With free agency and the draft in the rearview, NFL 90-man rosters are starting to take shape. It will be a while before we can start to nail down final 53s, but for now we can at least start to piece together where teams are strongest, deepest, most talented, and conversely where they're thin or threatened.
I included 16 NFL clubs on my list today, all teams a realistic shot at being among the NFL's best at the position in 2014. Considering most teams keep only two or three tight ends on their roster, this position is a bit hard to rank as groups, but again, I've tried to take overall talent, quality depth and production into account. Teams with two, three or more talented starter-caliber tight ends are certainly ahead of the game. As I've said on every previous article, I'm sure I overrated, underrated, or forgot about a couple teams with talent and depth at tight end within my list.
(italics indicates a rookie)
The Eagles have an embarrassment of riches at the tight end position, with legitimate starters in Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and James Casey -- and this trio makes them maybe the deepest team at the position.
Ertz, the former All-American for Stanford that Philly selected in the second round of last year's draft, busted into Chip Kelly's offense as a rookie and caught 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns. Not to be outdone, veteran Brent Celek had more yardage and scores on fewer catches, registering 32 receptions for 502 yards with six touchdowns. Both figure to feature prominently into Kelly's plans in 2014, and the Eagles will certainly hope to get more production out of 2013 free agent signee James Casey, who only played 13 percent of Philadelphia's offensive snaps and made three catches after signing a three-year, $14 million deal. Casey, who has played both fullback and tight end in his career and moves well at either spot, does profile as the type of player Kelly wants to get onto the field.
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With Chip's breakneck pace and no-huddle philosophy, tight ends in his scheme must be versatile enough to play inside on the line, in the slot or even wideout running routes up the sideline. The reason for this is that when running the no-huddle or hurry-up offense, you must eschew substitutions and rely on your players' ability to line up in different formations and execute different assignments. Ertz and Celek are definitely well-suited for this and produced well in 2013. Casey projects as the type of athlete who could be used all over the field as well, so the Eagles have some options and depth.
In addition to these three, former Cincinnati Bearcat TE Blake Annen joins the fold. Annen too projects as a highly athletic "move" type of tight end who can also play inside on the line for run plays. He ran a 4.41 40 at 6'5, 247 pounds, so he's a guy who can stretch the field vertically.
TE Jimmy Graham, TE Benjamin Watson, TE Josh Hill, TE Nic Jacobs, TE Je'Ron Hamm
The Saints are embroiled in a dispute with Jimmy Graham as to whether he's really a tight end or receiver, but for the purpose of this series, we'll call him a tight end. He's undoubtedly one of the NFL's best pass catchers at the position, and pretty much everywhere he lines up, he presents a mismatch issue for defenders. His size/speed ratio and absurd catch radius allow Drew Brees to target Graham over the middle, at the sideline and especially in the red zone, and Graham caught an impressive 86 passes (best among tight ends) for 1,215 yards (best among tight ends) and an NFL-high 16 touchdowns in 2013.
While Graham's major role and prolific numbers carry his group to this elite ranking, the underrated veteran Ben Watson should not be forgotten. Watson, a former first-round pick of the Patriots, is obviously heavily overshadowed in New Orleans, but caught a respectable 19 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns in 2013. Where he's more effective, though, is as a run blocker, and his ability to factor into the run game while also providing reliable hands in the pass game (zero drops on 31 targets), makes him a nice complementary piece to the superstar in Graham. Josh Hill, a former UDFA, should not be forgotten and while he's not as athletic as the likes of Graham, he also presents Drew Brees a huge target with a big catch radius.
The Saints also added two of the more interesting UDFA tight end prospects from this year's class in Nic Jacobs and Je'Ron Hamm. Jacobs started at LSU before transferring to McNeese State, and is another enormous potential target for Drew Brees over the middle at 6'5, 270 pounds. Hamm played receiver at Louisiana-Monroe but projects well as an H-back type of move tight end with New Orleans. He's 6'3, 233 pounds and has outstanding athleticism.
TE Joseph Fauria, TE Eric Ebron, TE Brandon Pettigrew, TE Michael Williams, TE Jacob Maxwell, TE James Franklin
Joseph Fauria looks like a potential breakout player for the Lions in 2014, and showed his value as a red zone threat last year by scoring seven touchdowns on limited targets from Matt Stafford. Fauria, all 6'7 of him, only dropped one pass on 30 targets in his rookie season and gives the Lions an absurd size mismatch on pretty much any defense when paired with Calvin Johnson on the field.
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Add in veteran Brandon Pettigrew, who despite a reputation for poorly timed drops and fumbles, re-signed with the team during the offseason and provides an experienced, veteran presence to the group. The former first-round pick will likely be used more in an inline blocking role for the Lions, though, as they look to set loose 2014 first-round draft pick Eric Ebron on their opponents.
Ebron was pretty universally recognized as his class's top tight end prospect and at 6'4 and 250 pounds, he runs routes like a nimble receiver, displays soft hands to pluck the ball out of the air, and is a very strong runner after the catch. The Lions are the all-size team and with Megatron, Fauria and Ebron on the field at the same time, they not only have incredible size, they've got speed and agility to boot. Figuring out how to defend this team, especially with a gunslinger like Stafford throwing the football, should be interesting.
TE Julius Thomas, TE Jacob Tamme, TE Joel Dreessen, TE Virgil Green, TE Cameron Morrah
Julius Thomas broke onto the scene in 2013, catching 65 passes from Peyton Manning for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, third-best among NFL tight ends. Thomas is the prototypical "move" tight end in Denver's usual three-receiver, one-back personnel grouping, able to block inline when asked to but extremely adept running routes as a receiver when the Broncos spread things out. Thomas lines up in the slot and can run underneath routes just as well as he's able to flex outside and run routes outside the numbers or take a screen pass upfield while making defenders miss in the open field. He's a dangerous weapon in Denver's potent passing offense and should only improve with more experience in 2014.
Backing up Thomas is a duo of experienced and solid starter-caliber veterans in Jacob Tamme (20 catches and zero drops in 2013) and Joel Dreessen. Virgil Green remains a physically high-ceiling player with potential to leapfrog Tamme/Dreessen on the depth chart and log significant snaps in 2014. Green, like Thomas, is a moveable chess piece because of his athleticism, and even took a snap at running back in the playoffs last year.
The damn good
Jermaine Gresham, a former first-rounder and two-time Pro Bowler, shared the spotlight with rookie Tyler Eifert in 2013 and the two combined for 85 catches, 903 yards and six touchdowns. Both bring different skills to the table -- Gresham is more of a traditional tight end at 6'5, 260 pounds and Eifert is the new-school type of "move" tight end with high-level athleticism and the ability to run routes more like a receiver -- and both should be heavily targeted by Andy Dalton in 2014.
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Joining the fray is longtime veteran Alex Smith, who is insurance for Gresham's recent hernia surgery or a solid veteran presence as a third tight end on the final roster. The wild card is 2012 fourth-rounder Orson Charles, who I list here at his original position as tight end, though he played fullback in 2013. Charles' versatility and history as a pass catcher factors in and rounds out a really deep group of tight ends for the Bengals.
Vernon Davis is one of the NFL's best athletes and sits among the elite at the tight end position. He matched his career high in yards per catch (16.3) and touchdowns (13) in 2013 and as quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to develop, Davis remains one of his top targets. He should benefit from a deeper San Francisco group of receiving options as well, taking some of the defensive focus off of him.
Davis, like many of the top tight ends on this list, is a mismatch nightmare, able to stretch the field vertically and run away from safeties and linebackers with ease. Even at 30, Davis remains a speed threat, but his ability to sit down and find the open spots in zones, pluck tough throws out of the air and break tackles after the catch make him such a dangerous red zone threat.
2013 second-round pick Vance McDonald had a quiet rookie season but possesses the size, speed, athleticism and power to become a well-rounded dual-threat in San Francisco's system. With a year of experience under his belt allowing the game to slow down a little bit, it wouldn't surprise me to see McDonald become a major part of the offense for the Niners in 2014.
TE Dwayne Allen, TE Coby Fleener, TE Weslye Saunders, TE Jack Doyle, TE Erik Swoope
Dwayne Allen missed the entire 2013 season after his fabulous breakout rookie year, but should return to the fold in 2014 to pick up where he left off as a major and dependable target for Andrew Luck.
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He'll be paired with Coby Fleener, Luck's former teammate at Stanford, who caught 52 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns in his second season in the NFL. Fleener proved to be very sure-handed, and per Pro Football Focus' tracking, only dropped one pass on 53 targets, the best ratio among tight ends in 2013. This one-two punch has the potential to become one of the best combinations at the tight end position in the years to come.
Adding depth to the spot, Weslye Saunders and Jack Doyle are both interesting prospects -- Saunders in particular possesses very high talent potential and physical upside, but has a history of off-field issues and has already been suspended by the NFL twice for performance-enhancing drugs.
TE Jason Witten, TE Gavin Escobar, TE James Hanna, TE Jordan Najvar
Jason Witten is still one of the best in the game at the position, a true prototype Y tight end who can both block and run/catch with aplomb. Incredibly, Witten's 73 catches last year -- an amazing season by a tight end -- was his lowest total since 2006, but he did notch eight touchdowns, the second-best output of his career. Knowing Witten isn't getting any younger, the Cowboys have also gotten deeper at the position with the additions of Gavin Escobar, his likely protege, and James Hanna, an athletic move tight end with very good speed.
So, while Witten remains a mainstay in the Cowboy offense and a favorite of QB Tony Romo, he'll have a little help behind him as Escobar enters his second year and looks to improve on his rookie season in which he caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
The 33-year old (but seemingly ageless) Antonio Gates, despite slowing down over the years, remains one of the most prolific pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, and added 77 receptions to his career total (now 719) in 2013. While he's likely to remain a steady, dependable option for Philip Rivers, Ladarius Green will be an interesting potential breakout star in 2014, possessing great size, athleticism, agility and speed at the position. Green caught 17 passes for 376 yards in three touchdowns last year but it would not surprise me to see those numbers double next season.
TE Zach Miller, TE Luke Willson, TE Anthony McCoy, TE Cooper Helfet, TE Chase Dixon, TE Rashaun Allen
Zach Miller is quietly one of the better run/pass-blocking tight ends in the league and is a dependable option for Russell Wilson in the pass game. He hasn't produced the volume that he was able to while in Oakland now that he's in Seattle's run-first offense, but he rarely drops the ball, and has come up with some extremely timely catch-and-run first downs over the past two seasons.
Miller is joined by veteran Anthony McCoy again in 2014 after McCoy sat out all of last season with an Achilles tear. The former USC product has great size and athleticism and can be depended on to both release into pass routes or stay inline to block. Rounding out the probable group is Luke Willson, a second-year pro who emerged last year as a surprise fifth-round pick for Seattle that got onto the field immediately as a rookie. Willson has great speed for his size and is an underrated blocker in the run game and in pass protection.
Veteran pass-catching tight end Owen Daniels joins Dennis Pitta, looking to rebound from an injury-shortened 2013 season, and the two should provide Joe Flacco with some interesting options in the pass game. Both are solid route runners and catch the ball well, and both have a lot of experience. Add in rookie Crockett Gillmore, who possesses great size at 6'6, 260 pounds and is known to be a strong inline blocker, and the Ravens potentially have a strong group at the tight end position.
Jordan Reed has been compared (as a player) to Aaron Hernandez, and the former Florida standout looked very promising in his rookie year as he racked up 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns. He'll likely improve on that output in 2014 with a more healthy RGIII and a beefed-up receiving corps beside him, and he can be used in a variety of roles and can be asked to line up all over the formation.
Logan Paulsen -- who is a solid inline blocker with dependability as a pass catcher -- and Niles Paul are nice pieces of depth in the rotation. Rookie Ted Bolser has a shot at the roster.
TE Kyle Rudolph, TE Rhett Ellison, TE Chase Ford, TE Allen Reisner, TE AC Leonard
Kyle Rudolph is a very solid Y tight end with excellent size and power. He caught 30 passes in an injury-shortened 2013 season but could approach 60 or more in his fourth year with the team. He's an enormous red zone threat who bullies defenders on his way to the football, and will look to best his career-high nine touchdowns from the 2012 season.
Rhett Ellison is a throwback type of H-back, a hybrid fullback/tight end with soft hands and chops in the blocking game. AC Leonard is a very intriguing prospect as a "move" tight end with speed and agility, and the speed of the former Florida transfer would be very intriguing next to Cordarrelle Patterson in a formation.
TE Lance Kendricks, TE Jared Cook, TE Justice Cunningham, TE Cory Harkey, TE Alex Bayer
The Rams have a solid duo of tight ends in Lance Kendricks and Jared Cook, but Cook in particular carries weight with this ranking for me. The former Titan quietly racked up 51 catches and five touchdowns in 2013 but looks poised to improve on those numbers next year with improved chemistry with Sam Bradford and familiarity with the offense. Cook's athleticism makes him comparable to Vernon Davis from a size/speed point of view, and he's got that seam-stretching ability that should scare defenses on every snap.
TE Brandon Myers, TE Tim Wright, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE Luke Stocker, TE Ian Thompson
I like this group in Tampa Bay. Brandon Myers is a solid veteran option in the passing game -- he caught 47 passes for the Giants last year after catching 79 for the Raiders in 2012 -- and acts as a bridge until Austin Seferian-Jenkins can get up to speed. The rookie out of Washington projects as an instant-impact player, and possesses excellent length and athleticism to contribute in the run game and in the red zone.
It will eventually be fun to see Seferian-Jenkins paired on the field with Tim Wright, who had a mini-breakout year as a rookie after moving to the move tight end position. Wright, who was a receiver in college, caught 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, and could factor into the game plan again in 2014.
The wild card
New England Patriots
TE Rob Gronkowski, TE D.J. Williams, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, TE Justin Jones, TE Asa Watson, TE Kyle Auffray
You've probably been wondering where the hell Gronk was in all this. Well, as I've done with my wild card sections in previous articles, I'll include the Patriots here because of their "elite" potential, contingent upon the ability to have the best tight end in the game for 16 games in 2014. The problem with listing Gronkowski and company any earlier is that Gronk has had issues staying on the field during the past two years, and the depth behind him isn't necessarily awe-inspiring.
That said, Gronkowski is almost empirically the best tight end in the game, and his talent and production carries uncommon weight in a ranking like this. No other tight end in the league can match Gronkowski's rare abilities as a prolific pass catcher and devastating inline blocker, so he gets special consideration. If Gronk is healthy in 2014, he pushes the Patriots way, way up this list. If he again has issues with his elbow or knee, there are definite questions at the tight end position for Belichick and company.
Cleveland, with Jordan Cameron, Jim Dray, Gary Barnidge and MarQueis Gray
Carolina, with Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson and Mike McNeill
Miami, with Charles Clay, Dion Sims, Michael Egnew and Arthur Lynch
New York Jets, with Jeff Cumberland, Jace Amaro and Zach Sudfeld
Kansas City, with Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce and Sean McGrath
Houston, with Garrett Graham, C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin
I'm not going to pretend I got all these into the correct groupings, and I'm sure I left a few candidates off the list, so in the comments below, let me know where you differ in opinion or let me know where I missed the mark.