USA TODAY Sports
It might happen. It might not happen. Regardless, the Falcons need to prepare for life after Tony Gonzalez.
If you're an Atlanta Falcons fan, don't read the next line. Or, really, the entire story, because there will be a question you don't want to hear or even contemplate.
What do the Falcons do if Tony Gonzalez really does retire?
Falcons fans are on the verge of jumping up and down because of the reports that Gonzalez might be back next season. At one point he said he was 95 percent sure he was going to retire. Then he said he would "probably" retire. Then it looked like 50/50. Now? Gonzalez has started to waver on retirement.
But there is still a chance Tony G. calls it quits. So how do they replace him? They have three options: Internally, through free agency or through the draft.
Here's a look at all three options.
Yes, even the best players have backups. That includes Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez played in all 16 games last season and started in 15, but there are other tight ends on the roster. Michael Palmer is a third-year tight end out of Clemson. He played in 13 games last season, catching six passes for 22 yards and a touchdown.
Another option: third-year tight end Chase Coffman out of Missouri. Coffman was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, but lasted just two years with the team before joining the Falcons. He caught one pass in five games, but The Falcoholic thinks he could be a replacement for Gonzalez -- if he lives up to his potential.
With Coffman, it's all about improvement. If the Falcons see that Coffman is making strides over the offseason, or if they liked what they got from him last year, maybe they'll give him a shot. But for a third round pick, Coffman has done nothing in his NFL career.
There's a hitch with Palmer, too: He's a restricted free agent. However, there isn't much stopping the Falcons from bringing him back if they want to.
Could either player replace Gonzalez? It comes down to faith. If the coaches saw something last year that they liked, they could move forward with one or both. Stats won't win the job for either player, though.
The tough thing here is knowing what the Falcons want in a tight end. Odds are, they want someone who plays the game like Gonzalez. They want an athletic pass-catcher, essentially, who is just as dangerous as a receiver split wide.
That's asking a lot, but there are a few "Tony Gonzalez Lites" out there.
Fred Davis may fit that mold. Davis, 27, played in just seven games for the Washington Redskins last season before tearing his Achilles tendon. That's one of the big problems for Davis: He isn't healthy. He is still rehabbing from the Achilles injury. Redskins general manager Bruce Allen said Davis is progressing well but they won't know until the spring how he is really doing.
He was also suspended for four games in 2011 for violating the league's drug policy. He faces a year-long suspension if he's caught again. That's a lot of baggage for one player, but there is upside. When healthy -- and not suspended -- he's athletic and has good hands. In the right system, he could be explosive.
Another similarly gifted tight end is Jared Cook, who has spent his entire four-year career with the Tennessee Titans. Cook, 25, requested a trade last year, but it wasn't granted. In 2012 he played in 13 games, catching 44 passes for 523 yards.
Cook has a lot of potential, but it's hard to fulfill that potential when stuck with one of the worst offenses in the league. He'd fit right in with the Falcons, but as of now it looks like the Titans will bring Cook back with the franchise tag.
One last free agent who might work well in the Falcons offense is Delanie Walker. The 28-year-old Walker has spent his entire seven-year career with the San Francisco 49ers, but he has never started more than 10 games in a season. He's overshadowed by Vernon Davis in the offense, so he might look elsewhere for a starting job.
In the latest SB Nation NFL mock draft, Dan Kadar does not have a tight end being drafted in the first round. That means, if the Falcons want one of the tight ends in this year's draft, they can get him.
The top tight ends in this year's class are Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert and Stanford's Zach Ertz. Both check in at 6'6 and about 250 pounds. Eifert has "vacuum hands" and great hand-eye coordination. Ertz led the nation in receiving yards in 2012. Like Eifert, Ertz is versatile and it "looks like he has glue on his hands with some of the catches he makes." Either could be groomed to be a future starting tight end for the Falcons.
San Diego State's Gavin Escobar would also fit nicely as a Tony Gonzalez replacement. Escobar looks more like a wide receiver, but he can play both positions. Like Gonzalez, he can get in the air and adjust to the ball to make a variety of catches.
But remember, even if Gonzalez comes back, the Falcons could draft one of these tight ends or another in April. Because who better to mold them for the future than a future Hall of Famer?