The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the market for a tight end. Scratch that, they’re in desperate need of a tight end; two even.
With James O’Shaugnessy set to become a free agent and the club reportedly expected to decline the option on Tyler Eifert, Head Coach Urban Meyer’s squad is left with little to no production in the unit.
With free agency set to begin in a little over two weeks, the Jaguars will likely explore the market for an experienced guy at the position, capable of starting right away. The unit can then be rounded out in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft.
So who are the best options on the market? Unfortunately for the Jags—and all teams in a position of need—the list is relatively bare this offseason. There are two names though that top every list: Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers) and Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans). As to who the Jaguars should sign, both are incredible options with upside. And given the Jaguars cap space coffers, they can afford to target the top names at the important position.
They’ll only sign one though. We examine the pros and cons of each in relation to the best fit for the Jaguars.
Henry is the consensus top tight end available in free agency this March. Coming off of his rookie contract, Henry has spent the past five years with the Chargers, after being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft, the first of his position drafted that year. The Chargers placed the franchise tag on Henry for the 2020 season.
In his rookie season, he scored the fifth-most touchdowns (8) by a rookie tight end in NFL history. Various injuries have kept Henry from ever playing a full 16-game schedule. And an ACL tear in offseason workouts before the 2018 season sidelined him for the entire year. He rebounded to average 11.1 yards per reception over the next two seasons, and haul in nine touchdowns during that time.
Under the franchise tag in 2020, Henry was 12th amongst tight ends with 613 yards, and eighth in targets (87) and receptions (60). He helped quarterbacks to a 99.4 rating when targeted while accounting for three drops.
While Henry isn’t of the caliber of Travis Kelce or George Kittle—the duo that redefined the tight end market value last offseason—he’s 26-years-old and as such seemingly with his best ball still in front of him. And his production to this point clearly makes him one of—if not the most—sought-after tight end this offseason.
PFF grades his pass blocking for the entire season at 53.9 which is the primary concern. He does his best work as a pass-catcher though, which is where the Jaguars would need him to be strong.
As the arbitrator of his future, Henry has made it clear his priorities for his next contract hinge on the quarterback.
"I've really enjoyed my time [with the Chargers], so I'm not going to ever rule that out, you know, with a young quarterback, me and Justin (Herbert) have formed a relationship," Henry explained recently to SiriusXM NFL Radio. "But I think I'm open to whatever, and I think I kind of have to, in a way, but I really enjoyed my time and if that continues, I'll be excited. If that doesn't, then that would be a new step and a new place to kind of start again.
"I want to play somewhere there's a good quarterback. That's huge for our position. It makes things a lot easier,” he continued.
“Playing with a good quarterback always makes things better. You gotta look at both. You gotta look at some of the financial stuff, but not dive too deep into it that you go chasing it because I also want to play with a good quarterback.”
With the Jaguars set to draft Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall next month, Henry would be set with a “good quarterback.” However, he’ll also be paired again with a young rookie quarterback. Would he be willing to go through those growing pains again or is he looking for a ready-made offense?
The Tennessee Titans tight end is a free agent after his rookie contract expired with the Titans, the team who drafted him in the third round in 2017. His upward trajectory over the past four years will continue to rise. Coupled with his production as a pass-catcher, Smith offers just as much as Henry, if not more—depending on the offense in which he’ll land.
While his pass-blocking grade is even lower than Henry’s (37.2 for 2020 according to PFF), his career highs in 2020 as part of the Titans receiving corps balance out his investment possibilities. Passers have a 112.3 rating when targeting him; Smith posted career-best in receptions (41), yards (448), and touchdowns (8) last season. Two of those eight touchdowns came against the Jaguars in Week 2, when he mossed Jacksonville defenders repeatedly throughout the afternoon.
As Mike Moraitis of Titans Wire noted, Smith’s receiving numbers went down as the season wore on, largely because of other injuries along the offensive front.
“Part of the reason for his slowdown was a result of left tackle Taylor Lewan’s season-ending torn ACL injury, which forced the Titans to use Smith as a blocker more," wrote Moraitis.
While Smith’s reception numbers ranked decidedly in the teens amongst other tight ends, he was dominant in the red zone, where a big body is most needed. Smith—at 6-3, 248—was fourth in the league in 2020 with his eight touchdowns.
Of course, the Titans could elect to keep Smith. He was third amongst Tennessee receivers in yards and second in scoring overall. The question will largely be, are the Titans—who are beholden to $1.6 million in cap space—willing to pony up for a guy who to this point has been regulated to blocking and 11.4 yards per reception in their’s and Ryan Tannehill’s RPO heavy offense.
Smith is best used in the passing game and in the red zone. Can the Jaguars make him more of an offer in that area than the Titans? It’s likely so. And an argument can be made that given his production to this point and the improvement from each year to the next, Smith is a better long-term choice than Henry.
Wildcard: Gerald Everett
The Los Angeles Rams tight end doesn’t have the name recognition of Henry or Smith but Gerald Everett's numbers have inched towards much the same. Taken in the second round of the 2017 draft (higher than Smith) he’s spent the past four years in Sean McVay’s scheme.
In the 2020 season, he saw a career-high in targets, receptions (41) and yards (417), all similar to Smith’s numbers last season. He’s averaged 10 yards or more per reception three out of his four years in the league, although the one season that number dipped in 2018, Everett also saw his second-best reception percentage (68.8%) and touchdown tally (3).
The Jaguars have the most cap space in the league, and the market in tight ends this offseason means they won’t have to break the bank on a Kelce or Kittle. But if they want to save even more, Everett is a viable starter with a cheaper price tag. His next step is to work on being more consistent, but the skill set is there to make him an intriguing option.