With NFL free agency largely settled and the incoming rookies the next significant moving piece of the 2018 offseason, here is a preview of the optimal landing spots at the skill positions. Featured in this installment: tight ends.
*Criteria includes initial opportunity and long-term growth potential*
ELITE LANDING SPOTS
The Jets have major needs at wide receiver and tight end. Austin Seferian-Jenkins moved on in free agency and the remaining veteran tight ends are reclamation project Clive Walford, 2017 rookie (redshirt with injury) Jordan Leggett, and more blocker than receiver Eric Tomlinson. A quality rookie can emerge as the starter by midseason with a quality run of passing game targets.
Ben Watson is gone to New Orleans, leaving Nick Boyle and Maxx Wiliams as the incumbents of note. Neither are strong athletes and former second round pick Williams has been a massive disappointment even with healthy to-date. With a weak receiver corps and a history of above-baseline volume for tight ends, Baltimore is one of the best landing spots for a rookie at the position.
Miami may be the weakest tight end depth chart in the NFL. MaQueis Gray has shown some ability in spurts but is a baseline NFL talent. A.J. Derby and Gavin Escobar lack upside in their previous NFL stops. What keeps Miami from the top spot is a number of viable wide receivers and an expected baseline level play at quarterback.
Ryan Griffin has been decent with previous opportunities, but his concussion history is a significant risk the next one could be the end of his career and at minimum a prolonged absence. Stephen Anderson has shown some acumen in his early years, but without much pedigree, the starting role is within reach for an incoming rookie. Deshaun Watson's return aids the situational upside as well as a lack of defined WR3 on the roster.
Seattle brought in Ed Dickson in free agency, but he is more of a stopgap than multi-year solution. Nick Vannett is a former Day 2 pick, but a middling athlete at best. Jimmy Graham off to Green Bay in free agency paves the way for a rookie to rise up the ranks quickly. Also a positive for Seattle is Russell Wilson's viability at quarterback and a lack of clarity beyond Doug Baldwin at wide receiver.
Ben Watson was added the depth chart this offseason in free agency. Watson had a career year with the Saints, but has since eroded physically since his last stop in New Orleans. Josh Hill is a career reserve tight end and Coby Fleener has yet to carve a consistent role with the team. While the depth chart is more crowded than others in this elite tier, the upside with Drew Brees is pronounced.
This has to be the drafted tight end to be the long-term replacement to the ageless Jason Witten, right? Witten has slowed to a late-career Tony Gonzalez (or slower) version and Witten outlasted previous second round picks Martellus Bennett and Gavin Escobar with his durability and expansive production. Rico Gathers is the lone veteran on the roster with a chance to develop into the starter, but most likely the long-term answer is not on the roster yet.
Jake Butt is the most likely veteran to acquire (and keep) the starting role, but he was a middling prospect across the board and fell to mid-Day 3 last year with an incoming injury. Jeff Heuerman is a replacement-level option and Austin Traylor is closer to the NFL fringe than a lasting impact. The short-term situation is blocked for upside with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders funneling targets and the sheer volume of 2018 options at tight end. However, the older wide receivers and veteran tight ends can clear a path for meaningful 2019 production.
Jermaine Gresham is a shell of his former (pre-injuries) self and Ricky Seals-Jones is a young player caught between wide receiver and tight end positions. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver corps is a question mark. 2019 looks like an ideal arrival date for an incoming tight end to emerge with relevant production.
Michael Roberts is a supersized 2017 rookie and Luke Willson was signed from Seattle in free agency as the incumbents post-Eric Ebron's departure. Pushing Detroit down in viability is the strong wide receiver depth chart, including Marvin Jones Jr, Golden Tate, and Kenny Golladay.