals are likely to move on from Gresham. For Jermaine Gresham, this likely means he won’t find a huge demand for his services, and he will probably be forced to accept a one year deal for the league minimum.
- Jacob Tamme
2016 Stats 22 receptions, 210 yards, 3 touchdowns
After just one touchdown in the 2015 season, Tamme had three scores for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. Injury robbed him of much of the season though, as he ended the season on Injured Reserve after shoulder surgery. The Falcons are likely hoping second year tight end Austin Hooper will be ready to make the starting job his in 2017. If this holds true, the Falcons may look to stay younger at the spot and move on from Tamme. Assuming Tamme returns to full health, a team needing a veteran to help its younger players or a team looking to improve its tight end blocking may come calling for him. The Detroit Lions could use Tamme to impart his wisdom to Eric Ebron, while the Arizona Cardinals would welcome a solid blocker as they look to protect Carson Palmer better than they did in 2016.
- Luke Willson
2016 Stats 15 receptions, 129 yards, 2 touchdowns
Willson battled knee injuries throughout the 2016 season, even enduring surgery on damaged cartilage. Truth be told though, he is the second fiddle on the Seattle Seahawks to Jimmy Graham. When Graham was lost for the 2015 season, Willson did not step up and make a case to be the full time starter at tight end. With the Seahawks not flush with cap space, having just over $36 million available, they could look to bring Wilson back on the cheap. That would seem his best option, if he can stay fit, although he would make for an interesting acquisition for some team if he hit the open market.