While not vital to offensive success, a quality tight end is a luxury many good NFL teams have.
It's not always an easy position to find, however, as the ideal player at the position possesses a blend of size, strength, and athleticism, and is called up to do everything from blocking oncoming pass rushers to beating linebackers and safeties in the passing game.
Unfortunately for those teams without a true playmaker at tight end, the free agent market offers little in that regard.
There are some solid players out there though, and these are my top five free-agent tight ends:
Note: This series of lists only includes unrestricted free agents, as those are the only type that can be signed without giving up compensation. Restricted free agents—especially the best ones—will cost valuable draft picks.)
Benjamin Watson, New England Patriots
Watson has fallen by the wayside at times in a high-powered Patriots offense, but he's always been a reliable red-zone target and solid blocker.
Now 29 years old, Watson has at least a handful of good years left, and could start for quite a few teams in the NFL.
Randy McMichael, St. Louis Rams
Once a rising star with the Dolphins, McMichael never fully realized his potential and was eventually released when the team was unable to find any trade suitors in the 2007 offseason.
McMichael has the talent to be a starting tight end in this league, but injuries and a few run-ins with the law have put a damper on his once-promising career. He may have to settle for a No. 2 job from here on out.
Alge Crumpler, Tennessee Titans
Although he isn't the pass-catching threat he was in his prime with the Falcons, Crumpler has developed into quite a strong blocking tight end.
He's not going to start anymore in his career and won't scare anyone as a receiver, but Crumpler's blocking ability in both the passing and running games should allow him to contribute in this league possibly into his mid-to-late thirties.
L. J. Smith, Baltimore Ravens
The recipient of the Eagles' franchise tag in 2008, Smith has fallen from a promising young tight end to just another guy.
After signing with the Ravens in 2009, probably in hopes oft-injured starter Todd Heap wouldn't make it through the whole season, Smith appeared in only 12 games (no starts) and caught just two passes.
There is still some time for Smith to get back on course at age 29, but his days of starting are over in all likelihood, and lack of valuable blocking skills makes him even less worth picking up as a reserve.
Brandon Manumaleuna, San Diego Chargers
He's never been much of a receiver, but the 295-pound Manumaleuna could always at least be counted on as a strong blocker.
However, he hasn't even done that well lately, and he'll have to settle for a No. 2 or 3 role and improve keep his blocking productivity at a higher level to stick around in the NFL.
Beyond the Top Five
- Anthony Becht, Arizona Cardinals — Long removed from any kind of productivity in the NFL, the Jets' former first-round pick in 2000 will have a trouble finding consistent work. He may have to settle for an in-season signing as an injury replacement at this point.
- Ben Hartsock, New York Jets —As with most Colts' tight ends, they go elsewhere and are never really the contributors people expect them to be. He's still a quality run blocker, however, and should have no problem finding work as a No. 2 tight end.
- Reggie Kelly, Cincinnati Bengals — Now 33 and coming off a ruptured Achilles' tendon that forced him to miss the entire 2009 season, Kelly offers little more than a veteran blocker at this point. He could get another chance or two in the league, but his days of significant playing time and contributions are likely over.
- David Martin, Miami Dolphins — Technically able to be signed now, rather than after March 5, due to not finishing the 2009 season under contract, Martin had a rebound year with the Dolphins in 2008 and was solid in all facets. If healthy, Martin can absolutely be a No. 2 tight end in the NFL.
- Sean Ryan, Kansas City Chiefs — Ryan started more games for Kansas City in 2009 than he did in the previous five seasons combined, which just goes to show how bad the Chiefs were hurting for talent last season. Ryan is little more than a blocker, and is a borderline No. 3 tight end.