NFL - Free Agent TEs - On the Move
It's no secret that the NFL is becoming a more quarterback-driven league, and the role of the tight end is rapidly evolving as a result. Once an afterthought for a fantasy team, guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are becoming worthy of first-round picks. The players at the position are getting bigger, faster and more skilled, and the days of competing for a fantasy football title without a serviceable tight end are just about gone. As a result, it as important as ever to keep tabs on what is going on with the better players at the position with NFL free agency set to begin. After all, a player's value can be drastically different depending on where they end up in 2013. With that in mind, here is a closer look at what the future might hold for some of the NFL's top tight ends.
TE Jared Cook, STL - Sleeper (undervalued)
According to several sources (including Titans' beat writer Jim Wyatt), it is looking more and more likely that Tennessee is going to slap the franchise tag on Cook for the 2013 season, paying him roughly $5.9 million. It appears the Titans would like to keep Cook in town for the foreseeable future, but the two sides aren't close to a long-term deal. The lack of progress isn't too surprising considering Cook has been frustrated with his role in the Tennessee offense for most of his career, and it's hard to blame him. Despite possessing above average athleticism and speed for a tight end, Cook has never had more than 49 catches or four touchdowns in season during his four-year career. Despite being underutilized thus far, there is some hope for Cook going forward if the Titans do indeed franchise him. After all, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains made it clear when he debuted in Week 13 last year that he wanted to get Cook involved in the game plan. Cook was targeted a season-high 12 times in Loggains' first game as the play-caller and had a touchdown the following game before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Plain and simple, Cook has the skills to be a pass-catching, offensive weapon at the tight end spot. Heck, the big guy moves fast enough to have an 80-yard touchdown catch on his resume. Given a more prominent role in the Titans' offense, there is no reason he can't produce like a top-10 player at the position. The fact that he has basically been a bust thus far should drive down his price tag in fantasy leagues, but the fact that he will likely be playing for a long-term deal and playing for a coordinator that wants to get him more involved could make Cook an excellent sleeper option at tight end in 2013.
TE Jermichael Finley, FA* - Quality Backup
After teasing fantasy owners with his potential and disappointing them with his inconsistency for the better part of five years, deciding whether or not to start Finley has become one of the toughest decisions in fantasy football. Now, the Green Bay Packers are about to have to make a tough decision about the tight end that is coming off a career-high 61 catches, but was also second among players at his position in drops. Finley is due a $3 million roster bonus in March, and if the Packers bring him back in 2013, his $8.75 million salary would make him the second-highest paid player at the position behind only the massively overpaid Zach Miller in Seattle. Releasing Finley is also a realistic option, and it would save the team $8.25 million in cap space for the upcoming season. The final option, and I think the Packers' preference, is to restructure Finley's contract into a multi-year deal that provides some short-term cap relief. If you have seen Finley play, you already know he has almost-unfair speed and agility for a 6'5", 250-pound guy, and at times, he can dominate a game. Plain and simple, his particular combination of size and athleticism doesn't come around often. That being said, Aaron Rodgers has already shown that he can put points on the board whether Finley is involved in the game plan or not. More importantly, Finley and his agent Blake Baratz don't seem willing to concede much in the way of compensation. I wouldn't be surprised if Green Bay releases him after the two sides can't agree on a restructured deal. From a fantasy standpoint, leaving Green Bay might not be a terrible thing for Finley, even though he leaves Rodgers and the high-powered Green Bay passing attack. Finley has enough upside that teams will be lining up to sign him, and while he has been just another weapon for Rodgers the last few seasons, he would become one of the main targets on just about any other team. Finley might not have the 150-yard, three-touchdown games in a new setting, but those frustrating one-catch games should also disappear. A little consistency would go a long way to boosting his fantasy value, and Finley could definitely find that with a featured role in a new offense. The offensively-starved Chiefs are one team in particular that could come calling, along with the Atlanta Falcons if Tony Gonzalez decides to retire. I also have a feeling Cleveland could be a player. The Browns' new offensive coordinator Norv Turner loves to utilize the tight end in his offenses, and Turner made a fantasy stud out of an athletic specimen named Antonio Gates in San Diego.
TE Dustin Keller, FA - Quality Backup
Contract talks between Keller and the New York Jets are set to begin at the scouting combine, and while the team could definitely use his pass-catching skills, Jason La Confora of CBS Sports is one of several sources that say a new deal is unlikely. The sticking point is New York's cap situation. The Jets entered the offseason $25 million over the cap, and although the front office has already started slashing payroll, and despite Keller reportedly being high on the Jets' list of free agents to resign, the tight end could be another casualty. A long-term deal that is cap-friendly in the short term seems like the only possible scenario for keeping Keller in New York, and I'm not sure how friendly Keller's side is going to be when the 28-year-old should have plenty of other suitors. Keller has made it clear that he does not want to get hit with the franchise tag, and New York really can't afford the almost $6 million price anyway. Assuming he does hit the market, which is still not a given, teams like Chicago and Philadelphia are among the many that could be in the mix for Keller. However, his fantasy value could be the highest if he is somehow able to stay put. After all, he is basically the only player that Mark Sanchez is able to throw the ball to on a consistent basis. Injuries basically ruined his 2012 season, but in 2011, he caught 65 passes for 815 yards and five scores. In fact, Keller topped 500 yards in his first four years in the league and averaged 53 catches. He wasn't an elite option by any means, but he was a consistent, highly-targeted tight end. A move to a new offense with a better QB and more weapons would likely mean a few more touchdowns and some bigger plays for Keller. On the flip side, don't be surprised if he gets lost in the shuffle at times and ends up becoming more of a boom or bust option from week to week.