The Falcons have a definite and obvious need at tight end. Even if they are able to convince Tony Gonzalez to return for one more season, they need to put together a plan of succession for when he does eventually retire.
More than likely, the Falcons will probably prefer to target a young tight end in the draft that can grow and develop in this offense. But they will have options in free agency to look for more immediate solutions.
Obviously, the biggest free agent on the Falcons radar will be Gonzalez himself. If the Falcons are lucky, they will get an answer from Gonzalez in the coming month to indicate whether he will return to the team or not. But that would be a quick turn-around for a player that all indicators said at the end of the year was prepared to move on. More than likely, if Gonzalez does get that itch to return it’ll be much closer to the start of training camp in the summer before the Falcons receive that word.
That means that probably for the bulk of the free agent signing period, the Falcons must operate under the assumption that Gonzalez is departing. And thus they will be looking at other options.
As mentioned in discussing the Falcons need at the position, the Falcons offense prefers a more traditional (or Y) tight end as opposed to the flex or H-back player. The Falcons did not use a ton of two-tight end sets last year under Dirk Koetter as they had in previous years under Mike Mularkey. That wasn’t the case really in Jacksonville with Koetter, who made ample use of the two tight formations to bolster the Jaguars ground attack. One of the reasons why the Falcons did not utilize it much in 2012 was because of how much they threw the ball and their usage of three-wide sets. If the Falcons return to a more balanced offense in 2013, then there could be more opportunities for two tight end sets.
The main role that the Falcons new tight end will have is helping move the chains on third downs, something that Gonzalez was extremely good at doing. So the Falcons will be looking for a set of reliable hands. The Falcons may also want to expand their passing game a bit more with a tight end that can stretch the vertical seam. That can open up greater opportunities for receivers like Julio Jones and Roddy White on the outside. Mainly because a tight end that can get vertical challenges defenses with their coverages. Do they want to leave their safety in the middle of the field to deal with the tight end or do they want to give their corners on the outside help when going up against Jones and White? This is basically what role Antonio Gates functions in San Diego, and has been effective over the years opening up opportunities for players like Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd on the outside. When defenses try to account for Gates, Jackson and Floyd get more one on one opportunities that they can exploit. If they try to help out their corners, then it leaves Gates to wreak havoc over the middle of the field. The Falcons offense wasn’t overly explosive last year, ranking 29th in terms of passing plays of 20 or more yards. Adding a tight end that can generate big plays down the field could work wonders in improving this aspect of their offense.
Looking over the prospective group of free agents, there are several players with starting experience and solid production hitting the market. Starters including Martellus Bennett (Giants), Dallas Clark (Buccaneers), Jared Cook (Titans), Fred Davis (Redskins), Anthony Fasano (Dolphins), Dustin Keller (Jets), Brandon Myers (Raiders), and Ben Watson (Browns).
Bennett and Cook are probably the two biggest names of the group. Both are fairly different tight ends. Bennett is more of your traditional Y-tight end. He’s coming off his most productive year of his career with the Giants, catching 55 passes for 626 and 5 touchdowns. Bennett is a capable blocker, having served primarily in that capacity behind Jason Witten for four years with the Dallas Cowboys prior to joining the Giants last year. He is also a capable receiver, but not necessarily a dynamic one. One of the issues I think Bennett has is his ability to separate from coverage and extend away from his body to make grabs. He’s had issues with drops during his days in Dallas and may not be the most reliable option for those third down situations. Bennett also isn’t overly adept at the big plays down the field due to fairly average speed.
Bennett has been open about his desire to stay in New York, even wanting to recruit his older brother, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive Michael Bennett to join him there. One issue with Bennett is that he is not known for biting his tongue, which has garnered him a reputation for being a selfish player. That is probably neither fair nor accurate to say about Bennett, but it’s typically not the sort of player that the Falcons tend to target. Another issue is that despite his success, he’s playing in a Giants offense that has been fairly good to some middling tight ends in recent years, including Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard.
If the Falcons were to go after Bennett, where he probably fits best at is as one half of a pair of tight ends, serving a similar role as he did in Dallas. Bennett reminds me more of the types of players that Ed Dickson and Brandon Pettigrew serve with their respective teams, as the more blocking tight end as opposed to someone that will be a reliable pass catcher on a weekly basis.
Jared Cook may be the polar opposite of that. Cook has excellent physical tools and athleticism to be a dynamic weapon in the passing game. He has the sort of speed and ability to challenge defenses downfield and help expand the Falcons vertical potential as discussed earlier. But an issue with Cook is how limited a blocker he is. Over the past four years, he’s had to run block a total of 287 times (per Pro Football Focus). Given that the Titans have run the ball 1,659 times in that span shows you how little he’s contributed there, as that is about a sixth of total run plays. For the sake of comparison, Tony Gonzalez just in 2012 was asked to run block on 326 regular season snaps, roughly 85% of the team’s total run plays. That is roughly the same figure for how Marcedes Lewis was utilized under Koetter in Jacksonville as well. The Titans primarily use Cook as a flex tight end (meaning he is basically a slot receiver) that works primarily on passing downs. They made concerted efforts to hide him as a blocker. To come to Atlanta and basically be asked to do something he has rarely done (put his hand in the dirt and run block) is not exactly a recipe for success.
The other issue with Cook is based off character. When Cook played at South Carolina, there were concerns about his work ethic and effort. He has been a player that has publicly pouted at times in Tennessee due to his belief that he’s been underutilized in the offense. That won’t mesh well with the Falcons locker room, as one of the hallmarks of the past two years has been that Gonzalez, Jones, and White have never complained about their usage. Is Cook a player that is going to change his stripes with a change in environment? The answer is probably no.
So if the Falcons were to pursue Cook in free agency, the big question will be whether or not he is going to be a good enough receiver to offset some of his other concerns. Cook certainly has the talent to do so, but the Falcons traditionally aren’t an organization that makes those types of gambles.
Two other free agent options that could also help provide those big plays downfield like Cook are Dustin Keller and Fred Davis.
Keller has very good straight-line speed, but doesn’t seem to possess great suddeness which makes him less effective at getting open and creating separation than someone of his speed should be. Keller is a capable receiving tight end that has been productive, but has rarely had big games in New York. As a blocker, he’s limited as well and like Cook would work best primarily as an H-back or flex option.
Davis is probably the forgotten man of this free agent class since he suffered an Achilles injury this past year. If he was healthy, he’d arguably be the best candidate on the market. Davis has very good speed and has a knack for making plays after the catch. He’s a decent blocker, although he too may be a better fit playing as an H-back as part of a two-tight end set than a straight-ahead inline run blocker. But besides the injury, which is a huge issue, Davis also has character concerns. He was suspended four games in 2011 for testing positive for marijuana use. He’s basically one more strike away from sitting out an entire year. Given all those question marks, it seems doubtful that he’ll be on the Falcons radar.
Dallas Clark is another tight end that has made his career as a flex tight end, functioning basically as a slot receiver for the Colts for many years. He’s coming off a decent year with the Bucs, but he’ll turn 34 in June and the Falcons are unlikely to replace Gonzalez with another player that is near the end of his career.
Anthony Fasano seems like he’s been in the league forever, but he’ll only be 29 in April. Fasano is one of the few free agents that is known more for his blocking ability than his receiver ability. Fasano can be a factor in the redzone, but he’s struggled with inconsistency as a pass catcher and isn’t a dynamic threat. If the Falcons were to pursue him, it would almost certainly signal they were looking for a pair of tight ends and pegged Fasano to function as the blocking half.
Brandon Myers is a fairly good receiver that has good hands and is a capable receiver on the short and intermediate routes, similar to Gonzalez. But he has marginal speed and won’t be a factor down the field. He’s also a very underwhelming blocker. The positive if anything for Myers is that he’s been miscast as an inline tight end in Oakland, and if moved to H-back could be a much more effective every down player. He can help move the chains, but he’s not going to help expand the Falcons offense.
Ben Watson is a capable blocker despite not having ideal size. Watson is also a gifted athlete that still moves fairly well despite the fact that he’s 32 years old. Again, he’s more a candidate if the Falcons opt to go with more two-tight end looks as he can function both as an inline blocker and H-back. He can challenge downfield due to that lingering speed, but Watson has never quite lived up to his potential as a dynamic threat in the passing game.
If the Falcons do opt to go with a more two-tight end based offense, two prospective free agents that can definitely fill the H-back role would be Delanie Walker (49ers) and James Casey (Texans).
Both were primarily oversized wide receivers during their collegiate days. Walker has struggled with drops as a 49er, but is a very effective blocker from the H-back position. He also has the speed to challenge downfield. Casey also has fairly decent speed. He served primarily as Houston’s fullback this past year, and while he’s not a great lead blocker, he’s much more effective and physical than you’d probably expect from a former wideout. Casey could function as a poor man’s Dennis Pitta, who is also a free agent. But Pitta is a restricted free agent, and as Baltimore’s third option in their passing game behind Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin will likely receive a high tender (first round level?) to prevent his departure.
Other candidates that could be on the open market include players like Jermichael Finley (Packers), Daniel Fells (Patriots), Kellen Davis (Bears), John Carlson (Vikings), all of whom are candidates for release.
Finley looked to be on his way out of Green Bay after a sluggish start in 2012, but picked up his play in the latter half of the season and looks like he’ll be back. Finley is similar to Cook in that he primarily is a flex tight end in Green Bay’s wide-open passing attack. He’s got a world of talent, but has been inconsistent catching the ball and has had questions about his effort and maturity over the years. If he was to become available, many of the same red flags that probably would keep the Falcons steering clear of Cook would apply to Finley.
Fells played with the Falcons in 2006, but was cut prior to the 2007 season and has since bounced around the league. He’s a capable blocker that has some pass-catching ability, but he’s not really a vertical weapon. His potential role in the Falcons offense would be similar to that of Fasano.
The same could be said of Kellen Davis, who is a big, athletic target. But he was very inconsistent catching the football this past year, and at this point is primarily a blocking tight end that occasionally may help out in the passing game but won’t be a reliable option there.
Carlson was a productive H-back with the Seahawks for years until the arrival of Pete Carroll in 2010. But after a disappointing 2010 season, he missed all of 2011 with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He signed with the Vikings this past year and was a non-factor. For the right price, Carlson could be a decent option for the Falcons, but given he’s not made significant contributions in three years that price tag would have to be fairly low.
Overall, the Falcons should have plenty of veteran options this off-season at the tight end position. None really are the ideal fits, which is one of the reasons why the Falcons will probably opt to draft a tight end over signing one.