Ideal Landing Spots for Hunter Henry and the NFL's Top FA Tight Ends
Is the tight end position underappreciated?
We all give plenty of credence to quarterbacks, offensive tackles, pass-rushers, wide receivers and cornerbacks, but the last four Super Bowls have heavily featured potential Hall of Fame tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz.
Kelce, Kittle and Ertz are securely under contract, and Gronk isn't leaving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But a lot of talented players at the position are slated to hit free agency next month.
That list includes Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers, Jonnu Smith of the Tennessee Titans, Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Rams, Jared Cook of the New Orleans Saints, Tyler Eifert of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Trey Burton of the Indianapolis Colts, Dan Arnold of the Arizona Cardinals and restricted free agents-to-be Robert Tonyan Jr. and Anthony Firkser of the Green Bay Packers and Titans, respectively.
Let's examine the potential fates of those players.
Why he's a catch: The 26-year-old 2016 second-round pick has amassed 1,265 yards and nine touchdowns in 26 games over the last two seasons. He's got the hands, size (6'5", 250 lbs) and blocking ability to become a star.
Working against him: He's missed six games the last two seasons and 25 in his five-year career. He's never fully lived up to the hype he generated with an eight-touchdown rookie campaign.
Best fit: Los Angeles Chargers. Only eight teams are projected to possess more salary-cap space, and it's important the Bolts maintain continuity for young quarterback Justin Herbert. It's time to pay the man.
Other potential fits: Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals
Predicted contract: Four years, $44 million
Why he's a catch: The 25-year-old 2017 third-round pick has gone over 400 yards in back-to-back seasons, generating 11 touchdowns in that span. He's big and athletic, and he has tread on his tires with room to grow.
Working against him: He's fallen short of 500 yards in each of his four NFL seasons.
Best fit: Jacksonville Jaguars. They're loaded with cap space and could really benefit from an upgrade over Tyler Eifert and James O'Shaughnessy, both of whom have expiring contracts.
Other potential fits: Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Chargers
Predicted contract: Four years, $36 million
Why he's a catch: Despite being a part-time player, the 26-year-old 2017 second-round pick has gone over 400 yards the last two seasons. He dropped zero passes in 2018 and 2019.
Working against him: He dropped seven in 2020 and failed to take off despite being on the field for a career-high 57 percent of the team's offensive snaps. Has he hit a wall?
Best fit: Cincinnati Bengals. They have money to spend, and young quarterback Joe Burrow could use another safety valve to work with Drew Sample at that position. Head coach Zac Taylor was on the Rams staff for the first two seasons of Everett's career.
Other potential fits: Seattle Seahawks (new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron was also on that L.A. coaching staff), Los Angeles Chargers (ditto for new Bolts head coach Brandon Staley, who was there in 2020), Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets
Predicted contract: Three years, $20 million
Why he's a catch: Since leaving the Green Bay Packers in 2017, the two-time Pro Bowler has caught 202 passes for 2,793 yards and 24 touchdowns in four seasons as a relatively full-time player. He ranks in the top four among tight ends when it comes to yards and touchdowns in that time frame.
Working against him: He's 33 now, and his numbers declined significantly in 2020.
Best fit: Buffalo Bills. The cap-strapped New Orleans Saints might not be able to afford to keep him around, while the Bills are a contender who could take advantage of his experience right away in a platoon role with young incumbent Dawson Knox.
Other potential fits: Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Tennesse Titans, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans
Predicted contract: One year, $5 million
Why he's a catch: The 2013 first-round pick has remained healthy while catching 79 passes the last two seasons, and he has a 13-touchdown Pro Bowl campaign under his belt.
Working against him: That career year was 2015. The 30-year-old missed three games that season and 16 in his first two NFL campaigns, and he has missed 35 since.
Best fit: Seattle Seahawks. It's probably too late for him to become a star, his injury history makes him unreliable, and his age means he's best suited for a contender on a budget with alternatives at the position. We just described the Seahawks, who could try to please Russell Wilson with another weapon in the passing game.
Other potential fits: Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints
Predicted contract: Two years, $8 million
Why he's a catch: The 29-year-old flashed with the Super Bowl champion 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and went over 500 yards with six touchdowns as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2018.
Working against him: He's caught just 42 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns the last two seasons combined and should no longer be viewed as a full-time option.
Best fit: Los Angeles Rams. He'd likely be a cheaper version of Gerald Everett for a team that already has Tyler Higbee, likes to use multiple tight ends and doesn't have much money to spend.
Other potential fits: New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans
Predicted contract: One year, $1 million
Why he's a catch: The 25-year-old suddenly broke out with 438 yards and four touchdowns during his first full season for the Arizona Cardinals. His stock could be rising but still affordable.
Working against him: He wasn't drafted, and he had done practically nothing in the NFL before playing well in the final 10 games of 2020. That's a scary-small sample.
Best fit: Carolina Panthers. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady was on the Saints staff during the first season of Arnold's career, and the Panthers badly need a tight end but probably can't afford to break the bank for one.
Other potential fits: Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Chargers
Predicted contract: Two years, $5 million
Robert Tonyan Jr.
Why he's a catch: Out of nowhere, the physically enticing 26-year-old caught 11 touchdown passes and registered 586 receiving yards to emerge as the Green Bay Packers' No. 1 tight end in 2020.
Working against him: He was undrafted and accomplished nothing prior to this season, which could have been a flash in the pan with an assist from the league's MVP.
Best fit: Packers. They will almost certainly attempt to keep the impending restricted free agent with a tender in the $2-5 million range, depending on the degree to which they want to protect him from poachers. Still, the Packers are tight on cap space, and a cap-rich squad like the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots or New York Jets could outmuscle them for a guy who was in the Pro Bowl conversation in 2020.
Other potential fits: Jaguars, Patriots, Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers
Predicted contract: One year, about $3.5 million (second-round tender)
Working against him: He was also undrafted and has scored just three touchdowns in his three-year career. The jury is very much out.
Best fit: Titans. Because they'll be tight against the cap, they might lose Jonnu Smith. They're unlikely to let both their free-agent tight ends get away as they try to remain in the Super Bowl race, so they'll likely hit Firkser with a valuable tender and be ready to match any non-ridiculous offers that come his way.
Other potential fits: Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers
Predicted contract: One year, about $3.5 million (second-round tender)