1. Julius Thomas
Julius Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning. He’s a candidate to be overpaid on the open market this off-season.
2. Charles Clay
Clay, a 2011 6th round pick, has broken out as a solid pass catching tight end over the past 2 seasons, catching 69 passes for 759 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2013 and 58 passes for 605 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s not much of an inline blocker, but the collegiate fullback can line up all over the formation and create matchup problems. The Dolphins have slapped the transition tag on him and will have the right of first refusal on any deal he signs this off-season.
3. Jordan Cameron
Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, after playing just 398 snaps and catching 26 passes in his first 2 seasons in the league. Cameron didn’t match that production in 2014 though, as he missed 6 games and caught just 24 passes for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron heads into free agency as a one year wonder with a concerning concussion history and no full 16 game seasons played. Even his 2013 season wasn’t as good as his numbers looked as he was fortunate enough to be on one of the pass heaviest teams in the NFL. His 1.47 yards per route run was 19thamong eligible tight ends. He’s also graded out below average as a run blocker in each of the last 3 seasons, including 60th out of 67 eligible in that facet in 2014. He could be overpaid this off-season.
4. Lance Kendricks
Lance Kendricks was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but only caught 129 passes for 1388 yards and 13 touchdowns in 4 seasons with the Rams. He maxed out with 42 catches for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012, when he played 875 snaps, and largely served as a #2 tight end and blocking tight end over the past 2 seasons with Jared Cook in town. He’ll probably serve a similar role in his next destination and won’t command a lot of money on the open market.
5. James Casey
When the Eagles signed James Casey to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, they envisioned the fullback/tight end as a jack of all traits matchup nightmare. That vision didn’t become a reality though as he’s played just 330 snaps on offense in his first 2 seasons in Philadelphia. The Eagles saved 4 million in cash and cap space by cutting him this off-season, but he can still contribute to a team.
6. Owen Daniels
Owen Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008 and has missed 27 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He’s also going into his age 33 season. However, he had a decent season in 2014, catching 48 passes for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns on 72 attempts (66.7%) and 410 routes run (1.29 yards per route run) in 15 games. He’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons and he’s a decent run blocker too. He’s a borderline starter with little long-term upside and should be paid like one, but he could still be a solid veteran addition for a team. He’s played his whole career for Gary Kubiak, first in Houston where he was head coach and then Baltimore where he was offensive coordinator, and could follow Kubiak to Denver, where the Broncos are in need of a tight end with Julius Thomas likely to leave in free agency.
7. Jermaine Gresham
Jermaine Gresham, a 2010 1st round pick, somehow made the Pro-Bowl in both 2011 and 2012, but has hardly been a Pro-Bowl caliber player thus far in his 5 year career. His receiving numbers aren’t horrible (280 catches for 2722 yards and 24 touchdowns in 74 career games), but he’s a terrible run blocker and one of the most penalized tight ends in the game. He’s graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. He was a little better in 2014, but he ranked 61st out of 62 eligible tight ends in 2012 and 64th out of 64 eligible in 2013. With 2013 1st round pick Tyler Eifert in the mix and ready for a bigger role in 2015, I don’t expect Gresham back with the Bengals.