The construction of the Free Agent Big Board is in nearing completion. So far, we've looked at:
Now, it is time to take a look at the tight end position.
The Cowboys are still rolling with the ageless Jason Witten at tight end which has been a strategy that has worked out marvelously for them over the last decade. Witten will be 34 years old when the 2016 season begins. The 10-time Pro Bowler has been a consistent fixture in the Cowboys' offense. While he continues to accumulate the receiving stats that will send him to Canton, Witten's blocking contributions make him one of the most complete tight ends the game has seen.
But Witten is just one guy. The Cowboys, who are committed to running the ball, rely on a second tight end. While Witten will receive about 1,000 snaps, another 500 snaps will need to come from some combination of the other tight end resources. Last year, that responsibility was shared equally between Gavin Escobar and James Hanna. An Achilles injury to Escobar means he's not likely to be a part of the equation in the first part of the new season. And Hanna is a free agent. So the quest for tight end number two is something the Cowboys will be giving some attention to. Last year, they drafted Geoff Swaim as a potential replacement. Swaim saw just 27 snaps in 2016 and is a considerable drop off from what the other two backup tight ends can do.
What type of player should the Cowboys be looking at to give them some depth at the position?
Before we look at this year's group of free agents, let's see what we can learn from last off-season. Here are the top 20 free agent running backs last year, the amount they signed for, and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, grades courtesy of PFF):
At first glance, the tight end position looks like any other position when it comes to free agency. There are a few guys that other teams are willing to throw a lot of money at. After two straight 12-touchdown seasons with the Denver Broncos, Julius Thomas left for Jacksonville for a big contract. He had five touchdowns last season. The Cleveland Browns don't do a lot things right, but letting Pro Bowl TE Jordan Cameron walk was one of them. Cameron left for Miami, but then Gary Barnidge stepped in and had over 1,000 yards receiving, nine touchdowns, and a trip to the Pro Bowl himself.
Spending a lot of money to get your quick-fix of tight end doesn't look like a very good idea. Fortunately, the Cowboys won't be venturing down that road. Instead, they will be looking for a cheaper sign who can complement Witten. Judging from last year, finding some bargain-priced tight ends shouldn't be a problem, but at the same time - nobody is finding any diamonds in the rough with this group. The Cowboys will need to do their best to find a good player from the discount-bin who is a good fit for the offense.
So what kind of options do the Cowboys have for 2016?
This year's tight end class doesn't have a group of stand-outs to choose from. San Diego's Ladarius Green sits alone at the top. At the young age of 26, he should get himself a nice contract. Because of the shortage of supply of elite tight ends, the next tier could see their price driven up. Maybe a team is looking for a short-term rental and would be willing to pay for a proven veteran like Antonio Gates or bank on the recent production of Zack Miller. Or a team may be looking for a more athletic tight end that hasn't yet unleashed his full potential. Dwayne Allen and Jared Cook are a couple of those types of players.
But after that, it's garage sale time. And this is where the Cowboys' interest will be. After all, nobody is going to take snaps away from Witten. If the Cowboys add a free agent tight end, it's going to be someone who can be a reserve.
Who are some guys the Cowboys should take a look at?
The New England Patriots just recently released the veteran tight end, clearing $2 million in cap space. Chandler only caught 23 passes for 259 yards last season, but he contributes in other ways. He was one play short of 400 snaps last year, and finished in the top 10 in run blocking for tight ends. Chandler won't have any problem finding work and his asking price will be a little higher compared to other bargain-basement options.
Prediction: Not likely. For the right price, he'd be a great add as he's the best "right-now" choice of all the low-cost alternatives. His price should be slightly out of the range of what Dallas is willing to invest.
Kyle Rudolph is the Minnesota Vikings receiving tight end, but they had another guy who was a key contributor. In his four seasons with the Vikings, Rhett Ellison has quietly been one of the key blockers for running back, Adrian Peterson. Our SB Nation Vikings affiliate, Daily Norseman, recently highlighted his under-the-radar contribution to the team:
Tight end Rhett Ellison, who serves as both an in-line blocker and occasional fullback, suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right leg and will miss the remainder of the Vikings' season. He was the Vikings' fourth-round pick out of USC in the 2012 NFL Draft, and has developed into one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL
Ellison is a guy that isn't going to show up in the stat sheet very frequently, but he's absolutely a vital part of the Minnesota offense because of his blocking abilities.
Prediction: Not likely. Minnesota knows what they have in Ellison. While he's just a role player, it's a meaningful role and it's going to be hard to outbid the Vikings for his services. The Cowboys just won't pony up the cash needed to bring him to Dallas.
When the Cowboys just had to have Geoff Swaim in last year's draft, it seemed like the writing on the wall was going to be that Hanna was playing his last season in Dallas. While that may still be true, the Cowboys cannot easily replace his contribution to the team. Hanna is essentially invisible as a receiver, but his value comes in what he can do as a blocker. He was a key piece to the teams stellar running game in 2014 and he followed it up by being graded out as the 11th best run blocking TE last season.
Not only does Hanna fill in nicely as a blocking tight end in 12 personnel, he is a solid contributor on special teams. He's just one of those unsung commodities that coaches love having on their team.
Prediction: Good chance. The Cowboys like Hanna and should work to make sure he remains in Dallas.
Are there any free agent tight ends you'd like to see come to Dallas?