NFL free agency is just about upon us! History typically hasn’t been kind to tight ends switching teams, but that doesn’t mean some of the league’s available talents at the position won’t be playing elsewhere in 2021.
There aren’t exactly a plethora of high-end options guaranteed to settle into featured roles on the open market, but that shouldn’t stop us from getting a grip on each prospective free agent TE’s 1) general career success to this point, 2) best-case landing spot, 3) worst-case destination, and 4) most realistic new team.
Note that each TE’s dream, nightmare and best-guess spots are determined through a mix of fantasy football and real life purposes. Volume is king in fantasyland, so we need to identify realistic landing spots when it comes to projected workload and not just focus on which units are expected to score the most overall points. Additional fantasy football themed free agency previews on quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are also available.
TIGHT END: HUNTER HENRY
Breakdown: The five-year veteran dealt with injuries and volume issues throughout his career, but Henry has consistently functioned as one of the better players at his position when healthy enough to suit up:
- PFF receiving grade: 85.5 (No. 6 among 62 tight ends with 100-plus targets since 2016)
- Yards per reception: 11.8 (tied for No. 12)
- Yards per route run: 1.67 (tied for No. 12)
- QB rating when targeted: 122.1 (No. 3)
Henry is far from a one-trick pony, grading out as PFF’s 12th-best run blocker among 46 qualified tight ends in 2020. He turned 26 last December and plays a position that historically continues to produce high-end fantasy performers late into their careers.
There could also be a question regarding Henry’s true ceiling as a passing game’s No. 1 or No. 2 option. His average of 1.34 yards per route run against man (No. 19 among TEs) compared to his 3.48 mark against zone (No. 6) reflects the eye test that he doesn’t make a habit of exactly running away from guys.
And that’s OK! It’s not like Jason Witten caught 60-plus passes a season for nearly two decades because of his twitchiness; just realize Henry, like plenty of other great players, might struggle to post high-end production without the benefit of an above-average QB. He also posted career-low efficiency numbers across the board in his first season without noted-TE whisperer Philip Rivers.
There are plenty of offenses where it’d be easy to envision triple-H thriving, but sheesh oh sheesh he’s going to be on a rough list when it comes to the largest contracts from free agent tight ends that signed with a new team singe 2016:
- Austin Hooper (CLE, $42M)
- Coby Fleener (NO, $36M)
- Trey Burton (CHI, $32M)
- Jimmy Graham (GB, $30M)
- Jesse James (DET, $28.5M)
- Martellus Bennett (GB, $20.25M)
- Ladarius Green (PIT, $20M)
Henry is a great player, but he isn’t in the Travis Kelce, George Kittle or Darren Waller realm of being a true No. 1 pass-game option. His landing spot will be absolutely crucial to projecting future fantasy aspirations.
Dream spot: Jaguars. No state income tax for Henry, and it’d make sense if the team with the league’s most available cap space looks his way. Surrounding Trevor Lawrence with as many high-end skill-position players should be a priority, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has led T.J. Hockenson as well as the Seahawks version of Jimmy Graham to plenty of fantasy success in recent history.
Nightmare spot: Jets. This pairing would at least make Henry a very rich man, but the absence of a proven QB would be troublesome in expecting him to make the most out of his opportunities. Yes, I’m a noted, somewhat ashamed, Chris Herndon truther. Also yes, it really would be tough to project Henry for 100-plus targets inside of an offense with a 1) talented No. 2 player at his position, and 2) QB that hasn’t demonstrated much of a willingness to feed TEs.
Best-guess spot: Patriots. More receiving weapons are needed, and Bill Belichick is a noted admirer. Obviously an upgrade from Cam Newton would be ideal for Henry’s fantasy outlook, but then again Greg Olsen never had much of an issue putting up numbers over the years. This landing spot wouldn’t really be all that different from him staying with the Chargers due to enhanced volume likely wiping out the potential for reduced efficiency.
TIGHT END: JONNU SMITH
Breakdown: You can’t name five tight ends who are scarier with the ball in their hands than the artist known as Jonnu.
Give Jonnu Smith the football and good things happen pic.twitter.com/LmBbPvgUvX
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) March 11, 2021
Targets have been tough to come by in the Titans’ multi-TE and run-heavy offense, but Smith has always made the most of his opportunities. Overall, only George Kittle (7.8) has averaged more yards after the catch per reception than Smith (7.1) since he entered the league in 2017.
There’s a case to be made that Smith is more of an athlete than tight end at this point in his career; he’s never been an above-average run blocker and the majority of his wins as a receiver aren’t exactly due to pristine route-running ability.
Still, Smith is just 25 years old and has never had more than 65 targets in a season. He passes the eye test with ease and offers true positional versatility with the ability to line up all over the field. The verdict is still out on whether or not Smith should be a passing game’s No. 1 or No. 2 option, but there’s little doubt he’s capable of causing problems on designed touches when defenses fail to plan accordingly.
Dream spot: Bills. Theoretically the decision to hand Smith a lot of money would come hand in hand with a near every-snap role. Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are still expected to be the No. 1 and No. 2 options, but this offense is so pass-heavy that Smith could still flirt with triple-digit targets for the first time in his career. The presence of both Josh Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s A+ scheme would give Smith a sky-high ceiling in this scenario.
Nightmare spot: Giants.T his spot wouldn’t be that bad if it coincides with the team moving on from Evan Engram. Obviously a two-TE-heavy offense would be the far worst outcome, but either way offensive coordinator Jason Garrett showed a troubling inability to get this position adequately involved in the offense in 2020. Of course, the verdict is still out on Daniel Jones as well, leaving a multitude of mostly negative questions facing Smith if this marriage occurs.
Best-guess spot: Jaguars. Basically the same rationale with Henry: talented young QB, plenty of cap space and a scheme with proven high-end fantasy production at the position.
BEST OF THE REST
- Gerald Everett is similar to Jonnu Smith in that he simply hasn’t ever been afforded enough opportunity to put up big numbers. The Rams’ athletically gifted TE isn’t afraid to help block, but he *should* make his money more so thanks to his receiving ability. Don’t be afraid to bet on the rising fifth-year veteran to explode in 2021 if given the first full-time starting job of his career.
- Rob Gronkowski is seemingly set to return to the Buccaneers; the question is for how much. Credit to Gronk for posting a 6-67-2 receiving line in the Super Bowl and for continuing to function as an excellent blocker in 2020; the return of both him and O.J. Howard would give the Bucs one of the league’s best one-two punches at the position.
- Kyle Rudolph isn’t washed by any stretch of the imagination, but he was forced to work evenly alongside the talented young Irv Smith over the past two seasons. It seems unlikely Rudolph is afforded the opportunity to serve as anyone’s No. 1 or No. 2 option in the passing game, but five-plus scores are in reach inside of the right offense.
- Jordan Reed impressed in 2020… when healthy. The soon-to-be 31-year-old TE has played in just 75 of a possible 128 games since entering the league in 2013. It’ll likely take an injury to one of his future teammates at the position for Reed to be slotted in as anything resembling an every-down player.
- Trey Burton has performed well with a committee role throughout his career but struggled to establish himself as the go-to option during his time with the Bears. He offers positional versatility with the ability to line up under center and can cause mismatch problems when teams attempt to guard him with a linebacker or safety.
- Mo Alie-Cox is a restricted free agent who tentatively is expected to return to the Colts. He’s allegedly 6-foot-5 and 267 pounds, but on the television the man looks about 7-foot-8 and 350 pounds. The (wait for it) former basketball player has all the upside in the world; it’s just unlikely we see him land a full-time starting role if back with the Colts’ multi-TE heavy offense.
- Robert Tonyan is a restricted free agent and fully expected to return to the Packers. He caught 60 of 66 targets with 12 scores in 2020, literally doubling his incompletions with scores. Madness; don’t be surprised if Tonyan is again a high-end fantasy TE1 next season.
- Jared Cook seemed to lose a step in 2020, although the presence of noodle-armed Drew Brees and whatever the hell Taysom Hill is certainly didn’t help matters. Thirty-four in April, it seems unlikely we see Cook flirting with more than 50 or so targets anywhere in 2021.
- Tyler Eifert has played in 31 of 32 games over the past two seasons; the problem is that he’s set back-to-back career-low marks in yards per target and looks like a shell of his former self. Chasing Eifert’s 13 TDs from 2015 was a bad idea long ago.
- Richard Rodgers quietly balled out with the Eagles when given the opportunity in 2020; at least we know the man carries some upside if a spot start happens to come along.
- Josh Hill, the Saints’ longtime block-first TE, would only muddle up another team’s situation, not enhance it (in terms of fantasy).
- Demetrius Harris averaged a horrific 3.2 yards per target with the Bears after flashing with the Chiefs over the years; Harris likely won’t ever be a full-time TE and could struggle to even land a committee role at this point.
- Dan Arnold was used as a borderline wide receiver with the Cardinals and found success doing so. Someone embracing him as their big slot is a fun pipe dream; just be careful about assuming rational decision making when it comes to these sorts of tweeners.
- Tyler Kroft was low-key one of the league’s higher-paid players at the position with the Bills and could steal snaps away from a more fantasy-friendly receiver type elsewhere.
- Jacob Hollister is just 27 and looked the part of an NFL starter for stretches of the last two seasons with the Seahawks.
- Virgil Green is a block-first veteran who has caught exactly one TD in seven straight years. Here’s to hoping Green continues his streak somewhere in 2021.
- Blake Bell couldn’t find a way to steal snaps from Dalton Schultz even after Blake Jarwin was lost for the season. The “Belldozer” has the tools, but it’d be surprising to ever seen him function as a full-time starter.