Free Agent Focus: Tight End

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Michael Palmer

After a short lay-off, it’s time to get back into what things to look out for in free agency at each position group. Now it’s time we take a look at the tight end position.

The Falcons were able to hold off on major shake-up at this position by extending Tony Gonzalez’s contract for one more year. It’s likely 2012 will be the swan song season for Gonzalez, who is desperately trying to win a championship, or at least a playoff game before he retires. Since it seems very likely that this upcoming season will be his last, the team must find a viable long-term replacement for Gonzalez.

It was once thought that could potentially be Michael Palmer. But Palmer has done little to justify such beliefs. While Palmer is a solid backup tight end, he has not shown the ability as a receiver to really justify any faith in him to be a viable starter going forward. He has a good set of hands, but has yet to show he can consistently beat man coverage, a requirement for any starting receiver. More than likely the Falcons can pencil in Palmer to perform a role similar to Justin Peelle which is a backup blocker, an area where he has shown improvement.

Reggie Kelly is a free agent, but he’s not expected back after contributing little for most of the season. This all should lead to the Falcons exploring their options to try and find some tight end depth this off-season with an eye towards a guy that can take over the reins from Gonzalez in 2013. It probably makes the most sense to target such a player in the draft but they could look at a few options in free agency.

The best player available is without question Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley. But most expect the Packers to slap the franchise tag on him, limiting his availability. The next best player is probably Washington’s Fred Davis. But he ended the season on a four-game suspension due to failing a drug test (marijuana), and is one more positive test away from a full-year’s suspension. That issue hanging over his head would likely hurt his marketability, making him a cheaper option for any team willing to take on that risk. But given the so-called Falcons Filter when it comes to issues of character, it’s unlikely they would be one of the teams willing to roll that dice.

The next group of starting-caliber tight ends are Martellus Bennett (Dallas), John Carlson (Seattle), and Joel Dreessen (Houston).

Bennett is a brash player known for some of his more out-spoken comments during his days in Dallas, but at the end of the day he’s a pretty good football player. He seems to be a player that is waiting for his opportunity to emerge from the shadow of Jason Witten, and his chance to hit the open market this off-season might be it. Unfortunately, Bennett is more of a blocker at this point in his career than a receiver despite excellent size and athleticism. His hands have been inconsistent at times, and he’s more in line with a good No. 2 than an effective No. 1 tight end. While he could represent a major upgrade over Palmer, it’s unlikely he could come close to filling the shoes of Gonzalez going forward.

Carlson missed all of this past year with a shoulder injury. Prior to the arrival of Pete Carroll, Carlson was a productive tight end in the passing game, tallying over 50 catches in his first two seasons in the league. But part of that may have stemmed from the lack of playmakers that the Seahawks have had on the outside. But he’s a player that can definitely be an effective starter and ideally an H-back, a role he did well with in Seattle. Dirk Koetter’s offense makes ample use of the H-back, and if the Falcons deem Carlson healthy, he might be a nice, solid option to pursue.

Dreessen has performed well as a replacement for an injured Owen Daniels over the past three years. Daniels has missed 14 combined games over the past three seasons, and in those games, Dreessen has combined for 43 catches, 561 yards (13.0 avg), and 3 touchdowns. Dreessen will turn 30 in July, but he’s a player that could fit very well in the H-back role here in Atlanta, although once again as a long-term replacement for Gonzalez, he might be limited.

If the Falcons are looking to try and find a better No. 2 option than Palmer to team with Gonzalez, they could do so in this free agent market. But in terms of strong candidates to be permanent long-term replacements for Gonzalez next year and beyond, this market appears limited. How important that No. 2 TE is could also be determined by how the team handles the fullback position. If Koetter favors more of a two-tight end based offense that marginalizes the need for a blocking back, it’s quite possible the Falcons could try to make a splash in free agency for an H-back, but also go after the heir apparent to Gonzalez via the draft as well. The Falcons definitely have options worth exploring in free agency, but more than likely will focus on the draft when it comes down to it.

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Aaron Freeman
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