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More 2019 free agents: Tight Ends

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It may be time to replace Vernon Davis; does veteran free agency hold any opportunities for replacing him?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers Phillip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

In my earlier review based on a Top-50 free agents list, only one tight end was featured: 32-year-old Jared Cook.

There are some interesting veteran free agent tight ends available to supplement a very strong draft class. Today I’ll shine the light briefly on four players:

  • Maxx Williams
  • Jesse James
  • Nick Boyle
  • Tyler Kroft

For reference, here is the top of the list of NFL tight ends, in order of annual average salary, as per OverTheCap:

The current Redskins depth chart is pretty simple:

  1. Jordan Reed
  2. Vernon Davis
  3. Jeremy Sprinkle

Of course, a few players got a look last season as injuries bit deeper and deeper into the ‘Skins roster:

  • Matt Flanagan
  • J.P. Holtz
  • Mannasseh Garner

These latter three seem destined for a career as depth/practice squad players, and the Redskins may have need of a legitimate playmaker in 2019.

It is very possible that popular player and strong contributor, Vernon Davis, may become a cap casualty. The Redskins can save $5m in cap space by cutting him.

But that would leave a gaping hole in the roster, as the Redskins need a reliable backup with playmaking ability to step in for Jordan Reed when (not if) he goes down with injury.

It is even conceivable that Reed, who has talent but is too often injured, could be cut if the front office feels that his cap hits of $9.6m, $10.3m, and $9m over the coming three seasons simply aren’t justified.

There may be room to completely re-make this 3-man unit by releasing both Reed & Davis (creating $11m in cap space) and replacing them with a veteran playmaker and a draft pick.

At the very least, I think fans should be prepared to see the front office move on from Vernon Davis, even if it simply means giving his cap money to a younger player with a longer future career ahead of him.

Free agency begins in earnest on 10 March, and players can sign new contracts from 4pm on 13 March, so, if the Redskins are going to cut some veterans for cap space, expect the cuts to be announced imminently.

Maxx Williams, Ravens

NFL: Pro Hall of Fame Game-Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of Redskins fans liked Maxx Williams coming out of college, and he was a popular pick in mock drafts in the 2015 off season. He ended up being drafted in the 2nd round, 55th overall, by the Ravens.

He hasn’t really distinguished himself or lived up to his draft expectations, playing in just 42 games and amassing less than 500 yards and 3 touchdowns in his career. He missed virtually the entire 2016 season, in which he didn’t record a statistic, and hasn’t managed to appear in more than 13 games since playing in 14 during his rookies season.

For a fan base frustrated with Jordan Reed’s lack of game availability, WiIliams looks like a bad fit.

Jesse James, Pittsburgh

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

At 6’7” and 261 pounds, James was a beast coming out of Penn State in 2015, but wasn’t drafted until the 5th round when the Steelers, looking to replace the aging Heath Miller, picked him.

Unlike Maxx Williams, who was taken more than 100 spots higher in the draft, James has paid off pretty well for the team that drafted him.

Since missing half of his rookie season, James has played in every game for the past three years, caching 2 to 3 balls per game for around 370 yards per season. He has scored 9 touchdowns in his career.

When compared to the stats put up by Jordan Reed, or even Vernon Davis, these numbers aren’t eye-popping, but James was filling a role in a very different type of offense where he was competing for touches with Le’veon Bell, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and others.

With Jay Gruden and the Redskins’ tight end friendly offense, James could likely double his production, and his physically dominating size would be a welcome addition to a Redskins team that seems, increasingly, to be looking for bigger targets in the pass game, and better blockers in the run game.

James certainly doesn’t sound like a man who will shed tears at the thought of leaving the team that drafted him; and it may be that he Steelers won’t be losing sleep over letting him walk either:

If Jesse James has played his last game for his hometown team, he did so at the end of a season in which the Steelers, he said, were too distracted.

“Ah man, we are — Kardashians. We have, I mean, we’re something,” James said. “It’s Le’Veon Bell issues, you have more stuff popping up weekly, Jeremy Fowler’s reporting stuff about Le’Veon every other week. There’s just people calling people out.

“We were in the front of the ticker on ESPN too much for just reasons that weren’t related to football and not for us playing great ball. It was more distractions.”

Though Vance McDonald was the preferred passing target in the position, James noted how much he’s played in his time in Pittsburgh. McDonald caught 50 passes from 72 targets this year. James got 30 receptions from 39 targets on two fewer snaps than McDonald in 2018.

McDonald, who’s contracted to the team through 2020, was the second veteran tight end the Steelers acquired, then played over James when they could, starting last season. Ladarius Green in 2016 was the first.

It’s hard to understand why James would have played second banana to Ladarius Green or Vance McDonald. He seems as physically gifted as either of them, and his statistical production when he touched the ball wasn’t really worse.

James has been consistently healthy over the past three seasons. He’s a big-bodied competitor that would add size to Jay Gruden’s offense. At just 24 years old, James could easily replace Vernon Davis, probably without increasing the 2019 salary cap burden, and has the potential to offer the Redskins a smooth transition whenever they are ready to move on from Jordan Reed.

In a rare situation, the Redskins may be one of the most attractive opportunities around for this pending free agent. Washington has an offense that Jay Gruden has often said “runs through Jordan Reed”. Jesse James may have the opportunity to step in as an important part of the offense in 2019, and then provide a seamless transition into the team’s premier pass-catching tight end in 2020 and beyond.

This is a veteran free agent target I like a lot.

Round peg, round hole.

Nick Boyle, Ravens

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Never mind:

Boyle (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) operated basically as a tight end-fullback hybrid in 2018. He often acted as a lead blocker for a ground game that, sparked by rookie Lamar Jackson’s insertion as the starting quarterback, finished No. 2 in the league with 152.6 rushing yards a game.

Nick Boyle, let me introduce you to Jay Gruden, a man who simply doesn’t believe in using fullbacks.

Boyle, a fifth-round pick out of Delaware in 2015, played 651 snaps last year, about 240 more than any other Ravens tight end. He started 24 games the past two seasons after missing 14 games during his first two years due to a pair of suspensions for violations of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

With Hayden Hurst being drafted 25th overall last year, the Ravens simply have more tight ends than they really need. It seems a sure thing that they will let Maxx Williams walk; Boyle may have a hard time finding a team that will make use of his talents as effectively as Baltimore has been able to.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boyle test the market, then return to the Ravens as the backup tight end. In any event, I don’t see him as the best fit for Jay Gruden’s Redskins.

Tyler Kroft, Bengals

NFL: Detroit Lions at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Kroft emerged as a solid receiving threat for the Bengals in 2017, when he had 42 catches for 404 yards and seven touchdowns.

Last year, he broke a bone in his foot and saw his season cut short at just 4 receptions and 36 yards.

The question is whether 2017 represents a fluke, or whether it’s merely an indication of what Kroft is capable of.

The 3rd round draft pick out of Rutgers has had inconsistent production in his 4-year career. For a hint about what his upside is, I looked back to a draft profile from 2015:

A versatile athlete who played tight end (two years) and wide receiver (one year) at Rutgers, Tyler Kroft is a tough matchup for defenses. Kroft is quicker than he is fast and gets going with good buildup speed. He has the body to add more muscle and is still a green player at tight end. Kroft can line up in the slot, in the backfield or in-line to attack the defense. A very strong blocker, he is both willing and tough at the point of attack and will nag defenders through the play; he looks to dominate the block. Kroft is the type of athlete teams want running the seam, and his height makes him a threat in the end zone on jump balls or fade routes.

He’s a tweener with tight-end speed and a wide-receiver body. An average athlete with good quickness and size, Kroft has the tools to be a long-term starter. Athletically and style-wise, he’s an Owen Daniels clone.

His draft projection was “a quality backup”.

The Bengals have Tyler Eifert as a starter; I could see Kroft returning to Cincy as a backup if he doesn’t find a more promising situation in free agency.

With the Redskins, he could be a low-cost replacement for Vernon Davis — a flexible tight end option that would contribute to an improvement in Washington’s salary cap situation and provide help for both the running and passing attacks.

Poll

What should the Redskins do this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Stick with the current players: Reed, Davis and Sprinkle.
    (16 votes)
  • 21%
    Replace Davis with a draft pick
    (54 votes)
  • 18%
    Replace Davis with a free agent
    (45 votes)
  • 53%
    Get rid of Reed and Davis — get younger and cheaper
    (132 votes)
247 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Of the players highlighted in this article, when you take into consideration history, talent, age, likely contract, and so on, which one would you most want the Redskins front office to prioritize if they signed a veteran free agent TE this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Maxx Williams
    (9 votes)
  • 81%
    Jesse James
    (193 votes)
  • 7%
    Nick Boyle
    (17 votes)
  • 7%
    Tyler Kroft
    (19 votes)
238 votes total Vote Now