Frankly, the Atlanta Falcons failed miserably when it came to addressing their tight end position and that will have to change this offseason.
The Falcons featured the best tight end of all time in Tony Gonzalez for five seasons but following his retirement in 2014, the position bottomed out. Levine Toilolo was expected to step into the vacated starting role, but the team went from one of the league’s premier tight ends to one of its worst a year ago. Toilolo ranked 64th out of 67 tight ends graded by premium website Pro Football Focus last year.
The Falcons never expected Toilolo to come close to filling the void left by Gonzalez, but at least wanted him to appear competent for much of the season. Toilolo failed in that regard, although his blocking did improve somewhat as the season progressed. Moving forward, the Falcons are likely to relegate Toilolo to backup and blocking duties.
The draft doesn’t feature a particularly strong tight end class, with only a few candidates that stand out potentially as players that can start right away. That likely means that the Falcons will target a starter in free agency, where there is a potentially bigger pool of quality players to choose from.
Chief among them are Julius Thomas (Denver Broncos), Jordan Cameron (Cleveland Browns), Charles Clay (Miami Dolphins) and Jermaine Gresham (Cincinnati Bengals). All four would represent significant upgrades for the Falcons at the tight end position, and it’s likely the Falcons will target one of them should they hit the market.
Each offer something a bit different. Thomas and Cameron are two of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL, but both have their drawbacks. For Thomas, it’s that he’s likely to be one of the league’s highest paid tight ends, while Cameron has a troubling concussion history. But Cameron has the added bonus of being familiar with new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from their shared time in Cleveland last season.
Clay is a versatile H-back that as a former college running back is adept at making plays after the catch. Gresham is one of the league’s premier blocking tight ends, but also possesses the size and athletic skill set to be a factor in the passing game.
Besides Cameron, another prospective free-agent tight end that also has some familiarity with Shanahan is Washington’s Niles Paul. Paul is a converted wide receiver that is a capable pass-catcher, but may not offer the size or blocking ability to be considered more than a reserve.
Shanahan has noted the importance of the tight end position in his offense, mainly because of the problems it can create for defensive matchups. Having a tight end on the field forces defenses to potentially defend both the run and pass, with Shanahan preferring that schematic versatility.
The ideal target for the Falcons is someone that is capable giving the team value both as a blocker and receiver. But Shanahan’s offenses over the years have typically preferred players that have been better in the latter area. Starters such as Owen Daniels, Chris Cooley, Jordan Reed and Cameron are not known for their blocking prowess.
Given reports that impending Falcons free agent Bear Pascoe isn’t expected to return to Atlanta, besides Toilolo the Falcons roster features a pair of journeymen in Mickey Shuler and Kyle Miller. That likely means that the Falcons could “double dip” this offseason, finding an upgrade as a starter in free agency, and then seeking to add another developmental prospect in the draft to push Toilolo for the No. 2 duties.
Given the team’s lack of success in replacing Gonzalez a year ago, tight end is likely to be one of the team’s biggest priorities this offseason.