Gruden, Reed & Davis
Heading into the 2019 season (Jay Gruden’s last with the Redskins), Washington looked stocked at the tight end position. Jordan Reed was one of the most talented tight ends in franchise history, and among the best to play the position across the NFL. He was backed up by Vernon Davis — a star for the 49ers who finished out his career in burgundy & gold.
One dirty hit by Falcons LB Keanu Neal in the preseason concussed Jordan Reed and ended his Redskins playing career. Davis retired at the end of the season to pursue an acting career.
Jordan Reed took a BIG shot to the head from Keanu Neal.— Chad Ryan (@ChadwikoTWW) August 23, 2019
15 yard penalty.
Oof. Not the kind of contact you want to see guys taking, especially in preseason.
(Reed popped straight up and was fine.)#Redskins pic.twitter.com/aNVpFbriOk
The RivEra & Logan Thomas
With the arrival of Ron Rivera in 2020, the position group was completely remade. Seven tight ends were brought into training camp, and the depth chart on opening day was the unlikely combination of Logan Thomas, Jeremy Sprinkle and Marcus Baugh. Thomas was familiar to most Redskins fans because he had been a quarterback for the Virginia Tech Hokies, but his NFL career had been a rocky one. After failing to get traction as a quarterback, Thomas made the mid-career position switch to tight end, but in 3 years, he had managed just 36 receptions and less than 300 receiving yards. Then he came to Washington.
Thomas had his NFL career breakthrough with Washington’s TE coach, Pete Hoener, catching 72 passes for 670 yards and 6 touchdowns. He played virtually all of Washington’s tight end snaps that season, and he was rewarded with a 3-year extension.
Washington got Logan Thomas some help this season, using free agency to bring in a few veterans. The guy who eventually stuck was Ricky Seals-Jones. The team used a 4th round draft pick on John Bates from Boise State, who was known more for his blocking than his pass-catching, but who offered a good option for TE3 as a rookie and the opportunity to develop into a more fully rounded player over time. Rounding out the group was a long-term project in the form of a Chilean basketball player who had never played competitive football, Sammis Reyes. Reyes is a physical specimen at 6’5” and 260 pounds, and sculpted like a Greek statue.
Logan Thomas in 2021
Thomas got off to a good start in the first 3 games of the season, catching 12 passes for 127 yards and 2 TDs before injuring his hamstring at the start of the Week 4 game in Atlanta. After missing nearly 6 full games, Thomas returned in Week 12, and played well in two games (Seahawks and Raiders) catching 6 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, but his season ended when Raiders DE Yannick Ngakoue targeted Thomas’ knee, tearing his ACL.
The All-22 replay of the Logan Thomas injury does not make it look any better. Ngakoue spots the sift block early and holds his position instead of working down the line to close the gap. Then goes very low. pic.twitter.com/mepj1rZvXY— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) December 6, 2021
Ricky Seals-Jones in 2021
In true “next man up” style, Ricky Seals-Jones took over for Thomas after the Week 4 injury, and in 6 games RSJ pulled in 22 catches for 211 yards and a touchdown, A hip injury in the Week 10 victory over Tampa Bay put the veteran tight end on the sidelines; he saw limited action down the stretch and suffered a neck injury in the Week 17 game against the Eagles that ended his season.
John Bates in 2021
The Football Team brought in some help in the form of street free agents and practice squad elevations following RSJ’s Week 10 injury, but basically, John Bates stepped up and took on the role of Washington’s sole receiving threat at the position through the final two months of the season. During the final 8 games, Bates pulled in 18 receptions for 238 yards and a touchdown. For a rookie who had never been much of a receiving target, it was a fairly impressive performance. The raw statistics don’t do justice to the gritty play he showed on the field.
Sammis Reyes in 2021
Reyes made the initial 53-man roster but was inactive for the first 4 games; his number was finally called after the initial injury to Logan Thomas. Basically, everyone moved up one space, with RSJ as the starter and primary pass-catcher, John Bates playing in 2 TE sets and blocking on running plays, and Reyes joining special teams.
With RSJ’s hip injury in Week 10, Bates became the top man on the depth chart, and Reyes started taking limited offensive snaps. He had a season high of 17 offensive snaps in the Week 11 game vs the Panthers when both Thomas and Seals-Jones were injured. Reyes wasn’t targeted in the passing game, but he got some valuable game experience.
Looking ahead to 2022
Thomas tore his ACL in early December. On an optimistic rehab time frame, he might be ready to play again by opening day, but I think the DMV Destroyers would be negligent to count on his full recovery as the roster is reloaded through free agency in March and the draft in April.
Who steps up if Thomas can’t play in September?
Options from the current roster
John Bates did a pretty solid job in December and January, but I’m not sure that Ron Rivera and Scott Turner will want to be relying on Bates (backed up by Reyes) on opening day of the 2022 season. No doubt Thomas will be expected to play the lead role when he is healthy in ‘22 and ‘23, but the 30-year-old starting tight end has a long hill to climb before he gets back on the field.
The Draft as an option
Washington has a critical need at quarterback, and enough other roster needs that they probably can’t afford to spend the Day 1 or Day 2 pick that would probably be needed to draft the type of player that could step in and be an instant upgrade to Bates. I suspect that the team will need to look to free agency.
Options in free agency
I think Option 1 should be to offer a contract to Ricky Seals-Jones to return. He performed capably, and is a known quantity. He should also be available on a vet minimum contract, or something close to it. I imagine that Washington could sweeten the pot enough to keep him from leaving simply by guaranteeing his salary or adding a reasonable premium to his salary or bonus.
The other benefit to bringing RSJ back for another year in DC is that he would not count as a qualifying free agent for compensatory pick calculations, and in an offseason where Brandon Scherff might leave (potentially qualifying for a 3rd round pick), that’s worth thinking about.
If the team doesn’t bring back Seals-Jones, who else is likely to be available?
Other Free agency options
There are some high-profile names that probably come with high dollar contract demands, and not all of them will make it to free agency. The list includes Mike Gesicke (Dolphins), Zach Ertz (Cardinals), Dalton Shultz (Cowboys), David Njoku (Browns), Gerald Everett (Seahawks), and even Evan Engram (Giants).
I think that Washington should be looking at the free agent tight end market that is a tier or two lower. Here are five 2nd or 3rd tier tight ends who might offer the right fit with relatively small impact on the team’s salary cap.
Mo Alie-Cox (Colts) is at the end of his rookie contract. Cox is a converted basketball player from my alma mater (VCU) who had his best season in 2020 with 394 yards and 2 TDs. He followed up in 2021 with 316 yards and 4 TDs.
I think the 6’5”, 267 pound Alie-Cox would fit well in the Washington offense; I also think he would benefit from playing for Pete Hoener. Alie-Cox was born in Virginia and went to VCU, so signing with the the Sweathawgs would bring him back home.
OJ Howard (Buccaneers) is a 6’6”, 251 pound tight end who is a former first-round pick. On the positive side for him, he has a super bowl ring and gets to play with Tom Brady. On the downside, he backs up Ron Gronkowski.
Howard put up between 430 and 565 yards in each of his first three seasons (2017-19), but over the past two years, he has averaged just 20 targets, 12 receptions and 140 yards per season. Howard made $6m in 2021 as a backup with the Bucs. At 27 years old, Howard could sign a contract with Washington that would give him the opportunity to play an important role in the DC Wolverines offense for the next five years.
Hayden Hurst (Falcons) is a 6’4”, 260 pound tight end who was drafted in the 1st round of the 2018 draft. The Falcons traded for Hurst in 2020, but declined to exercise his 5th year option, making him a free agent this offseason.
Hurst had his most productive season as a receiver in 2020, when he grabbed 56 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns. The 28-year-old could play well in the Burgundy Express offense.
Jordan Akins (Texans) is a 6’4”, 243 pound tight end who was selected in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft. Akins is hitting the end of his rookie deal, and may be looking for more a payday than Washington wants to shell out. The Texans, of course, may want to hold onto him since their #1 TE, Pharoh Brown, is also a free agent, but Houston drafted a 5th rounder this past April who’s playing pretty well, and with a new head coach incoming, anything is possible.
Akins had his two best seasons in ‘19 and ‘20 when he caught 36 balls for 418 yards & 2 TDs, and 37 balls for 403 yards & 1 TD.
Chris Herndon (Vikings) is a 6’4”, 253 pound tight end who was selected in the 4th round of the 2018 draft. He was traded from the Jets to the Vikings at the start of the ‘21 season with the Vikings getting the tight end and a 6th round pick in return for a 4th round pick sent to the Jets. Tyler Conklin got 83 of the Vikings 93 TE targets on the season, and Herndon played only 184 offensive snaps all year; however, As a rookie with the Jets in 2018, Herndon played 626 offensive snaps, and caught 39 passes for 502 yards and 4 TDs.
This is a young man who had a very promising start to his career, but needs a jump-start as he comes to the end of his rookie deal. Pete Hoener could be just what the doctor ordered for Chris Herndon.
As the Washington team enters the 2022 season, the tight end room looks okay if Logan Thomas is healthy, but without him, the position group looks thin. The front office needs to add a genuine NFL quality tight end, and probably can’t afford to use a high enough draft pick to get a guy who can step in to the needed role from Day One.
The success of this offseason with respect to the tight end position is going to be measured by the front office’s ability to bring in a free agent who can contribute right away, and provide a good fit with the team for at least two or three seasons beyond 2022. It will require looking for a player who isn’t currently established in the top tier at the position group (to accept a role as Thomas’ backup this season), but with enough potential to stay on the team for 3 seasons or more for the sake of stability.
The default would be to re-sign Ricky Seals-Jones (partly with an eye to preserving potential comp picks), but if Martin Mayhew and his team can upgrade the position, that could be even better. RSJ should set the benchmark for the minimum that the team is looking for in a veteran tight end.