It looks to be a very poor year for the free agent tight end in 2016. Few players have stood out this season and those who have are both big surprises for older players who likely won’t see a big spike in value because of their age. So let’s see who is available and what their costs might be next season.
Antonio Gates, Chargers
Gates is nearing the end of his career but is still very productive when healthy. He missed four games this year due to suspension and will still likely finish with close to 600 yards which is pretty impressive. Obviously the major negative is age as Gates will be 36 next season, which in football years for a non-quarterback is like the equivalent of being 55 years old. So many older players who switch teams fail that I don’t think there will be much interest in Gates outside of San Diego, especially seeing what is happening with Andre Johnson in Indianapolis this year.
Gates’ logical asking price is going to be $7 million per year on a two year deal, which is what Tony Gonzalez received at the end of his career in Atlanta. There are two differences I see with the two situations. One is that the Falcons were in a “win now” mode when they made the move for Gonzalez while the Chargers are going to get a high draft pick. The other is that the Falcons have overspent for players they want while the Chargers don’t have that same tendency. The two sides will likely split the difference between Gates current $5.9 million salary and the $7 million number and hammer out an extension right before free agency begins.
Predicted Value: 2 years, $12-$13.3 million
Coby Fleener, Colts
All of the troubles surrounding the Colts offense and Andrew Luck’s performance this year have not allowed Fleener to maximize his value. Fleener pretty much has all the traits needed to have a successful free agency run, but it would have been nice to go into free agency close to 1,000 yards rather than struggling to reach the 500 yard mark for the season. It’s difficult to explain why his numbers have dropped as far as they have this year, including a terrible 8.5 yards per catch, but we have seen teams in the past look beyond the walk year number if they believe in the player.
He’s a bit older than Jared Cook and Martellus Bennett were when they hit free agency, but in terms of career progression and player expectations I see these as reasonable comp players. Cook found a desperate team to break the $7 million mark and was two years younger than Fleener so that should not be a number Fleener can reach though I never write off the Colts on overpaying for someone. Bennett is probably the better comp and signed for just over $5 million, which is where Fleener should settle with some team, whether Indianapolis or elsewhere.
Predicted Value: 4 years, $19-$23 million
Gary Barnidge, Browns
Somehow Barnidge is on pace to put up 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdown after a seven year career that produced about 600 total yards and 3 career touchdowns. If he was 27 there would be no doubt in my mind some team would pay him over $6 million a year to play for them, but he’ll be 31 years old and there is no logical reason to expect anything but a return to 200 yard seasons and giving some ok run blocking unless a contract simply dictates more targets.
He’s playing this year for $1.25 million and has certainly earned a raise, but more in the Anthony Fasano range of $2.7 million a year on a two year contract. If the Browns don’t keep him expect him to land on a team with either limited cap space or a tendency to sign low cost players hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.
Predicted Value: 2 years, $5.5-$7 million
Ladarius Green, Chargers
Green is one of those players who everyone seems to be waiting for to have a big year and while he has had some moments, he still struggles with injuries and consistency in his game. Still I tend to think that there is going to be at least one team out there that sees potential in a 26 year old player who has upside and overpays for his services. Green’s best case comparable is Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings who was a young player with potential that scored big on a contract extension. Green is not the all around player that Rudolph is nor was he drafted as highly but if you wanted to argue something crazy for him that’s the player to use.
More likely his maximum will be in the Virgil Green range of $2.8 million a year with maybe some incentives that could boost the deal higher. If interest is low and he overplays his hand he’ll end up in the Jeff Cumberland and Andrew Quarless tier between $1.5 and $2 million a year on a two or three year contract.
Predicted Value: 3 years, $6-8 million
Ben Watson, Saints
Watson has had an unbelievable season filling in for Jimmy Graham, which is amazing considering he is 36 years old. There won’t be much of a market for Watson outside of New Orleans but the Saints should pay him between $1.6 and $2 million, all guaranteed, to return next season. The only way I see him playing elsewhere would be if Drew Brees was traded in the offseason. If that was to occur it would not be a surprise to see Watson sign with that team.
Predicted Value: 1 year, $1.6 to $2 million
Jermaine Gresham, Cardinals
Gresham was a very promising player just a few years ago, but his game fell off the last few seasons and injuries were a concern. Gresham had no interest in the offseason because of his injury and falling numbers. While he has played in about 60% of his teams snaps he has been generally unproductive as a receiver and is on pace to not even finish with 300 yards. It should be another 1 year contract for him and in a different city if he wants to be more of an offensive factor, though a strong close to the season would greatly increase his value.
Predicted Value: 1 year, $1.2 to $1.5 million
Vernon Davis, Broncos
At this stage of his career Davis is little more than name value. He has not been productive for the last two years and has not lit the world on fire since being traded to the Broncos a few weeks ago. Davis needs a major close to his season to continue his career as I think interest around the league will be very lukewarm and he may be more of a summer reinforcement player than a free agent signing.
Predicted Value: 1 year, $1.0 to $1.5 million
Best of the Rest
Marcedes Lewis has played for years in Jacksonville, many of those years for big money despite the lack of production, and he will likely be back there again on a one year deal…Zach Miller of the Bears had a big game the other week, but in general is a minimum salary player that will need to fight to make a team…Dwayne Allen can never break out in the Colts offense, but might be looked at as a nice upside risk on a one year contract elsewhere…Garrett Celek of the 49ers will get opportunities to prove he can be an important part of the offense.
The Free Agent Class
Here is the current group of players we have listed as unrestricted free agents this upcoming season. Projections are based on how players performed so far and how many games are remaining for their team.
|Player||2015 Team||Age||Snaps||Special Teams||Proj. Games||Proj. Tgt||Proj Rec.||Proj Yds||Proj Yds.||Y/R||Catch %|
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.