NFL INSIDER

Unit Analysis: Star TEs fight identity crisis

Sports Xchange

July 09, 2014 at 9:36 am.

The emergence of TE Julius Thomas gives the Broncos yet another threat in the passing game. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

NFL Analysis: Star tight ends fight identity crisis

Somewhere between the big, tough offensive tackle and the quick, athletic wide receiver there is the NFL tight end — physically and often in alignment.

The tight end’s job description has become so variable from team to team that the best in the league, Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints, wanted to be considered a wide receiver, where he would get more buck for his bang as a franchise player. The formula for compensating a franchise player is based on the top paid players by position and wideouts make about $5 million per season more than tight ends.

His request was denied by arbitrator Stephen Burbank, but the Saints aren’t happy that he based that decision on calculating how many times Graham lines up within four yards of the offensive tackle — that space mentioned earlier between the tackle and a wide receiver.

The Saints are concerned that the basis of the decision is fraught with the danger of Graham winning an appeal. They would feel better if he was considered a tight end because of his size, the position group he meets with on the team and how he is defensed.

So this legal scrimmage may continue until the lawyers eat up that $5 million difference.

For the purposes of this analysis of NFL tight ends, let’s just agree that Graham is one. In fact, a league-wide breakdown by Sports Xchange reporters on each team leads to the obvious conclusion that Graham is the NFL’s No. 1 tight end, with all due respect to the talented, but oft-injured Rob Gronkowski in New England.

At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Graham looks like an offensive tackle but plays like a basketball power forward who is trying to imitate a wide receiver, or one amazing pass-catcher as a tight end. He is guilty on all counts.

In fact, Graham was in the discussion for NFL Offensive MVP last year until he had a plantar-fascia tear in late October. To that point he was unstoppable, averaging 119 yards a game. He was used sparingly after the injury, yet still finished the season leading all tight ends with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

There will surely be arguments that Gronkowski is the best in the league, but too many injuries over the last two seasons have put him on the shelf too often. In 2011, his second season in the NFL, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronk made a statement that still reverberates in discussions trying to rate tight ends. He set a single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end with 17 receiving and 18 overall and became the first tight end to lead the league in receiving. And his 38 touchdown catches in his first three seasons is 13 more than any tight end has ever managed in the same time frame.

But right here, right now Gronkowski is coming back from an ACL injury that limited him to six games, 39 catches and four touchdowns last season. Patriots fans would certainly like to see him healthy for 16 games, but until then they can only extrapolate and sigh for what might have been.

San Francisco’s incredibly athletic Vernon Davis is on the fringe of that top tier of tight ends with Graham and Gronk. He shows his versatility more than they do as brutal blocker and a legitimate home-run receiver.

Denver’s Julius Thomas, described as an athletic freak who is an inconsistent blocker, had a breakout season in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and his dozen touchdown catches set a Broncos record for a tight end. Like Graham and Gronkowski, he is a former basketball star (four years at Portland State) and like Graham he is looking to cash in as his rookie contract from 2011, worth $2.4 million for the fourth-round pick, runs its course in 2014.

Joining Thomas in this second tier is another fourth-year, fourth-round pick who had a breakout season in 2013, Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron, whose stats are even more impressive because he was not being targeted by Peyton Manning. So his 80 catches for 917 yards and seven scores are worth a second look.

There are several more young, athletic tight ends, but make sure to watch two old veterans who can still take over any game at any time — Dallas’ Mr. Consistency Jason Witten and San Diego’s aging power forward Antonio Gates.

Here is a closer analysis of tight ends from Sports Xchange reporters covering each team (listed alphabetically):

ARIZONA CARDINALS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Jake Ballard, John Carlson. Backups — Troy Niklas, Rob Housler, Darren Fells.

The position was revamped in the offseason. Ballard was on the team in the latter half of 2013, but played only a small role. That will grow this year. Carlson impressed coaches in the offseason. He’s known as an excellent receiver, but the Cardinals think he can be a solid blocker, too. He has a history of concussions, so durability is a concern. Niklas, the second-round pick, didn’t get much work in the offseason, which likely will hinder the beginning of his rookie year. He missed time with a sports hernia, then suffered a broken hand in early June. Housler faces a challenge to make the team. The Cardinals have waited on him to play up to his potential. If he doesn’t do it in training camp, the team might decide it’s waited long enough. Fells, a college basketball player, is a project.

ATLANTA FALCONS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Levine Toilolo. Backups — Bear Pascoe, Mickey Shuler, Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak.

The Falcons don’t plan to use a move tight end with the retirement of Tony Gonzalez and appear content with Pascoe as a blocking tight end. Toilolo is being groomed to be a red-zone threat. Shuler ran some with the first team in the offseason. Gonzalez averaged 81.8 catches over five seasons with the team. Of his 409 catches, 267 went for first downs (65.2 percent). Ryan believes that a committee of wide receivers and running backs will help fill the void in the passing attack created by Gonzalez’s retirement.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Dennis Pitta. Backups — Owen Daniels, Crockett Gillmore, Phillip Supernaw, Nathan Overbay.

Pitta has regained his old explosiveness after fully recovering from a fractured, dislocated hip that sidelined him for all but four games last season. He was signed to a five-year, $32 million contract in March. The Ravens also signed Daniels to work in tandem with him. Daniels has looked good in offseason practices and the Ravens are likely to use plenty of double tight-end sets. Gillmore figures into the equation as a blocking tight end.

BUFFALO BILLS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Scott Chandler. Backups — Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith, Mike Caussin, Chris Gragg.

Chandler is a solid veteran who does a pretty good job in the passing game, but he’s never going to be a true playmaker that can make a big difference. He can get downfield and make catches, but there’s not much run-after-catch to his game. He led the team in catches and receiving yards last season. Moeaki is the wild card. When he was healthy in Kansas City, he was the kind of receiving tight end the Bills need, but he has to prove he can still do that. Smith is strictly a blocker, and Gragg might be the downfield threat the team needs, but he’s still too raw and probably isn’t ready for major playing time.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Greg Olsen. Backups — Richie Brockel, Ed Dickson, D.C. Jefferson, Mike McNeill, Brandon Williams.

The Panthers have a good problem here. They have six guys who can play, but they will have to make some decisions come cut time. Olsen is coming off two straight franchise record-breaking years. Dickson has the inside track on playing Olsen’s complement in a two-tight end set. Williams, an intriguing project in 2013, has gotten better. Brockel and McNeill are blockers, but there may not be room for both.

CHICAGO BEARS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Martellus Bennett. Backups — Dante Rosario, Matthew Mulligan, Jeron Mastrud, Zach Miller.

Coming off the second-best year in terms of catches (65) of any Bears tight end ever, Bennett appears to have put his name in among the league’s best at a position being used more than ever for big plays. Bennett’s speed and reach as a 6-foot-6, 265-pound player make him a good complement to Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. His strength and size allow him to set an edge on stretch or toss plays, and the Bears sometimes use his blocking skills well with counter-toss plays to Forte. Last year the Bears got through without much backup help. Rosario is an H-back type and not an in-line blocker at 242 pounds. He was an effective backfield blocker who has more potential than the one catch he made last year. Mulligan, Mastrud and Miller all fit the same mold as possible special teams-blocking-short catch types who could be a third tight end if the team decided to keep a third player at that spot.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jermaine Gresham. Backups — Tyler Eifert, Alex Smith, Kevin Brock.

This position came in question during the offseason program as Gresham missed time with a hernia and Eifert fought off a shoulder injury. Both are expected to be healthy for the start of camp, but veteran Smith was re-signed in case a setback occurs. Gresham enters the last year of his deal where the team made no efforts to sign an extension. They look content to take their chances with him on the open market. Eifert and the coaches would like to see him involved more and a second-year leap by the former first-round pick would make Gresham more expendable should next offseason come time to choose.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Jordan Cameron, Jim Dray. Backups — MarQueis Gray, Gary Barnidge, James Oboh.

The Browns are likely to open in a two-tight end set because of Shanahan’s commitment to run the ball. Dray would be the second tight end in such formations because he is a better blocker than the backups. Shanahan is experimenting with Gray as a fullback, so Gray could end up as an H-back and Dray would become a backup. Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He caught 16 passes and three touchdown passes in the two games Hoyer started and finished. He will be a focal point of the offense again.

DALLAS COWBOYS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter- Jason Witten. Backups — Gavin Escobar, James Hanna, Jordan Najvar.

Witten, 32, remains one of the league’s most reliable pass catchers. He delivered again in 2013 with 73 receptions for 851 yards and eight touchdowns. Look for his number to drop in little in 2014 as the Cowboys try to get little-used 2013 second-round pick Gavin Escobar more involved this season, especially in the red zone. Escobar is bigger and stronger after hitting the weight room hard in the offseason to shore up his deficiencies as a blocker. But Witten remains Romo’s most trusted option. Hanna needs to finally put some production behind his potential.

DENVER BRONCOS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Julius Thomas. Backups — Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen, Gerell Robinson, Jameson Konz, Cameron Morrah.

For the moment, the biggest question is whether the Broncos can get a long-term contract finalized with Thomas before training camp. He set a club record for touchdowns by a tight end in his breakout 2013 season, and has focused on improving his blocking, working against DeMarcus Ware on a daily basis during OTAs. Like Thomas, Green is a 2011 draftee; he looks poised to see his most extensive work when the Broncos go into two-tight end formations. He is the best blocker among the tight ends, and has been a capable, if sparingly used, pass-catcher. Tamme’s comfort level with Manning and his prominence on special teams likely makes his roster spot secure. Dreessen was injured during all of OTAs, and battled knee problems last year. The wild card is Robinson, a former wide receiver who spent last year on the Broncos’ practice squad converting to tight end. His blocking is raw, but he is an effective downfield receiver who can make plays in traffic.

DETROIT LIONS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew. Backups — Joseph Fauria, Jacob Maxwell, Jordan Thompson.

Ebron automatically gives the Lions one of the top tight-end duos in the league and helps by pushing Pettigrew into a blocking-focused role. Fauria will still have value as a red-zone target, but Ebron should make this an elite offense with his athleticism and route running.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Andrew Quarless. Backups — Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick, Richard Rodgers, Jake Stoneburner, Colt Lyerla, Justin Perillo.

The Packers have been flirting the last few months about bringing back Jermichael Finley. However, the veteran playmaker continues to sit on the open market as a free agent because teams, including Green Bay, apparently aren’t convinced he is ready to play football again despite getting the green light from his neurosurgeon after undergoing surgery in November for a bruised spinal cord. The Packers proceeded throughout the spring as though Finley was in their rearview mirror, but how they replace him in the starting lineup is unsettled, if not unsettling. Quarless, the fifth-year player penciled in as the new starter, didn’t participate in the offseason practices. The reason for Quarless’ being rendered an on-field observer was never made clear with him coming off a full season of playing for the first time in his career after he missed the 2012 season because of a knee injury. If Quarless doesn’t respond from the get-go at the outset of training camp, the Packers may have to go with second-year Bostick or Rodgers, a third-round draft pick this year, as their primary pass catcher at the position. The 6-4, 257-pound Rodgers is cut in the mold of Finley as a big target with receiver qualities who can be split out and stretch the field. Bostick missed a portion of the spring workouts as he completed his recovery from a foot injury he sustained late in the season. Also back in the fold are special-teams ace Taylor and Stoneburner. Pushing them for a roster spot will be Lyerla. The team is rolling the dice on the onetime Oregon standout whose college career was cut short by off-field issues last season, resulting in him going undrafted and left sitting for the Packers to first take a look at him on a tryout basis in their rookie camp.

HOUSTON TEXANS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Garrett Graham. Backups — Ryan Griffin, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Zach Potter, Anthony Denham.

Graham is more of an H-back type while Griffin (6-foot-6, 265) and Fiedorowicz (6-foot-5, 265) look like defensive ends. Like Graham, who gets open all over the field, Griffin is a terrific receiver, especially down the middle. Fiedorowicz was drafted because of his blocking ability, but he showed better hands and route running in the offseason program than the coaches expected. Expect all three to play in some situations, including close to the goal line.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Coby Fleener. Backups — Dwayne Allen, Jack Doyle, Weslye Saunders, Erik Swoope.

Fleener had a good season last year as he got the bulk of the work. Allen, who had a strong rookie year in 2012, missed most of last season with a hip injury. He should be good to go this year. The one-two punch of Fleener and Allen could give the Colts one of the best tight-end combos in the NFL. Saunders is more of an H-back while Doyle is a good run and pass blocker. Swoope is a former college basketball player making the transition to football.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Marcedes Lewis. Backups — Clay Harbor, Marcel Jensen, Brandon Barden, Reggie Jordan, D.J. Tialavea.

Lewis should be ready for a breakout season. The only problem with that statement is that it’s been used the last two or three seasons and it hasn’t happened. The only strong season that Lewis has had in his eight seasons with the Jaguars came in 2010 when he had 58 catches, good for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. But the last three years he caught more than 40 passes in just one season and his total touchdown output in those three years has been eight scores. His value as a blocking tight end can’t be diminished however, and the Jaguars take advantage of that to strengthen their ground attack. Harbor and Jensen will back up Lewis. The surprise is Jensen, an undrafted rookie free agent who was a standout in OTAs, possibly surpassing Harbor for the No. 2 spot behind Lewis.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Anthony Fasano. Backups — Sean McGrath, Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Richard Gordon.

Production at tight end last season was a disappointment for the Chiefs, as Fasano battled injuries all season and Kelce did not play a down on offense due to a knee injury (53 catches, 541 yards, five touchdown catches). Fasano is a solid if unspectacular starter that can block and make most of the catches. Harris is the wild card at this spot; the former college basketball player showed catching skills during the offseason practices. Kelce was limited in all the offseason work, but he’s expected to get the green light for full work at training camp.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Charles Clay. Backups — Dion Sims, Michael Egnew, Kyle Miller, Arthur Lynch, Harold Hoskins.

Clay had a breakout season a year ago with 69 receptions for 759 yards and six touchdowns. If he can repeat that performance with defenses zeroing in on him, he’s legit. If not, Miami is in trouble. None of the other tight ends has showed he’s NFL caliber. Sims needs to improve his play speed and Egnew, while a decent blocker, needs to improve his hands. The Dolphins need a red-zone target and if it’s not Clay they don’t have an answer for that role at tight end.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Kyle Rudolph. Backups — Rhett Ellison, Allen Reisner, Chase Ford, AC Leonard.

Tight ends are among the weapons Turner has elevated to stardom in past seasons. Rudolph has always been in good shape, but he heads into his fourth training camp bigger and leaner than ever in part because he’s excited about what Turner has meant to the careers of tight ends such as Jay Novacek and Antonio Gates. Rudolph is a large target with long arms, soft hands and deceptive speed, although he’s not a burner. A broken foot in the eighth game last season derailed what could have become his most productive season and also contributed to the team’s downfall. Ellison might be the hardest-working player on the team. He’s limited as a receiver, but is a valuable blocker in space and at the point of attack. Reisner and Ford are former undrafted rookies who have shown soft hands and a knack for finding soft areas in a defense. Leonard, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee State, is an intriguing prospect in that he looks like a receiver in a 250-pound frame.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Rob Gronkowski. Backups — Michael Hoomanawanui, D.J. Williams, Justin Jones, Asa Watson.

The tight end spot is all about Gronkowski and his health. When on the field, Gronkowski has been the best in the game over the last three-plus seasons. He’s coming off a torn ACL, but is reportedly on target to be ready for Week 1. His 39 catches, 15.1-yard average and four scores in just six games last season injected life into an otherwise inconsistent and limited New England offense. He’ll be counted on to do that for a full 16 games in 2014 for the unit to overcome limitations elsewhere. There is limited potential and depth behind Gronkowski, as Hoomanawanui re-signed as the top backup after hauling in just 12 passes and one touchdown a year ago. Hoomanawanui proved last fall that when Gronkowski isn’t on the field, he’s simply not enough to make the tight end position a factor in the passing attack given his limited skills. Williams is a former practice squadder who missed time to injury this spring, potentially limiting his ability to take any opportunities that come up. Jones is an undrafted rookie and former basketball player with 6-foot-8 size, but missed his final year at East Carolina. He showed he is a very raw prospect this spring and a longshot to be much of an option in the near future, if at all. Watson is another rookie free agent who had virtually no production at North Carolina State. The brother of former Patriots first-round tight end Benjamin Watson is a longshot to be anything other than a camp body.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jimmy Graham. Backups — Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, Nic Jacobs, Je’Ron Hamm.

Graham missed all of the off-season workout program, but the only thing the Saints are worried about his working out a new deal with the club. After being franchised, Graham filed a grievance to be tagged as a wide receive because he lined up in the slot or out side 67 percent of the time in 2013. What he’s called doesn’t matter when you consider his productivity, which yielded 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and an NFL-leading 16 TD catches despite playing the final 10 games with a plantar fascia injury. Watson, a solid veteran, was a nice addition last season as a threat in the passing game — especially when teams tried to take Graham away — and is a solid blocker. Hill also made the team as an undrafted free agent and saw a lot of action as an extra blocker.

NEW YORK GIANTS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Adrien Robinson. Backups — Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells, Xavier Grimble.

The Giants’ tight end situation is a muddied mess right now, as no one from the five players listed on the depth chart has really distinguished himself as the No. 1 candidate. The team has hopes that Robinson, its fourth-round draft pick in 2012, can finally stay healthy and live up to his moniker, “the JPP of tight ends.” Donnell, meanwhile, is hoping that having a full offseason to learn in the classroom and work on the field — he missed last spring due to a broken foot — will make a difference for him. Davis has a reputation as being a solid inline blocker and could be one of the tight ends the Giants keep. Grimble, a rookie who is a Davis clone physically, could land up on the practice squad if he has a solid summer. He will need to show he is caught up with what is in the playbook.

NEW YORK JETS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jeff Cumberland. Backups — Jace Amaro, Zach Sudfeld, Chris Pantale, Colin Anderson, Terrence Miller.

The future at tight end for the Jets is Amaro, who shattered tight-end records at Texas Tech before being selected by the Jets in the second round of May’s draft. But Amaro’s learning curve is likely to be steep after playing in Texas Tech’s gadget offense, so Cumberland, whom the Jets re-signed to a three-year deal worth $5.7 million, should still be the starter and leading receiver at tight end this season. The Jets can certainly get by with Cumberland, who offers good hands and sneaky big-play ability (he averaged 15.3 yards per catch last year). Look for Amaro to experience plenty of growing pains before having a strong December, a la Geno Smith and Dee Milliner last season. Sudfeld and Pantale barely factored into the tight-end equation even before the Jets upgraded the position.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Mychal Rivera. Backups — David Ausberry, Nick Kasa, Brian Leonhardt, Jake Murphy, Scott Simonson.

By virtue of 38 receptions for 407 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, Rivera will be given every opportunity to exceed those numbers with a quarterback in Schaub who loves to throw to the tight end. He is not a prototype in-line blocking tight end, and neither is Ausberry, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury and split first-team work with Rivera in the offseason program. Kasa, a defensive end until his senior year at Colorado, has the kind of size to deal with defensive ends if not the experience. Leonhardt, Murphy and Simonson hope to catch the eyes of the coaching staff in camp and sneak onto the practice squad or even the 53-man roster if the Raiders don’t avail themselves of a street free agent or the waiver wire.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Brent Celek, Zach Ertz. Backups — James Casey, Emil Igwenagu, Trey Burton, Blake Annen.

The Eagles have big expectations for 2013 second-rounder Ertz. After missing most of last spring’s OTAs (Stanford is on the quarter semester system), he spent the first half of the season playing catch-up, but came on strong in the second half and finished with 36 receptions and four touchdowns. He is a difficult size-speed matchup for linebackers and safeties. Celek’s receiving numbers dropped last season, but his value as a blocker soared. He was a big reason the Eagles led the league in rushing. The Eagles, who used two tight-end sets about 30 percent of the time last season, are expected to employ them even more this year with Ertz’s emergence. Casey, who is a similar type player to Ertz, probably won’t see much playing time again, and could even get pushed for the No. 3 ob by undrafted rookie Trey Burton.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Heath Miller. Backups — Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer, David Paulson, Rob Blanchflower.

Miller missed the first two games last season after reconstructive knee surgery following the 2012 campaign and did not play as well as he had previously. The Steelers are expecting a big bounce-back season because they extended his contract. Spaeth, who missed 12 games last season with a foot injury, is a solid in-line blocker. Palmer passed Paulson on the depth chart last season and provides some help on special teams. If the Steelers keep four tight ends again it could be a battle between Paulson and Blanchflower, a seventh-round pick whose strength is blocking.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jared Cook. Backups — Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey, Justice Cunningham, Alex Bayer, Mason Brodine.

Kendricks will start games when the Rams open with two tight ends, as he has shown steady improvement as a blocker and receiver. He doesn’t have great speed, but still has a knack for getting open and making plays. Cook has the ability to stretch the field, and should open up things for the rest of the receivers. Harkey has also continued to get better, and, like Kendricks, can block and catch. The Rams have usually kept four tight ends, and there will be strong competition between Cunningham and Bayer, the undrafted free agent who looked good in OTAs. Brodine has switched from defensive end and is a decided longshot to make the roster.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green. Backups — David Johnson, John Phillips, Michael Flacco, Ryan Otten, Jake Byrne.

Gates isn’t what he once was, but he’s still reliable to find the sticks and get the first down — he just doesn’t have as many yards after the catch entering his 12th season. That said, Gates, an eight-time Pro Bowler, led the team with 77 receptions last year. Green has been Gates’ heir apparent for two years now and should take on a bigger role. He’s growing into his body and is making the progress the Chargers can’t ignore. Johnson will be the blocking tight end; Phillips still has to prove he can return from a serious knee injury.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Vernon Davis. Backups — Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Derek Carrier, Asante Cleveland, Kevin Greene.

Davis’ holdout provided McDonald a good opportunity to see reps as the team’s No. 1 tight end during the offseason program. The second-year player out of Rice struggled in the passing game with just eight catches for 119 yards in his rookie season, but showed improvement in his blocking assignments as the season wore on. Celek has been the team’s third blocking tight end for the last two seasons, but will be pushed by the more athletic Carrier in training camp this year.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Zach Miller. Backups — Luke Willson, Anthony McCoy, Cooper Helfet, RaShaun Allen, Chase Dixon.

Miller, an eight-year vet, restructured his deal to stay with the Seahawks. His 33 catches were the second-lowest of his NFL career, but he had five touchdowns and remains a trusted target in critical situations. He also remains the best blocking tight end the team has. Willson, a second-year player, is one of the fastest tight ends in the league, but will have to show better blocking to be an every-down player. McCoy missed last year with an Achilles injury, but has some big-play ability. Helfet hung around the practice squad last year and shows consistent hands. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Allen, an undrafted free agent signed after trying out at rookie minicamp, looks the part.

TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Tim Wright. Backups — Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker.

Wright, a converted wide receiver from Rutgers, burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, catching more than 50 passes and five touchdowns. He is a matchup problem for opposing defenses. At 6-foot-5, Jenkins will provide McCown with another big target. A former basketball player like wide receiver Mike Evans, he is one of the ‘Dunk-a-neers,’ as general manager Jason Licht has dubbed them. But Seferian-Jenkins missed nearly all of the offseason workouts, so his development as a rookie may be slowed. He nonetheless provides a weapon in the red zone. Stocker is coming off season-ending injuries the past two years and has not developed much as an in-line blocker. Myers, a free agent, is the most accomplished tight end among the group, having been featured by the Raiders and Giants.

TENNESSEE TITANS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens. Backups — Taylor Thompson, Dorin Dickerson, Adam Schiltz, Jason Schepler.

Walker came on at the end of last season both as a receiver and a locker-room leader. The Titans will continue to expand his role. Tennessee could use a lot of two-tight end sets with Walker as H-back, and Stevens, a forgotten man in the passing attack a year ago, on the field together. Thompson, a converted defensive end two years ago, needs to take a step forward as a pass-catcher. Well-traveled Dickerson joined the team at the final minicamp and will compete for a backup spot against undrafted free agents Schepler and Schiltz.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

–TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Jordan Reed. Backups — Logan Paulsen, Niles Paul, Ted Bolser.

Drafted in the third round out of Florida in 2013, Reed came to camp fourth-string behind expected starter Fred Davis, Paulsen and Paul. However, the rookie’s skills in the passing game were so apparent that he soon made Davis and Paul afterthoughts and was sharing the position with blocking specialist Paulsen. Reed had 17 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in consecutive games against Chicago and Denver, but three weeks after the latter contest, his season came to an abrupt end with a concussion at Philadelphia. With Davis gone, the job is now Reed’s to lose. If he becomes a stronger blocker, he could even make overachiever Paulsen — who filled in well when Davis was sidelined in 2011 and 2012 — somewhat superfluous. Converted receiver Paul hasn’t done much on offense during his three years in Washington but has shown a knack for covering kicks. However, since Washington really struggled in that area in 2013, he’s in jeopardy of losing his job to seventh-rounder Bolser, who excelled on special teams at Indiana.

–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

 

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