There was one position group that Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach brought up on his own during his first offseason press conference last week: tight end.
Veach said that a goal for the Chiefs' front office this offseason was to get a better backup for Travis Kelce. Presumably, this is because Kelce, 31, is getting up there in age by NFL standards and managing his snaps into the future will let him stick around into his mid-to-late thirties. Veach’s comments could also indicate that the Chiefs want to run more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). Whatever the reason is, the Chiefs are making it apparent the position needs to improve behind Kelce.
While the Chiefs seem to be interested in the prospects in the draft at tight end with players like Brevin Jordan or Tommy Tremble, free agency will also offer a few interesting names the Chiefs could look at.
For Day 2 of The Seven Days of Free Agency series, let us look at some of these tight ends that are hitting free agency along with their 2020 production.
The Names That Stand Above the Rest
Jonnu Smith (Titans) - 15 games played, 41 receptions, 448 yards, 8 touchdowns
Hunter Henry (Chargers) - 14 games played, 60 receptions, 613 yards, 4 touchdowns
There are going to be two tight ends who could hit free agency this year that would make big money on the open market.
Jonnu Smith has had steadily grown into a solid player since being drafted four years ago. His knack for making big plays and scoring touchdowns in the Titans offense has made many around the league take notice of him and will likely earn him a nice contract if the Titans do not franchise-tag him.
Speaking of the franchise tag, it seems up in the air whether the Chargers will use a franchise tag on Hunter Henry. If they do not, Henry might garner the biggest contract on the open market in free agency. Henry has proven himself a reliable target that converts third downs since entering the league and having such a dependable target is valuable in the eyes of many NFL teams.
The Great Backups
Gerald Everett (Rams) - 16 games played, 41 receptions, 417 yards, 1 touchdown
Kyle Rudolph (Vikings) - 12 games played, 28 receptions, 334 yards, 1 touchdown
Tyler Eifert (Jaguars) - 15 games played, 36 receptions, 349 yards, 2 touchdowns
Trey Burton (Colts) - 15 games played, 28 receptions, 250 yards, 3 touchdowns
Jordan Reed (49ers) - 10 games played, 26 receptions, 231 yards, 4 touchdowns
Jacob Hollister (Seahawks) - 16 games played, 25 receptions, 209 yards, 3 touchdowns
Tyler Kroft (Bills) - 10 games played, 12 receptions, 119 yards, 3 touchdowns
This is the sweet spot of this tight end free agency class.
None of these guys will blow anyone's socks off with their ridiculous athleticism, but any team looking for a tight end who can contribute positively in most aspects of the position will find value in this group.
Trey Burton leads this group if it comes down to the quality of play, ranking as the best tight end of the group on Pro Football Focus. Burton did not get a ton of work last year in Indianapolis due to a crowded tight end room, but the veteran is one of the premier options for teams looking for a backup tight end who can do it all.
Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed and Tyler Kroft are at the point of their careers where they should probably not be starters. However, these four can still be quality players that teams would not dislike having as their backup tight end. There could be some nice value in signing these guys on the back end of their careers.
The NFC West tight ends, Gerald Everett and Jacob Hollister, are victims of overcrowded tight end rooms and will be looking for other opportunities this offseason. Both are good movers and quality receiving threats paired with adequate run blocking ability. Both should be appealing to teams that look for movers and pass catchers at the tight end position.
Rob Gronkowski (Buccaneers) - 16 games played, 45 receptions, 623 yards, 7 touchdowns
Robert Tonyan Jr. (Packers, RFA) - 16 games played, 52 receptions, 586 yards, 11 touchdowns
Mo Alie-Cox (Colts, RFA) - 15 games played, 31 receptions, 394 yards, 2 touchdowns
Nick Keizer (Chiefs, ERFA) - 16 games played, 6 receptions, 63 yards, 0 touchdowns
Richard Rodgers (Eagles, RFA) - 14 games played, 24 receptions, 345 yards, 2 touchdowns
Some of the most intriguing options at the tight end position will probably not hit the open market.
First up is Rob Gronkowski, which should not be surprising as the only reason he came out of retirement was to play with Tom Brady again. While he is technically free to sign elsewhere, there is no way he is leaving the Buccaneers.
Robert Tonyan Jr., Mo Alie-Cox and Richard Rodgers all had quality 2020 seasons, but with all three being restricted free agents, it is hard to see their original teams letting them hit the open market easily. The only name of these three that has a chance of hitting the open market is Richard Rodgers, who would be an intriguing name for teams looking for a receiving threat as Rodgers was the second-best pass-catcher at the position according to Pro Football Focus.
It is hard to see the Chiefs passing on the ERFA (exclusive rights free agent) tag on Nick Keizer. Tagging Keizer does not guarantee anything about Keizer’s position on the team other than that he will be there in training camp.
Jared Cook (Saints) - 15 games played, 37 receptions, 504 yards, 7 touchdowns
Dan Arnold (Cardinals) - 16 games played, 31 receptions, 438 yards, 4 touchdowns
James O’Shaughnessy (Jaguars) - 15 games played, 28 receptions, 262 yards, 0 touchdowns
Blake Bell (Cowboys) - 16 games played, 11 receptions, 110 yards, 0 touchdowns
Demetrius Harris (Bears) - 15 games played, 7 receptions, 45 yards, 0 touchdowns
This group of solid pass-catchers who aren't high-level blockers is headlined by the recently released Jared Cook. Cook will probably have a bit left in the tank for any team looking for a big-bodied tight end to use in the red zone.
Dan Arnold had a surprising 2020 campaign where he was a key target for Kyler Murray in Arizona. Arnold is somewhat young for the position at 26 years old, and with the solid 2020 season under his belt, teams looking for a vertical threat at the tight end position should look no further.
Former Chiefs James O’Shaughnessy, Blake Bell and Demetrius Harris are all hitting the open market after venturing elsewhere after their stint with the Chiefs. All three are fine options in the passing game and below-average run blockers at this point of their careers and are probably not much more than a below-average backup tight end.
Marcedes Lewis (Packers) - 15 games played, 10 receptions, 107 yards, 3 touchdowns
Luke Stocker (Falcons) - 16 games played, 7 receptions, 63 yards, 0 touchdowns
Chris Manhertz (Panthers) - 16 games played, 6 receptions, 52 yards, 0 touchdowns
Virgil Green (Chargers) - 6 games played, 3 receptions, 50 yards, 1 touchdown
MyCole Pruitt (Titans) - 11 games played, 5 receptions, 49 yards, 2 touchdowns
Josh Hill (Saints) - 14 games played, 8 receptions, 46 yards, 1 touchdown
There are a few run-blocking tight ends available in free agency, with veterans Marcedes Lewis and Virgil Green leading the pack due to their experience. Both players could retire this offseason, but if they do not, they provide above-average run blocking with some big bodied red zone upside.
Luke Stocker, Chris Manhertz, MyCole Pruitt and Josh Hill all had over 175 run-blocking snaps last year and ranged from being excellent at it to above-average. All four would be adequate signings for their push in the run game.
Who should the Chiefs target?
The reality of the Chiefs' situation is that they should stay away from the stars of this class. While Smith and Henry are both excellent, the backup tight end role for the Chiefs is not important enough to sign one of these guys who will demand $10 million APY or more.
The interesting group of free agent tight ends for the Chiefs is in the group of excellent backups. If the Chiefs felt like they would not be in a position to grab a tight end in the draft, picking a player from this group to fill the void is a smart idea. Trey Burton or Jacob Hollister are the two names that stand out at first glance as both are above-average pass catchers but also combine that upside with average run blocking. Players from this group should not be too expensive and should be in the Chiefs’ budget in a cap-strapped year.
Of the free agent classes of pass-catchers and run-blockers, the two players who stand out are Dan Arnold and MyCole Pruitt. Arnold would be a really nice addition to the Chiefs’ passing offense and would be able to stretch the middle of the field from the inline position or the slot. MyCole Pruitt has not played much in the NFL, but he pairs excellent run blocking with 4.58 40 speed, which is an intriguing combo.
While this year’s free agency class for tight ends does not have a superstar or even an Allen Robinson equivalent, it does have some depth. Teams looking for a good backup tight end should be able to find a flavor of player they like and there are potentially a few hidden gems in this class who could accomplish bigger things with more playing time.
If the Chiefs do not think Tommy Tremble or Brevin Jordan will be there for them in the draft, grabbing one of these free agent tight ends is a good option. Quite a few of these players could spell Kelce at times in the regular season and let the Chiefs control his snaps more. If Veach is serious about improving the tight end position, there are certainly options for him to do so in the 2021 tight end free agency class.