While the Cleveland Browns' offseason plans are getting a great deal of scrutiny, namely because no one knows what to expect at quarterback and because the defense is switching to a 3-4. Roster changes are inevitable and one position that needs some attention is tight end.
With each passing year, the tight end position has become more and more important. With offenses choosing to air the ball out more often, tight ends are required to be do-it-all Swiss army knives, much like their philosophical counterpart on defense, the safety.
Pass blocking, pass protection, run blocking, receiving—tight ends must do all of these to be considered well-rounded. Teams that don't have someone possessing all these skills are starting to fall behind.
The Browns fielded a trio of tight ends in 2012—Ben Watson, Alex Smith and Jordan Cameron—and none were particularly impressive. Watson caught 49 of 82 passes thrown his way, for 501 yards and three touchdowns.
Cameron caught just 20 of the 39 passes thrown to him for 226 yards and one touchdown. Smith, who is more of a pure blocking tight end, had just 18 passes thrown to him and 13 receptions, for 47 yards. He could have been more accurately called a fullback in 2012.
Considering the pedigree of the coaching staff—head coach Rob Chudzinski has extensive experience as a tight ends coach and helped build the career of San Diego Chargers' legend Antonio Gates, while offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the Chargers' head coach during Gates' best years—this is not an acceptable amount of production.
There were flashes of competence out of the group of Browns tight ends in 2012. Watson's three dropped passes in 52 catchable throws made him a top 10 tight end when it came to drop rate. Though Cameron only worked in pass protection in just 8.8 percent of his total snaps, he didn't give up a single pressure (Watson gave up five, and was a pass blocker 20.5 percent of the time).
The Browns need at least one of these two men in particular to be more complete, multifaceted tight ends, down after down. If they aren't capable of doing so, they'll have to look elsewhere for a better option.
Watson will become an unrestricted free agent when the league year officially begins in March. Though the Browns have enough salary cap space to re-sign all of their own free agents as well as add some from the outside, that doesn't mean Watson is safe.
In fact, if the Browns want to go another direction at tight end, then Watson is the least safe between himself, Cameron and Smith. Cameron is still developing—he was a basketball player primarily in college—and Smith still has value as a pure blocker, even though he could still have his contract voided this offseason and become a free agent himself.
Watson was supposed to be the all-around tight end but he's never really emerged beyond the level of mediocre. It makes him worthy of a roster spot somewhere as depth, but not as a starter. And with Cameron and potentially Smith remaining in Cleveland, the Browns won't need him should they add someone else.
There are options available to the Browns in both free agency and the draft that should help boost the position. Among the veterans are Martellus Bennett, most recently of the New York Giants, San Francisco's Delanie Walker, Miami's Anthony Fasano and Dustin Keller of the New York Jets.
Bennett was Pro Football Focus' fifth-ranking overall tight end for 2012, with positive grades in both the passing game and in blocking, and caught 55 of his 88 targets for 626 yards and five touchdowns with six drops. Walker edged out Bennett in terms of blocking, but his catching could have been more consistent—he had nine drops and caught only 56.8 percent of the passes thrown to him.
Fasano played 921 total snaps in 2012. He caught 41 passes for 332 yards and five touchdowns and notably had zero dropped passes. Keller's blocking stats aren't as good as the other three, but he caught 77.8 percent of the 36 passes thrown to him for 317 yards and two scores. All four of these options would fall well within the Browns' price range and would all be upgrades from Watson.
If the Browns go the draft route, they won't lack options. While the top two tight ends in the draft—Tyler Eifert from Notre Dame and Zach Ertz from Stanford—probably won't be in the Browns' reach, that doesn't mean they won't be able to find talent in later rounds.
Cincinnati's Travis Kelce, who had 45 receptions for 722 yards and eight scores in 2012, could be a mid-round option for the Browns. He did miss the Senior Bowl with an injury, however, so how healthy he looks at the Scouting Combine later this week will do a lot to his draft stock.
San Jose State's Ryan Otten, a Senior Bowl standout, could also be in the mix. His numbers were similar to Kelce's in 2012—47 catches, 742 yards, four touchdowns—and he can both catch and block.
Whether the Browns give Weeden another year as their starting quarterback or if they bring in someone else for the job, the team simply needs to get its passing offense in order. There were hints of it last year once Josh Gordon developed into a downfield threat and Greg Little managed to get his head back into the game. But a complete-package tight end would round out their offense immeasurably.
Not only would this player elevate the run game and work in pass protection, but he'd serve as a valuable target both on the inside and outside. The Browns need more variety, more explosiveness and more weapons, to boost their offensive production. Therefore, tight end is a position they cannot take lightly in the coming two months.