Under Tom Coughlin, the tight end position has been a revolving door. He inherited Jeremy Shockey, who talked his way out of town, and other than one season of Martellus Bennett in 2012, no player has distinguished himself. Kevin Boss was solid, but never spectacular, and everyone wants to forget the Brandon Myers experiment. Larry Donnell had a decent season in 2014, and has showed potential. The exclusive rights free agent will certainly be re-signed, but he’s not going to be confused with Mark Bavaro any time soon.
Bavaro is the gold standard by which all Giants tight ends will forever be measured. A tough, devastating run blocker, he paved the way for Joe Morris and Ottis Anderson’s finest season’s on the ground. When not knocking opponents down, he would run down the middle of their defense and haul in clutch passes from Phil Simms, none more memorable than the Monday Night in San Francisco when he dragged everyone but the groundskeeper with him before finally succumbing. Donnell is a big target, at 6’6″ and 265 lbs, and although relatively slow in the 40 yard dash at 4.91 seconds, creates mismatches with his height and the box out skills he learned on the basketball court.
Daniel Fells came to the Giants in 2014 after missing the 2013 season, not due to injury, but because he was unsigned. The 6’4″, 252 lbs, 7 year veteran quietly had a solid season, turning in good efforts as both a run blocker and receiver. He posted 16 receptions in 20 targets, with 188 receiving yards and 4 touchdown. While no one will confuse him with Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, Fells may be an under-the-radar solid second level signing in free agency and secure a low end starting role or share a spot with a young player as he did with Donnell. Reese will certainly attempt to re-sign him, but given the lack of quality players on the free agent tight ends on the market, that may prove a difficult proposition.
Adrien Robinson and Jerome Cunningham are also on the Giants roster. Robinson has never filled the potential advertised when he was taken in the 4th round of the 2012 draft. He was able to stay on the field in 2014 and make small contributions, but he was firmly the third tight end. Cunningham is an interesting, raw prospect out of Southern Connecticut State University, the 6’3″, 214 lbs rookie spent most of the season on the practice squad after impressing the coaches throughout training camp. If he takes a leap in his second season, he might supplant Robinson.
To be a truly elite tight end in the NFL, a Rob Gronkowski, a player must be able to block for the running game and present match up problems for opposing defenses. No player in this year’s free agency class meets that standard, and therefore there are no “Premium” players listed below. Now that everyone is thinking “What about Jordan Cameron? And Julius Thomas?” an explanation is in order.
Cameron has suffered a concussion severe enough to cause him to miss games in each of the past three seasons. Given the NFL’s added scrutiny of player head injuries following the legal action taken by former players (Lay the blame there, not on the owners, Roger Goodell, or the officials), signing Cameron comes with increased risk. He is also a horrific run blocker, which explains why the Browns running game has been lackluster despite a good offensive line. Cameron has started 29 games in the past three seasons and put up an impressive 124 receptions for 1,567 yards receiving and 10 touchdown despite the revolving door at quarterback in Cleveland, but he is not worth a long term contract or big money given his injury risk and lack of run blocking skill.
Julius Thomas came into the league in 2011, but no one heard of him until 2013 when he burst onto the scene with a huge opening night game against the defending world champion Baltimore Ravens. He missed the majority of the 2011 season with an ankle injury and then was stuck behind Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen on the depth chart in 2012. The coaching staff and John Elway started to notice him in late that season, which fueled his 2013 emergence. Thomas is almost as horrible a run blocker as Cameron and has continued to struggle to stay on the field with ankle injuries during the past two seasons. This combination of issues, and his high asking price, makes signing him a gamble, and one the Giants can’t afford to take.
With no “Premium” player on the horizon, we will start our review by looking at the the mid level free agents that can be brought in to compete to be role players on the team. Performance information cited in the article is gleaned from profootballfocus.com, while contract information is taken from overthecap.com. Both are solid resources for the serious NFL fan.
Limited Snap/Improving Players:
Virgil Green, 26, 6’3″, 248 lbs, 5th season, Denver: The opposite of Thomas, Green came into the league in the same draft class as the blocking tight end and has excelled in his role. An average receiver at best, Green has also bested Thomas in the injury department, staying relatively healthy over his 4 NFL seasons. Starting 14 of 41 career games, including 9 of 13 last year, Green would be a bargain signing in a league that pays for fantasy football statistics over a quality blocking at the position. He would complement Donnell and help power the Giants running game.
Luke Stocker, 26, 6’5″, 255 lbs, 5th season, Tampa Bay: Coming off a hip injury that saw him land in injured reserve for the 2013 season, Stocker did not transition well to the Lovie Smith regime in Tampa. After starting 11 games in 2012 and playing in all 16, Stocker was seen as an ascending talent. Those numbers dipped to 7 starts in just 13 games last year, and his performance dropped off commensurately. The Giants could sign him for the veteran minimum and attempt to revive his career.
Richard Gordon, 27, 6’3″, 262, 5th season, Kansas City: Having played very sparingly last season behind Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano, Gordon’s performance up ticked. Already a veteran of four NFL team in as many seasons, a series of nagging hand, hamstring, and toe injuries have slowed Gordon’s development. Another bargain basement player with potential, the Giants could bring Gordon in for a look-see for the veteran minimum and let him go in August if things don’t work out. The worst case scenario is an injury settlement, which is usually half of the player’s salary.
David Ausberry, 27, 6’3″, 235 lbs, 5th season, Oakland: Ausberry is a highly talented, but oft injured tight end who has been penciled in as starter for the Raiders each of the past 2 season before a shoulder injury ended his 2013 season and foot and knee injuries derailed 2014. In limited snaps, Ausberry rated out well as both a blocker and receiver, would be another veteran minimum contract player, and if he stays healthy might fulfill the potential the Raiders have seen all along.
Matt Spaeth, 31, 6’7″, 270 lbs, 9th season, Pittsburgh: A devastating run blocker, Spaeth is also a huge red zone target with average hands. He started 18 games for the Steelers over the past 3 seasons, and played in 35, as his 2013 season was cut short with a Lisfranc injury. Spaeth came back strong in 2014, playing in 15 games with 8 starts, and is just the kind of blocker needed to make the Giants running game purr like a content kitten.
Jacob Tamme, 29, 6’4″, 234 lbs, 8th season, Denver: Tamme is a receiving tight end who holds his own as a blocker. He followed Peyton Manning fro Indianapolis to Denver, and will therefore be hard to pry away from the Broncos, but given is relative good health, strong receiving skills, and veteran leadership, the Giants would be smart to look at bringing him in if Fells signs elsewhere. Tamme did suffer a concussion in 2011, but has not since, making the future risk seem minimal.
James Casey, 30, 6’3″, 235 lbs, 7th season, Philadelphia: Casey plays fullback in addition to tight end and signed a 3 year, $12 million contract with the Eagles before the 2013 season. Released last month in a salary cap move, he will not realize the last $4 million of that deal. Casey is an average blocker and good receiver with no serious injury history. Signing him would provide veteran leadership for Donnell and provide insight into the Eagles offense to Steve Spagnuolo. That’s worth at least $2 million, isn’t it? Or maybe $1.5?
Bear Pascoe, 29, 6’5″, 257 lbs, 7th season, Atlanta: Pascoe was with the Giants from 2009 to 2013 before signing with the Falcons for the veteran minimum last off season. A veteran minimum reunion would seem to be in order if the Giants need a replacement for Fells. Pascoe is known for his blocking skills, plays some fullback, and has not missed any games due to injury over the past three seasons. Plus Bear is a good nickname for a tight end; Pascoe’s given name is McKenna.
There are only about two dozen unrestricted free agent tight ends poised to hit the market when free agency open next Tuesday afternoon. With Larry Donnell’s emergence as a receiving threat, the Giants need is not as dire as it seemed a year ago at this time, but his lack of skill as a run blocker will hold their offense back from reaching it’s full potential. Blocking can be taught and Donnell is a willing student, bringing in a strong blocker like Spaeth, Pascoe, or Green will provide a role model and run down specialist to help push the pile. Keep an eye on Cunningham, he could be the next free agent surprise to burst onto the scene.
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