News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Tight Ends

Dec 17, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (86) celebrates his touchdowns scored against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. TE Hunter Henry

At the beginning of his career, it looked as though Hunter Henry was set to become the league’s next great tight end. His first two seasons in the league featured overall PFF grades of 83.0 and then 87.2, but then injuries really began to bite. He missed almost the entirety of 2018, and though he has returned to be a productive player, has never quite recaptured that initial form.

There is still plenty of time for that to happen, however, even if his ceiling has been reset — Henry has ranked 14th and 18th over the last two years. He is a productive and capable tight end with plenty of tools to be an excellent receiver in any offense. Henry has the size to box defenders out underneath, the savvy to find holes in a defense and enough route-running skills to separate over the middle.

Contract Analysis: Henry battled back from a torn ACL suffered in 2018 to regain most of his form before hitting free agency. The optics coming off a $10.6M 2020 franchise tag should boost his value as well.

Prediction: Chargers sign Henry for four years, $48 million ($12M APY): $23.5M total guaranteed, $16.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. TE Jonnu Smith

Smith’s calling card in the NFL has been his work after the catch, where he has averaged 6.8 yards after the catch per reception over his career.

In 2019, he broke 14 tackles on just 41 receptions to average 7.5 yards after the catch per reception as part of the vastly improved Titans offense with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. His threat is less of a secret to NFL teams in 2020, and he has found it a little more difficult to escape for big plays, but he still finished with a career-high 75.2 PFF grade.

Smith has yet to be a high-volume target in the offense — his career-high in targets over a season is still just 63. A more prominent role that taps into Smith’s receiving skills could lead to a big increase from Smith’s career-highs of 41 catches and 448 receiving yards.

Smith will be an enticing prospect for a team with a major need at tight end that will look to scale up his opportunity and see a corresponding jump in his impact on the offense. Smith’s blocking is the weaker area of his game, but that has become less of an issue for the position as the years have gone by.

Contract Analysis: Smith will be a valuable commodity this offseason, as the 2020 campaign illustrated just how hard it is to find a dynamic athlete at tight end. Tennessee will want to retain him, but they’re going to have a very difficult time doing so.

Prediction: Jaguars sign Smith for four years, $38 million ($9.5M APY): $20.5M total guaranteed, $15M fully guaranteed at signing.

3. TE Gerald Everett

Gerald Everett is an athletic move tight end who has taken advantage of his role within the Rams’ offense to put up some solid numbers in a limited workload. He has averaged more than 5.0 yards after the catch in his career and broken 30 tackles on 130 catches in his career. Given his age and upside, as well as his relatively small workload throughout his NFL career, he could be an intriguing option for a team looking to get more athletic at the position and expand its passing game options.

Contract Analysis: The Rams extended tight end Tyler Higbee in 2019 before extending both Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods this past offseason. Whatever Everett signs for, it’s doubtful the Rams will be the team that offers it.

Prediction: Bengals sign Everett for three years, $15 million ($5M APY).

4. TE Rob Gronkowski

It’s deceiving to have Gronkowski on any free agent list, as he’s made it clear he wants to play with Tom Brady alone, so expect a Bucs reunion if Gronkowski returns in 2021. He’s no longer the Hall of Fame-caliber tight end he once was, but Gronkowski is still a versatile blocker and a capable receiving threat. He has enough tools to threaten the defense up the seam or in the red zone, and he’s a necessary complementary threat that pairs well with the Bucs’ strong receiving corps.

Contract Analysis: Gronkowski likely has a list of teams that is one (1) team long, so there’s not much excitement here. Rob & Tom Take Tampa 2 (no pun intended).

Prediction: Buccaneers sign Gronkowski for one year, $10 million: $10 million fully guaranteed at signing.

5. TE Jared Cook

A 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end who can run a 40-yard dash in the 4.4s, Jared Cook has always been a player with the potential for monster production in the passing game. And while he’s never quite put up that kind of production, he has been a consistently productive weapon.

Cook has a PFF receiving grade of at least 72.8 in each of the past three seasons, generating a 100.0-plus passer rating when targeted each year, too. There are teams out there for which Cook would represent a significant upgrade.

Contract Analysis: Cook will be 34 years old this offseason at a position not exactly known for longevity. However, he certainly lived up to his two-year, $15 million deal with New Orleans. 

Prediction: If Cook doesn’t retire, he signs a one-year, $5 million deal with the Colts.

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