Veteran free agency is right around the corner. The “legal tampering period” begins on Monday, 13 March, and free agency officially opens for business at 4pm EST on Wednesday, 15 March — the start of the 2023 league year.
Washington Commanders free agency options will be a short series — likely four articles, each of which will profile 4 or 5 veteran free agents at positions of perceived need for the Commanders.
To make this a little bit different, and hopefully a little bit of fun, KyleSmithforGM and Bill-in-Bangkok have agreed on the positions and the players. Each of us will write our own player profiles, meaning that you’ll get TWO profiles on each player. With any luck, that will lead to a more well-rounded view of the profiled players.
Obviously, we’re not trying to provide a comprehensive list of every free agent available; rather, this is an effort to ‘prime the pump’ a little bit, and encourage discussion ahead of the upcoming free agency period.
We encourage you to not only comment on the players we’ve chosen to highlight, but to add your own thoughts or links to profiles of players you find intriguing. To keep things tidy, we encourage you to focus your thoughts on the position group of the day.
We’ve already looked at all the offensive line positions as well as linebacker and cornerbacks. Today, we will finish the series with a look at veteran free agent tight ends.
It’s a bit hard to know what to think about the Commanders tight end group. It comprises players that collectively have missed a lot of games due to injury, and it seems, outside of Logan Thomas, to be a group defined more by potential than actual production, and for Logan Thomas, the production has been largely missing since he suffered a devastating knee injury in 2021.
While there has been rampant speculation all offseason (and even earlier) that Logan Thomas could soon become a cap casualty, Ron Rivera spoke strongly about the player at the combine last week.
Still, the 2021 production from the tight end position was...disappointing. Logan Thomas led the team’s tight ends with 323 yards and a touchdown, which pales in comparison to his career best figures (2020) of 670 yards and 6 TDs.
Behind Thomas in the box scores, John Bates had 14 catches for 108 yards and a TD; Armani Rodgers had 5 catches for 64 yards (though he looked good in limited duty), and rookie Cole Turner had 2 catches for 23 yards.
There’s every reason to expect Eric Bieniemy to run an offense that utilizes the tight ends heavily. If Logan Thomas returns to his 2020 form, he seems like an ideal fit, but will he be able to? If Armani Rodgers can stay healthy, he has a chance to shine. Curtis Hodges, a young undrafted player, looked good in preseason before he was forced onto IR.
With so many question marks, 2023 could be the ideal time for the Commanders to look to free agency for a healthy and proven pass-catching tight end that will fit the Bieniemy offensive scheme and provide Sam Howell with the kind of safety blanket that a young quarterback usually needs in the NFL.
CLICK HERE to see the Commanders current 63-man depth chart
Dalton Schultz, 27, Cowboys
Weight: 242 pounds
NFL entry: 4th round, 2018, #137 overall
2022 cap hit: $10.9m (Franchise tag)
When it comes to free agent tight ends, Dalton Schultz is the cream of this year’s crop. Like most TEs, Schultz took several years to come into his own. Over his first two seasons, he had a total of 13 receptions for 122 yards, then in 2020, he hit his stride, collecting 63 receptions for 615 yards. Over the past two years, he’s had similar levels of performance.
#CowboysNation— Mark D. TalknBoysWitDaBoyZ (@MarkDsCorner) March 7, 2023
According to PFF Dalton Schultz finished the year ranked 15th amongst TEs with a 67.8 receiving grade while finishing 5th with a 65.9 run-blocking grade.
-Schultz ranked 4th best with an 8.7% + run-block rate & 5th best with a 13.2% negative run-block rate.
This offseason, there was a question as to whether or not the Cowboys might franchise tag Schultz, but with the tagging of Tony Pollard, it became apparent Dallas’ TE1 was going to be allowed to test the market.
Spotrac is predicting that Schultz could end up commanding a salary in the range of $15.1M, which would make him the second highest paid TE in the league, behind only Darren Waller.
That’s a ludicrous amount of money for a tight end who - while an important part of the Cowboy’s offense, has struggled with consistency:
His six drops this season were the most among tight ends. His 66.3% catch rate when targeted ranked 35th, his five penalties were the fourth-most and his 91.0 passer rating when targeted finished 31st at the position. Not to mention he averaged just 3.3 yards after the catch.
Generally speaking, I’m of the opinion that Washington doesn’t need to do too much with the top end of its tight end room this offseason. It certainly doesn’t need to sign an overpriced, mid-ranged TE whose most productive year wasn’t that much better than Logan Thomas’.
Dalton Schultz, of course, has one great drawback — 5 years of Cowboys stink that will be tough to wash off. But in a relatively limited TE free agent market this offseason, Schultz and Mike Gesicki (who we also highlight in this article) are probably the top guys available, and with Eric Bieniemy tooling up the offense, tight end is the one offensive position where the Commanders may want to spend big.
I don’t think you can go wrong with either Schultz or Gesicki, though both will be expensive to sign.
Last year, the Cowboys gave the franchise tag to tight end Dalton Schultz at $10.9 million. He was likely a candidate for the tag again this year, but his second-year tag figure would be $13.1 million.
That probably creates the range for his contact — $11m to $13m per year. Those figures would make him the 7th or 13th highest paid tight end in the NFL per Over the Cap. I imagine that he will command a deal closer to the top of that range than the bottom — partly because of the rising salary cap and partly because I think, as indicated above, that Schultz is one of the two best TEs available this offseason.
Schultz had a slow start to his career as rookie, and then the brakes were slammed on his productivity when Cowboys legend Jason Witten unretired and came back to the team for a final cameo in 2019.
However, in 2020 & 2021, Schultz broke out, averaging 70 receptions, 710 yards, and 6 TDs per season for those two years.
In 2022, Schultz missed two games, and his production fell off slightly, but, as I think the chart below demonstrates, he still offered great value that I think the Commanders can take advantage of.
This article looks at 3 receiving tight ends: Schultz, Mike Gesicki, and Irv Smith Jr. I have put comparison numbers in the chart above that I will refer to in all three profiles. Smith was active for only 8 games last season, so I have doubled his actual production in the final column to offer a bit more of an apple-to-apples comparison with the others. Like Schultz, Gesicki’s production fell off in 2022; for Gesicki, that seemed to be because of a change in offensive scheme under rookie head coach Mike McDaniel.
The production of Shultz and Gesicki in ‘20 & ‘21, combined (the two best years for each of them) was remarkably similar. Gesicki’s 2022 falloff was a bit sharper.
A couple of things stand out about Schultz in his comparison to Gesicki. He was targeted a lot more (89 vs 52), he made more catches and he picked up more yards. Those differences were almost non-existent in 2020 & 21, however.
Looking at career numbers, an obvious difference is that Gesicki’s average depth of target, at 9.4 yards, is significantly different than Shultz’s ADOT of 7.02, and the relative catch percentages reflect this difference, with Schultz snaring 70% of is targets, compared to 62.4% for Gesicki. Interestingly, despite the higher catch percentage for the Cowboys receiver, the ADOT, and higher ratio of TDs:targets results in a higher QB rating when targeted for Gesicki (98.4 vs 77.8).
The one really noticeable advantage for Schultz is that he plays special teams (257 career snaps), while Gesicki doesn’t (10 career snaps).
If Washington wants a proven tight end who is well under 30 years old, then I think either of these two guys (Shultz or Gesicki) fits the bill.
I’ll talk a little bit more about salary cap and the TE unit in the next profile, which is for MIke Gesicki, immediately below.
Mike Gesicki, 28, Dolphins
Weight: 250 pounds
NFL entry: 2nd round, 2018, #42 overall
2022 cap hit: $10.9m (Franchise tag)
Like Schultz, Gesicki played the ‘22 season on the franchise tag, and like Schultz, Gesicki’s 2022 production fell off from is two best years in ‘20 & ‘21.
I’d be happy to see either guy signed as a starting tight end, and I think the contract would be something like 4 years/$68m. It would be easy to structure a contract like that to have a first-year cap hit of around $6m or $7m, making it affordable for the Commanders in 2023.
Signing one of these guys as a starter, however, would mean saying goodbye to the current starter, Logan Thomas.
I love what Logan Thomas has done for the Commanders since he was signed in 2020; however, he’ll be 32 years old this season, and in 2022 he simply didn’t look as if he had managed to come back from the knee injury that ended his 2021 season.
Cutting Logan Thomas — a move that I don’t want to see, but which simply makes too much sense if the team is able to sign Schultz or Gesicki — would save $5.1m against the cap in 2023, plus another $6.5m or so in 2024, largely offsetting the cap impact of signing one of the top two free agents, Shultz or Gesicki.
I’m strongly in favor of trying to get one of these two guys on board, and funding the free agency move by releasing Logan Thomas.
Mike Gesicki was considered by many observers to be the top TE prospect going into the 2018, though he ended up being taken second behind Hayden Hurst that year. Even a well-polished college tight end like Gesicki was essentially a non-factor in his rookie season, putting up fewer yards than 4th rounder Jon Bates did during his own first year.
Gesicki then posted three very solid years in Miami, putting up over 51 receptions and 570 yards in several consecutive seasons. Last year however, under new head coach Mike McDaniel, Gesicki’s production fell off a cliff, and it almost appeared that he was in the coach’s doghouse. About midway through the season, it became pretty clear Gesicki was not in the Dolphins’ future plans.
Dolphins’ fans seem to agree:
This one is tough. Gesicki is exactly the type of player you want on a team. He will do whatever is asked of him, without opening complaining if things do not go his way, will celebrate other players’ successes and team wins, and he has the talent to be a star. However, he just disappeared from the game plan last year and he will likely be too expensive for the role he seems to fit in McDaniel’s system. I would love to have him remain in aqua for his entire career, but it feels like this is headed more toward a split between the club and Gesicki.
Verdict: Walk (unless McDaniel has a plan to use Gesicki in a different role than last year)
Seen more as a big slot receiver, rather than a true tight end, I don’t think Gesicki is a great fit for Washington at this point either. Both Cole Turner and Curtis Hodges provide very little blocking upside, while ostensibly filling that big receiver role. I’d rather see what we have in those two this offseason.
Irv Smith Jr, 25, Vikings
Weight: 241 pounds
NFL entry: 2nd round, 2019, #50 overall
2022 cap hit: $1.84m (rookie contract)
A second round pick in the 2019 draft, people expected big things of Irv Smith coming out of Alabama that year.
Irv Smith Jr, compared to other rookie TEs this year:— Krauser (@Krauserrific) September 25, 2019
1st in PFF overall grade, 83.2 (next best 64.0)
1st in PFF receiving grade, 77.4 (63.4)
1st in PFF run block grade, 80.9 (79.2)
1st in yards per route run, 2.03 (1.81)
He’s the youngest player in the NFL this year. https://t.co/6Uul6SdvSF
Instead, he’s been consistently mediocre, putting up a bit over 30 receptions and 300 yards in his first two seasons, then missing 2021 with a knee injury. In 2022, in about half a season, he had 25 receptions for 182 yards.
At this point, Smith is a highly depressed asset, with a potentially interesting upside. I can see a team taking a low cost gamble on him with a 2-year “prove it” deal to see if he can recapture his pre-draft promise, but I don’t want that team to be Washington.
Any discussion of Irv Smith Jr. probably needs to begin with his injury history. In 2021, he had surgery for a torn meniscus, which cost him the entire season.
In 2022, he injured his ankle and missed 9 games, returning to play in Week 18 and in the Vikings playoff game.
I posted Smith’s pass game production above. His average depth of target indicates that he is not the kind of tight end who is running seam routes through the defense and catching the ball behind the linebackers, which makes me wonder if he’s a good fit for the Eric Bieniemy offense.
He’s also the smallest of the free agent tight ends we’re profiling today.
When I consider Smith, I see a guy who has played just 2 1⁄2 seasons, and has never had more than 36 receptions or 365 yards, and a guy with a troubling injury history.
I don’t see the 25-year-old Smith as the guy who is going to join the Commanders roster and take on a leadership role among the tight ends currently on the roster.
In the end, if it came down to paying Irv Smith or relying on the potential development of Armani Rodgers, Curtis Hodges, John Bates and Cole Turner, I’d prefer to stick with the group we have and hope one or more of them can catch lightning in a bottle.
I’d pass on Irv Smith Jr. in 2023.
Trevon Wesco, 28, Bears
Weight: 274 pounds
NFL entry: 4th round, 2019, #121 overall (drafted by Jets; claimed from waivers by the Bears)
2022 cap hit: $965 (rookie contract)
Trevon Wesco is the polar opposite of the first three tight ends profiled in this piece. He’s a bruising mauler who is as much fullback as he is a tight end:
Trevon Wesco can BLOCK. This guy is in the game for 1 reason and that’s to move D-lineman. I LOVE a TE that takes pride in the blocking game. This almost brings a tear to my eye. #DaBears #Bears #ChicagoBears pic.twitter.com/MbK6EV0tLU— Clay Harbor (@clayharbs82) November 8, 2022
In his first three years in the league, he only put up 6 receptions for 87 yards, but that didn’t stop him from being the most claimed players to hit waivers when the Jets cut him last season. The Bears, Browns, Colts, and Bengals all tried to claim Wesco, with Chicago having the top priority on the waiver wire.
With the Bears, Wesco played on about 20% of offensive snaps and 23% of special teams snaps. He’s not the guy you want on your fantasy football team, but if Eric Bieniemy is looking for an in-line tight end or h-back for camp this offseason, I’d love to see him bring Wesco in on a vet minimum contract.
This is not a pass-catching tight end. Trevon Wesco, in his 4-years in the NFL, has 14 career targets and 8 career receptions.
Here’s a look at his career grades from PFF:
This paints a picture of a guy who is primarily a competent run blocker, an inconsistent pass protector, and a limited receiver.
I look at the guy’s picture, and I read his measurables (6’4”, 274 pounds) and I want to say, “Hell yeah!”, but realistically, Wesco is a limited and fairly one-dimensional player. He might be able to win a roster spot as a TE/Fullback/special teamer (he has 355 career ST snaps), but his value to the team is never likely to be very significant.
This is a guy who gets a 1-year, $1m contract and comes to camp as a long shot to make the team. I’d be rooting for him, but I don’t really see a natural marriage between Wesco and the Commanders.
Considering everything, including cap hit, which profiled player do you think is the best choice for the Washington Commanders to pursue this offseason?
This poll is closed
Dalton Schultz, 27, Cowboys
Mike Gesicki, 28, Dolphins
Irv Smith Jr., 25, Vikings
Trevon Wesco, 28, Bears
I don’t like none of ‘em!