NFL Free Agency 100: Top 5 Tight Ends
We love to rank things in the NFL world, and ranking free agents is no different. But this time, they’re being ranked with a scouting emphasis to give a full picture of what type of player each team is getting with a free-agent contract.
The goal of the NFL Free Agency 100 is to look at each player the way an NFL front office will look at him. By evaluating on-field play (production), past injuries (durability), off-field and locker-room issues (intangibles), their potential as a player (upside) and the type of contract expected (value), we’re able to get a player's complete image.
In the case of ties, I asked myself, "Which player would I rather have on my team?" and set the rankings accordingly.
Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.
I, along with a team of experienced evaluators, scouted each player, with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study by our team.
5. Virgil Green, Denver Broncos
Virgil Green has played second fiddle to Julius Thomas in Denver, but he has still been a steady producer when on the field. Green definitely offers more upside than history as a producer. He’s an athletic, fluid player who fits the mold of the current tight end. At 6’3” and 248 pounds, he’s not the biggest, but he’s agile and has after-the-catch speed.
Green has gotten limited reps on the field, which lowered his chance of injury, but he did suffer a concussion in Week 3 of the season.
Green was suspended for four games in 2012 for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing-drug policy. That’s a concern moving forward, as the next offense would bring an even longer suspension.
Green has never been the go-to tight end in an offense, but when you look at his athletic traits and tools, it’s easy to see him becoming a starter. He’s a gamble, but he could pay off huge.
Given his limited experience and production, Green is a smart value as a breakout player at the tight-end position. He’s not as proven as the other players ranked in this series, but his upside is very high.
4. Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
Jermaine Gresham has never been a top-tier producer, but he’s been a consistent performer over the last five seasons. He is a classic, prototypical tight end with a big frame (6’5”, 260 lbs), good athleticism and dependable hands. He’s big enough to produce in the end zone and does well in the open field. Gresham has been voted to the Pro Bowl twice.
Gresham has played in all 16 games just once in his NFL career (2012), so keeping him on the field for an entire season is a concern that knocks his grade down.
An arrest during his college days (an outstanding traffic-citation warrant) is the only blemish on his scouting report.
At 27 years old when the 2015 season starts, Gresham still has a lot of football ahead of him. His lack of top-tier speed and agility may limit his role as the NFL shifts to speedier tight ends, but he can still be a 50-to-60-catch player in the right offense.
Gresham won’t get the money we’ll see Julius Thomas or Charles Clay command, but he could be a steal on the open market. If he lands with a team with an offense bordering on completion, he has a chance to be a big addition.
3. Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
Josh Gordon's absence figured to make Jordan Cameron an even bigger player in the Cleveland offense in 2014, but his production and impact were disappointing. He went from 80 catches in 2013 to just 24 in 2014 and saw his touchdowns go from seven to a paltry two. Cameron has the athleticism to be a starting tight end, but his hype was far greater than his substance this past season.
Cameron missed six games in 2014 (five due to a concussion), and he has never played a full 16 games in a season. Injuries, even of the fluke variety, are an issue.
There are no worries about Cameron as a person or player in the locker room. He has no arrests or suspensions in his background.
A healthy Cameron could produce like we saw in 2013, but can he make plays outside of Norv Turner’s tight-end-friendly system? So far he hasn’t. If you can get a healthy Cameron, he’s intriguing but not a sure thing.
Cameron may be a great value on the market if he leaves the Browns. Following injuries, regressed numbers in 2014 and dysfunction in Cleveland, he could wind up becoming a star for another team in 2015.
2. Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
Playing as a versatile tight end and H-back, Charles Clay has been a Pro Bowl-caliber talent the past two seasons. He’s totaled just 10 touchdowns in that time, but he tallied 127 catches and emerged as a go-to target over the middle and out of motion routes. Clay is more scheme-specific as a player, given that he’s not a true in-line tight end, but most teams are finding a role for a player with his talent and athleticism.
Clay battled through a knee injury and a tweaked hamstring for most of 2014. He was able to finish the season strong and only missed two games, but this is enough of a concern to thoroughly investigate.
Clay has no arrests or suspensions in his background and isn’t a player to worry about.
Clay struggled to find a true fit in the Miami offense in 2014, and while his versatility is a big advantage, it's also a question mark for some teams. Much like Delanie Walker and James Casey before him, Clay could see his upside limited by scheme fit.
The small tight-end market could make Clay very valuable on the open market, but his role as a hybrid tight end adds a level of uncertainty to his scouting report.
1. Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Julius Thomas is often thought of as one of the best tight ends in football, and his production is a reason for that. What’s interesting is that while Thomas has scored 12 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons, he’s never had more than 65 catches and totaled just 43 in 10 starts in 2014.
His reception numbers aren’t great in a spread-it-around Denver offense, but his red-zone ability definitely jumps off the page. In an offense with fewer weapons, he could see more catches and yards, but he may see fewer scoring opportunities.
Ankle injuries date back to 2011 for Thomas and should be checked carefully. In his four pro seasons, he’s played in just 36 of 64 possible games.
Off the field, Thomas isn’t someone teams will have to worry about. He’s a clean player, with his only prior transgression being an arrest for a missed court date stemming from a traffic citation.
Is Thomas a product of Peyton Manning or a standalone talent able to produce in any system? That’s the big question mark hanging over his head and his value.
Thomas’ injury history could drive his value down on the open market, but his red-zone ability may compensate for that. Tight ends with this much talent don’t become available very often.