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The top free agent tight ends of 2016

This is a top-heavy class that gets pretty thin after the big names.

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Jim Steve-USA TODAY Sports

This year's group of free agent tight ends is interesting in a lot of ways, even if it's not a marquee class like most of the other positions. There are some high-upside talents, but for the most part it's top heavy, and teams that miss out on the big names may have to do some discount shopping.

With the rise of the passing game in today's NFL, the tight end has become an increasingly valuable piece of a team's offensive scheme. Two of the most productive offenses in the league last year -- the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers -- each featured tight ends as their leading receivers. The most well-rounded tight ends also provide an extra layer of pass protection, something that is critical with quarterbacks dropping back more and more every year.

Antonio Gates is perhaps the biggest name this offseason, but he seems certain to finish out his Hall of Fame career in San Diego. Behind Gates, there isn't a lot in name brand value that will excite a fan base, but teams that know what to look for could find a quality starter or two among this group.

Here are this year's top free agents at tight end. For more, check out our top 100 free agents of 2016 list.

Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers


Gates' place in NFL history as one of the all-time greatest tight ends is unquestionable after 104 touchdown receptions and eight trips to the Pro Bowl, but there are questions about how much gas he has left in the tank.

The future Hall of Fame tight end will turn 36 in June and struggled through a 2015 season that began with a four-game suspension and ended with him playing the latter half of a 4-12 year through a knee injury. Still, 56 receptions and five touchdowns aren't terrible numbers for any tight end and it's more impressive considering how the season went for Gates and the Chargers.

Gates hasn't made a Pro Bowl since 2011, but as long as he doesn't want to retire, he has shown he can still be one of the tougher tight ends in the NFL to defend and can be an impact player in 2016.

Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers


While playing second fiddle to Gates in San Diego, Green has always flashed potential in limited opportunities. He got his biggest chance to shine in 2015, when Gates started the season with a four-game suspension. Green had four touchdowns in his first six games, but he didn't score again after Week 7. Injuries limited him to 13 games and he finished the season with just 37 catches for 429 yards.

In a thin market for tight ends, Green could find himself in more demand than expected. He's still just 25 years old and has tantalizing measurements at 6'6, 240 pounds and a 4.53 40 time. Assuming Gates stays in San Diego, Green will most likely be looking for a team that gives him the undisputed starting job.

Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts


The Colts drafted Allen and Coby Fleener in the same year, intending to use them as part of a two-tight end package. That never quite materialized, thanks to a combination of injuries and underwhelming play. Allen showed some promise early in his career, catching 45 passes in his rookie year and scoring eight touchdowns in 2014.

Allen was marginalized in the 2015, playing more of a pure blocker mode and seeing just 16 catches in 13 games. He just turned 26 years old and may have enough potential left to win a starting job elsewhere this offseason.

Zach Miller, Chicago Bears


It took six years for the potential of a former collegiate quarterback to finally come to fruition in the NFL, but Miller burst on the scene late in the 2015 season. When he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he billed himself as a "poor man's Tim Tebow," but his athleticism and raw abilities never developed and injuries ended his career with the team that drafted him.

After missing 12 games in 2011 and the entire 2012 season, Miller was waived from the Jaguars injured reserve, spent the 2013 season on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad and the 2014 season on the Chicago Bears injured reserve. But four years after his last NFL appearance, Miller finally saw the field for Chicago and made an impact, quickly developing a rapport with Jay Cutler.

He caught a team-high five touchdown passes on the year, including a one-handed game winner in a Monday Night Football game against the San Diego Chargers. At age 31, Miller's lengthy injury history makes him a risky buy, but he displayed his potential as an impact player in 2015 and could be a cheap addition for an offense looking for playmakers.

Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts


Much like Allen, Fleener showed flashes of potential but has yet to put it all together. He peaked in 2014 with eight touchdowns and 774 receiving yards on 51 catches, but those numbers came down in 2015. Fleener finished last season with 54 catches, but turned those into just 491 yards and three touchdowns as Indianapolis' offense crumbled without Andrew Luck.

Of the two Indy tight ends, Fleener is the one most likely to re-sign, mostly because he stayed healthy and is a semi-productive pass catcher. Either way, he's not likely to command a high salary on the open market. Fleener would be better off staying with the Colts and a healthy Luck.