NFL Free Agent Signings - TE Recap - Bennett, Keller, Cook, Walker & Myers
With tight ends becoming increasingly involved in the pass-happy offenses of the NFL these days, players at the position are being used and getting paid like wide receivers. As a result, top tight ends are commanding big dollars in free agency, and even average players at the position that have shown potential are getting a lot of attention. Tony Gonzalez was the biggest fish in the free agent pool as far as tight ends go, but even after the veteran decided to forgo retirement and re-sign with the Atlanta Falcons, there were still several players at the position still in play in free agency. Jared Cook, Delanie Walker, Brandon Myers, Dustin Keller and Martellus Bennett were five of those players, and all recently landed new homes for the 2013-14 NFL season. With that in mind, here is an early look at what fantasy owners can expect from each player going forward and how they could impact the fantasy value of some of their teammates, as well.
Jared Cook, TE STL: After speculation that Tennessee would franchise Cook turned out to be false, the tight end signed a five-year deal with the St. Louis Rams worth $35.1 million. While the fact that the Titans let Cook leave was a bit of surprise, his decision to go to St. Louis was anything but. The move reunites Cook with Jeff Fisher, who originally drafted him in 2009 when he was still coaching Tennessee. From a fantasy standpoint, landing in an offense in need of a playmaker in the passing game with a coach that obviously believes in him could be just what the perennially underutilized tight end needs to help his on-field numbers match his physical gifts.
After all, we are talking about a guy that is 6'5" and weighs around 250 pounds that has a 40-plus inch vertical leap and a sub 4.50 40-yard dash time. There is no reason that his career highs during his four seasons in the NFL should include just 49 catches and four touchdowns. With quarterback Sam Bradford still searching for a go-to option in St. Louis, Cook has a chance to immediately become one of the main weapons in the passing game. Incumbent Lance Kendricks managed 42 catches for 519 yards last year, and Cook brings far more explosiveness and athleticism to the table. A full year as a featured target in an offense could easily vault Cook into the top 10 at his position. Plain and simple, a career year across the board isn't out of the question, and Bradford could benefit as result.
Of course, there is also the chance that Cook simply becomes the latest player that fails to develop alongside Bradford, and there is a reasonable possibility that the problems that have been plaguing the Rams' offense start under center and not with the supporting cast. Cook could simply be leaving one unstable situation for another. While he is more than capable of producing numbers worthy of a starting spot on fantasy rosters, assuming he will do so could be a recipe for disaster on draft day. Yes, the upside is there, and Cook could turn out to be one of the bigger sleepers of the season. However, I wouldn't recommend putting all your chips in Cook's basket when it comes to your tight end spot just yet.
Martellus Bennett, TE CHI: Although his first year as a New York Giant was his best as a pro, Bennett signed a four-year deal worth $20.4 million to join the Chicago Bears. With his 6'6" frame and above-average athleticism, the former second-round pick has always had the physical tools to be a difference maker in the passing game. He showed signs of becoming just that last year, and while his production was up and down from week to week, Chicago's desperate need for another target for quarterback Jay Cutler could mean a big year for Bennett.
After four forgettable seasons as Jason Witten's backup in Dallas, his 55 catches, 626 yards and five touchdowns with the Giants were all career highs. Of course, his 55 catches came on 90 targets, so it isn't like he was hauling in everything that came his way. Still, the Bears' absolute lack of a reliable option behind Brandon Marshall should at least force Bennett's numbers to be respectable based on a high volume of targets alone. Keep in mind that Marshall led Chicago with 118 catches and 1,508 yards last year, while receiver Earl Bennett ranked second with just 375 yards and running back Matt Forte ranked third with only 44 catches. With opposing defenses double covering Marshall on a routine basis, Bennett should have room to operate in the middle of the field and in the red zone. He could see a slight bump across the board in his numbers, making him a legitimate option as a starting tight end in fantasy leagues.
On the flip side, some inconsistencies are bound to remain. Bennett seemed to disappear at times last year, and Chicago's shaky offensive line and Cutler's occasional risky throws are going to produce some bad games. That being said, the good should outweigh the bad. After all, Cutler threw a career-high 27 touchdowns in his first year with Greg Olsen as his tight end, while Olsen posted his second-best total in both receptions and yards to go along with a career-high eight touchdowns. Bennett's arrival in Chicago should help his own numbers and Cutler's; and while neither is going to be an elite option, Bennett could become a top-10 option at tight end and Cutler a top-15 QB.
Delanie Walker, TE TEN: A trickle-down effect of the aforementioned departure of Jared Cook was that the Tennessee Titans suddenly had a hole to fill at tight end. They solved it by signing Walker to a four-year $17.5 million deal. The former 49er is a bit undersized for the position, but he was a solid blocker in San Francisco's power running game and agile enough to run a variety of routes. That being said, Walker spent most his seven-year career with the 49ers as a No. 2 tight end in the passing game, and while he may help Chris Johnson's rushing stats a bit, Walker's own numbers aren't guaranteed to improve.
As he prepares for his first year with the Titans, Walker's career highs include 29 catches, 331 yards and three touchdowns. Those aren't exactly the numbers of a starting-caliber tight end on a fantasy football team or even backup-caliber numbers for that matter. Meanwhile, Walker has also been plagued by drops over his career. Last year alone, he ranked sixth in the NFL with nine drops, despite being targeted just 39 times. If he is going to drop the football that much in a limited role, what will his total be if he indeed becomes a featured target in Tennessee? Not to mention the fact that Jake Locker isn't exactly the most consistent quarterback in the first place.
In the best case scenario, Walker's ability to contribute on both running and passing downs will earn him ample snaps, and his numbers will see a boost simply by the increased workload. That being said, he is essentially a career backup with a history of drops and catching passes from a guy with a 55.5 completion percentage for his career. It is hard to see Walker developing into anything more than a bye week fill-in that you can simply grab off waivers.
Brandon Myers, TE, NYG: After toiling in obscurity for the first three years of his pro career, Myers erupted last season to the tune of 79 catches for 806 yards and four scores. Those totals dwarfed his numbers from his first three seasons combined and made Myers one of the top free agent tight ends. The New York Giants wasted little time signing him to a four-year, $14.25 million deal rather than making an offer to last year's starter Martellus Bennett, and Eli Manning's newest target could be primed for a big year.
After all, Manning leaned (or at least tried to lean) on Bennett heavily last year, targeting him 90 times. However, Bennett's inconsistent play and trouble with drops kept him from having a special season. Myers collected his 79 catches on 105 targets, proving to be a steady, reliable option for Carson Palmer all season. Now, he gets to join an offense with a better quarterback and better receivers. With Hakeem Nicks and likely Victor Cruz stretching the field, Myers should have plenty of room to operate over the middle and underneath coverages. All the pieces are in place for Myers to become one of the more consistent tight ends in the game, and he should at least set a new career high in touchdowns.
Of course, there is always a chance that he will be nothing more than a safety valve for Manning, while the receivers pile up the big points, but with as much as New York throws the ball, there should be plenty of catches to go around. At age 27 and in his new role as Manning's latest toy in the Giants' passing game, Myers should be able to solidify himself as a top 10 option at the position.
Dustin Keller, TE, MIA: The Dolphins were busy in the offseason, and one of their newest additions was tight end Dustin Keller. The former New York Jet signed a one-year deal worth $4.25 million, joining receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson in Miami's reloaded offense. After establishing himself as a respectable fantasy option as the main (and often only) target of Mark Sanchez, Keller will have to carve out a new role in Dolphins' offense with multiple weapons. That being said, less could actually mean more for Keller's fantasy value in the upcoming season.
Injuries basically made the 2012-13 season a lost year for Keller, but in his first four years in New York, he was targeted at least 78 times each year and had more than 500 yards in each season, as well. His peak was a 65-catch, 815-yard campaign, but even though he may never see the 100-plus targets in Miami that he saw in New York, he should be able to do a lot more damage with the looks he does get.
Granted, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill is inexperienced, but he has a huge arm that can stretch the field, whereas Sanchez basically dumped the ball off underneath every time. With speedsters Wallace, Gibson and Brian Hartline testing opposing secondaries on the edge, Keller should be free to make big plays over the middle of the field. He is faster and more athletic than he ever got a chance to show in New York, and Keller will be plenty motivated to show his stuff after signing just a one-year contract. The best case scenario is that Keller becomes Tannehill's go-to guy, and the two both have career years. Even if that doesn't happen, Keller should at least be able to put up the numbers he was averaging in New York. Either way, he deserves to be on fantasy rosters, and there is the potential that he could be one of the stronger tight ends.