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Previewing 2020 free agents: Tight Ends

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Huge roster hole that needs filling

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, Jordan Reed is still under contract in 2020, and when he’s been on the field in his career, he’s been one of the best at his position. But he missed the entire 2019 season with a concussion that resulted from a dirty hit in the pre-season. Given his previous injury history — and especially his long history of concussions that dates back at least to his days playing college football — I don’t think anyone expects Jordan Reed to play football again in 2020. Many expect him to announce his retirement sometime in late February or early March, but even if Reed wants to keep playing, it’s very unlikely that the Redskins will welcome him and his $10.3m cap hit back to Redskins Park.

For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that Jordan Reed is already gone. Yes, he’s technically still under contract, but he is a dead man walking.

Likewise, Vernon Davis had his season cut short by a concussion. Unlike Reed, 2019 was the last year of Davis’ contract. I’d be surprised if he didn’t announce his retirement from football sometime this off-season, though he’s been in such phenomenal shape that I wouldn’t be shocked to see him play somewhere on a one-year contract to squeeze the last bit of juice out of his career.

The Redskins finished out the ‘19 season with third-year TE Jeremy Sprinkle and rookie Hale Hentges taking the offensive snaps. While Sprinkle looked like the 3rd string player that he’s been since being drafted by the ‘Skins in the 5th round of the ‘17 draft, Hentges — an undrafted player picked up off of waivers from the Colts — seemed to improve game by game down the stretch. By Weeks 16 & 17, it was Hentges who was being targeted, catching 6 passes for 90 yards in the final two games.

Hentges may have a career ahead of him in the NFL, but the Redskins are in need of at least one, and probably two, quality tight ends for the coming season.


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Many commenters have suggested that this year’s tight end options in the draft are uninspiring. If so, the Redskins probably need to look to free agency to fill at least one tight end spot on the roster.

There are some interesting veteran free agent tight ends expected to be available this off-season. Today I’ll shine the light on four players:

  • Austin Hooper
  • Hunter Henry
  • Eric Ebron
  • Tyler Eifert

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

Here is the current expected Redskins depth chart for the 2020 season based on current players under contract:

  1. Hale Hentges
  2. Jeremy Sprinkle
  3. Caleb Wilson

While Sprinkle, as a drafted player with three seasons, should probably be listed above Hentges, who was an undrafted rookie in ‘19, it feels like the former Alabama player earned his spot above Sprinkle with superior play in December, so I’m making a judgement call here.

It hardly matters. What does matter is that neither player is ready to be a starting tight end in the NFL. Hentges, however, seems to show more promise than Sprinkle.

Hentges had an overall offensive grade of 63.8 and a receiving grade of 63.5 from PFF. Sprinkle’s comparable grades were 49.7 and 50.0 respectively.

Caleb Wilson has never gotten on the field for the Redskins.

Pending free agent tight ends

Free agency begins in earnest on 16 March when teams can begin talking to players’ agents, and players can sign new contracts from 4pm on 18 March.

This article will look at four players who are currently on track to become Unrestricted Free Agents.

There are some other interesting options who are Restricted Free Agents (specifically Blake Jarwin of the Cowboys and Jacob Hollister of the Seahawks), but at the time of writing, I am expecting them to be tendered by their current teams. The deadline for tendering RFAs is 18 March, the day free agency begins.

Here are four potential veteran free agent targets for the Redskins to consider.

Austin Hooper, Atlanta Falcons

Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Austin Hooper is a top-5 player at his position who is likely to be available in free agency in March.

Free agency is rarely the place to find a top-10 talent at a position, but, as Redskins fans saw with Kirk Cousins, occasionally circumstances arise that cause a team and a top player to part ways.

I believe those circumstances have arisen in Atlanta because of a very bad salary cap situation. The Falcons top brass seemed to swing for the fences and miss in 2019; as a result, they have a roster that simply doesn’t match the salary cap restraints for 2020.

Source: OverTheCap

With just 42 players under contract, the Falcons are projected to be over the 2020 cap by more than a million dollars. Of the top ten players (ranked by salary cap impact) on the roster, 6 of them would worsen the Falcons salary cap position if they were to be cut or traded.

Absent some major contract restructuring (which means pushing cap hits from 2019 into later years as Jerry Jones used to do so often), the Falcons have only a limited number of players they can look to for significant cap savings:

  • Desmond Trufant
  • Alex Mack
  • Devonta Freeman
  • Ricardo Allen
  • Keanu Neal
  • Allen Bailey
  • Ty Sombrallo

Losing any of these players, of course, creates another roster position that the Falcons would have to fill, in addition to the 11 roster spots that are currently projected to be vacant.

I have no doubt that Thomas Dimitroff has a plan for getting the salary cap back in order, but I don’t see how that plan is likely to include re-signing Austin Hooper to a market value contract.

What is “market value” for Austin Hooper?

I went to Spotrac for guidance on that question.

Their answer is that Hooper should command about $9.9m per year, on a 5 year deal worth about $49.9m.

As you can see, they used the contracts of Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton for guidance on the contract value.

PFF has Hooper graded as the 8th best tight end in the league for 2019, with an overall grade of 78.3 and a receiving grade of 80.5.

Who exactly is Austin Hooper?

Hooper is a 25-year-old tight end who was drafted 81st overall (3rd round) out of Stanford in the 2016 draft. He’s 6’4” and 254 pounds, making him 3 inches taller, 12 pounds heavier, and 4 years younger than Jordan Reed.

Since coming into the league 4 years ago, he has become steadily more productive.

Noting that the 2019 numbers are for only 13 games, receptions and yards have climbed steadily, as has his touchdown production, first down production and the number of plays over 20 yards.

Hooper missed 3 games in November due to an MCL sprain, but seems to have fully recovered, as he had two of his most productive games of the season in back to back wins to close out the season, catching 7 passes in each of the final two weeks, following somewhat lower production in Weeks 14 & 15.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When you look at the statistics and ratings from the 2019 season, one in which Hooper missed three games with injury while playing on a Falcons team that struggled on both sides of the ball, he appears to be solidly in the top-10 tight ends in the league, likely ranking in the 4-8 range, with George Kittle, Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce probably comprising the top 3.

Looking at tight end receiving grades for players with a minimum of 20 targets, Hooper stacks up well, especially considering the fact that he had the fewest games (13) of any player ranked in the top 10:

  • Austin Hooper is ranked #7 in the league with an 80.7 PFF rating (George Kittle is ranked #1 at 94.6).
  • Hooper is 5th in receptions with 68 (Kelce #1 with 94).
  • Hooper is 4th among TE in TD receptions, with 6 (Mark Andrews #1 with 10).
  • Hooper ranks 9th in receiving percentage at 79.1% (Foster Moreau #1 at 91.3%).
  • Hooper ranks 6th in total yards at 742 (Kelce #1 at 1,205).
  • Hooper is 7th in yards after contact at 310 (Kittle is #1 at 573).
  • Hooper ranks 6th among NFL TEs in receiving first downs with 38 (Kelce is #1 at 65).
  • Hooper had no fumbles, 2 drops and 3 penalties in 12 games.

Hooper is a good player. He is likely to hit free agency, not because his team doesn’t want him, but because they can’t afford him.

Hunter Henry, Chargers

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Hunter Henry is 6’5”, 250 pounds and was drafted by the Chargers in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft. At just 25 years old, Henry approaches free agency in the prime of his career.

With the Chargers projected to have $54m in available cap space in 2020, it would be reasonable to ask why the Chargers wouldn’t be re-signing him.

Well, they might still re-sign the young tight end, but the Chargers’ cap space may not be as generous as it seems because Philip Rivers is at the end of his contract with the team, leaving the Chargers with Tyrod Taylor as their starting quarterback. They may decide to roll with Taylor and spend the cap space on weapons like Hunter Henry to help Tyrod out, but GM Tom Telesco might well go in search of a quarterback (Tom Brady or Eli Manning, anyone?) who might help the team bring home a Lombardi Trophy in the very short term.

All this is to say that Hunter Henry might or might not be available to the open market when March 18th rolls around.

But let’s assume that he will be, and see what that could mean for the Redskins.

PFF rates Henry as the #18 tight end in the league for 2019, with an overall grade of 73.1 and a receiving grade of 75.0.

The great concern about Henry isn’t his on-field production, but his health. After playing in 29 of a possible 32 games in his first two seasons, in 2018 he tore his ACL in May, and spent training camp and the regular season on the PUP list with a torn ACL.

He played in the opening game of the 2019 season, but suffered a tibia plateau fracture to his left knee. He left that game, and missed Weeks 2-5, returning Week 6.

Any thought that he is fragile, however, can probably be dismissed, as Henry went on to play in the final eleven games of the season, averaging 4.6 receptions, and 53 yards per game (11.52 avg). He also scored 5 TDs.

With 136 catches for 1,709 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 41 games played, Henry can be a dangerous threat in any system. His injury history is somewhat of a concern, but with the combination of speed and size that Henry possesses, he may just be worth the risk — and, as I said, he managed to play at a high level for his final 11 games of the ‘19 season.

What is “market value” for Hunter Henry?

I went to Spotrac for guidance on that question.

Spotrac estimates Henry’s value at $8.9m per year (or $1m per year less than Austin Hooper). They project a 4-year, $35.6m contract for him.

Henry would, like Austin Hooper, provide an immediate replacement for Jordan Reed. While he comes with injury concerns, those are somewhat mitigated by his 11-game stretch of good health and good productivity to close out the season.

Eric Ebron, Colts

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
  • Age: 26
  • Experience: 6 seasons; 83 games, 47 as a starter . . . 283 receptions, 3,195 yards, 27 touchdowns.

Colts GM, Chris Ballard spoke more than 10,000 words in his end-of-the-season press conference. One sentence summed up Ebron’s future with the Colts: “We’ll probably move on.’’

The Athletic estimated Ebron’s chances of returning to the Colts as being 0%.

The Colts weren’t happy with Ebron’s decision to undergo season-ending ankle surgery after the Nov. 21 loss at Houston. It probably was a business decision for Ebron, but it left the team hanging.

If we focus on 2017 & ‘18 as two complete seasons, played without injury, and for two different teams and coaching staffs, we get this picture of the typical Ebron season:

  • 60 receptions (3.7 p/game)
  • 662 yards (41.3 p/game)

Touchdowns are hard to peg to the “typical” from this exercise. For Ebron, 2018 was an incredible outlier, with 13 TDs; he only scored 14 TDs in the other 5 years of his career combined.

What is “market value” for Eric Ebron?

I went to Spotrac for guidance on that question.

Spotrac estimates Ebron’s value at $7.4m per year (or $1.5m per year less than Hunter Henry and $2.5m per year less than Austin Hooper). They project a 4-year, $29.9m contract for him.

Here are Eric Ebron’s grades for the past three seasons according to PFF:

Year - Rank - PFF Grade

2019 - 21st - 71.1

2018 - 22nd - 67.5

2017 - 17th - 69.7

Ebron appears to be an average-to-above average tight end (depending on what you focus on) who will provide around 60 receptions, 650 yards, and 3 or 4 touchdowns per year to an offense.

That would represent roughly the same production that the Redskins got from Jordan Reed in 2016 and 2018, though Reed played in 12 games in ‘16 and 13 games in ‘18.

Ebron, of course, has had durability issues of his own. He played full 16-game seasons in two years of his 6-year career, playing between 11 and 14 games in each of the four other years.

All in all, there’s not a lot of statistical difference between Hooper, Henry and Ebron, who are expected to be the three tight ends who garner the most interest in March. Two of the three (Henry and Ebron) have had questions raised about their durability, though Ebron’s troubling injury history is the most recent, and the obvious issues that arose between he and the Colt’s front office have caused a bit of a cloud to surround his name this off-season.

It is expected that Ebron will sign for about 25% less than Austin Hooper, meaning that he could prove to be the best value free agent tight end available in March.

Tyler Eifert, Bengals

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the 2018 season, this is what I wrote about Tyler Eifert in my free agent review:

In the past 4 seasons, Eifert has played in 1, 13, 8 & 2 games. That’s 24 games in 4 years — an average of 6 games per season.

He makes Jordan Reed look like an iron man.

Does any Redskin fan want this guy on the roster?

He went on to play 4 games for the Bengals in 2018, but, surprisingly, he was healthy and active for all 16 games in the 2019 season.

  • Height: 6’6”
  • Weight: 250 pounds
  • Age: 29
  • Entry to NFL: 21st overall, 2013 draft (Cincinnati Bengals)

What is “market value” for Tyler Eifert?

Eifert’s first free agent contract in 2018 came from the team that had drafted him in the first round of the 2013 draft — the Bengals. Despite having gotten just 10 games out of Eifert in 2016 & ‘17, the Bengals gave him a contract worth around $5.5m with $3m in guarantees.

Eifert was injured again for most of the 2018 season, playing in just 4 games, hitting the Cincy salary cap to the tune of $4.75m.

Despite this, the Bengals re-signed Eifert in 2019, but to a contract that was loaded with incentives and light on guarantees ($1.2m), and, for the first time in his career, Eifert played a full 16-game season. I’m not sure what his final cap hit will be for this season, but it should end up between $3m and $4m.

That money bought the Bengals 43 receptions for 436 yards and 3 touchdowns. Not bad for the money, but not ‘elite’ by any means; it equates to 2.68 rec and 27.25 yards per game,

PFF ranked him as the #34 tight end in the league in 2019, with an overall grade of 65.7.

Eifert’s injury history combined with his indifferent production mean that he is likely to be a relatively inexpensive option, and unlikely to produce much more than middling performance on-field. He looks more like a backup than a starter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the Bengals for the ‘20 season on a similar contract to the one he signed last year.

Personally, I don’t see him as the ideal option for the Redskins.

The final word

The Redskins have made the journey from one of the deepest tight end depth charts in the league in 2018 to one of the thinnest in 2020.

The Redskins probably can’t be content with just one good tight end acquisition this off-season; they probably need two.

With Hentges and Sprinkle, the Redskins have the experience and potential needed to fill the #3 spot on the depth chart, and possibly even the #2, but the team desperately needs to fill the starter role — something they are unlikely to do in the draft. In any event, they won’t want to go into the draft feeling that they have to draft a starting tight end.

To me, this means that the Redskins need to look to free agency — not for a tight end who is ‘just a guy’, but for a tight end capable of enhancing the Redskins offense. Looking at the options, I believe there are only really three players (at the most) who will be available and who fit this description.

To me, it feels as if the Redskins need to make it an off-season priority to sign one of these three guys to a contract. It will be expensive, no matter which one it is, but not prohibitively so, and the option — that is, not signing a veteran starter at the positioin — seems unpalatable.

Poll

What should the Redskins do at tight end this off-season?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Plan on Jordan Reed, Hentges and Sprinkle as the TEs for 2020. Stay out of the free agent market.
    (15 votes)
  • 35%
    Try to add two quality tight ends. Start by signing a top-tier player in free agency.
    (256 votes)
  • 52%
    Focus on getting a new starting TE in free agency, and rely on Hentges, Sprinkle and Caleb Wilson to fill out the depth chart.
    (374 votes)
  • 7%
    Avoid free agency, but look to the draft for a quality tight end.
    (56 votes)
  • 1%
    I have a different plan
    (12 votes)
713 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

  • 69%
    Austin Hooper
    (449 votes)
  • 17%
    Hunter Henry
    (112 votes)
  • 8%
    Eric Ebron
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    Tyler Eifert
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    None of them
    (19 votes)
649 votes total Vote Now