The NFL free agency period opens in one month (March 12, 4 p.m.) and the Buccaneers could be looking to upgrade the tight end position this season.
Last season’s starter, Dallas Clark, is an unrestricted free agent, and while there is interest from the Buccaneers to re-sign the former Colts star, it isn’t clear if Clark wants to be back in Tampa Bay, or if he even wants to continue to play football.
Clark performed well last season – when given the opportunity. Questions have arisen if the tight end is even a focus of offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s offense, or was it a case of too many other options Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Doug Martin) performing well?
Does it make sense to design a gameplan that features a tight end with limited big-play ability, especially when you have two playmakers in Jackson and Williams who combined to average 17 yards per catch in 2012?
If Sullivan doesn’t plan on featuring the tight end in 2013, the need to lure a veteran or even draft one drops dramatically. However, could the reason Clark didn’t have a great season rest on Clark himself? That was, and probably still is, part of the offseason evaluation process.
Clark finished 2012 with 47 receptions for 435 yards and three touchdowns, and Clark managed to stay healthy for the year, something that some wondered if possible when the season began.
Behind Clark last season was former Volunteer Luke Stocker, Nate Byham, Drake Dunsmore and Danny Nobles, none of which showed enough to make head coach Greg Schiano and Sullivan content and confident if Clark isn’t re-signed.
Stocker seemed to play better as the season went on, but still only finished with 16 catches for 165 yards and one TD, and Byham’s 2012 tally was just three receptions for 18 yards and a single score.
Stocker and Byham were primarily used as additional tackles in the running game, and both were good in that capacity.
Below are five tight ends that will be unrestricted free agents when contracts expire on March 12. Martellus Bennett- New York Giants
If the Buccaneers are able to re-sign defensive end Michael Bennett, it could go a long way in helping recruiting his brother Martellus to Tampa Bay. Maybe the brothers give general manager Mark Dominik a “family package discount.” Although that is unlikely, both Bennett brothers have expressed a desire to play on the same team, so whichever team re-signs their player first, may have an inside track on getting the other brother.
Martellus Bennett has come a long way from his 2008 rookie season, where the HBO series Hard Knocks documented a sometimes lazy and unmotivated player. Bennett didn’t exactly light it up in Dallas, struggling with injuries during his Cowboys career, prompting Jerry Jones to allow Bennett to sign with the division-rival New York Giants.
Signing a one-year, $2.5-million contract last spring, Bennett finally seemed to blossom into what Dallas saw back in 2008, when the Cowboys took Bennett in the second round. Bennett started all 16 games for the Giants in 2012 and notched a career high with 55 catches for 626 yards and five touchdowns. Dustin Keller- New York Jets
The Jets, like several football teams, are purging their rosters as they attempt to get under the salary cap. Keller most likely will be one of those players who will be playing elsewhere in 2013. The Jets likely want to re-sign Keller, who is an unrestricted free agent, but according to reports out of New York, the scenario seems highly unlikely, given the mess with the Jets’ cap.
Keller is coming off a injury-plagued 2012 season, but when healthy, the former Purdue star put up good numbers. In only eight games Keller had 28 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns, which isn’t too far off Clark’s numbers for the Buccaneers in a full season. Keller, when healthy, can be a featured tight end as shown by his 2011 season where he led the Jets in receptions (65) for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns.Delanie Walker- San Francisco 49ers
Walker is an intriguing free agent for teams looking to upgrade the position. He has shown versatility since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, lining up at wide receiver, fullback, running back and right tackle, and he covers kickoffs.
Walker had a productive season in 2012, catching 21 passes for 344 yards (16.4 avg.) and three touchdowns.
Walker is an excellent blocker but has been overshadowed by Vernon Davis in San Francisco. Walker was recently quoted as saying he would like to stay in San Francisco and continue to play for Harbaugh, but it will obviously come down to money, and what Walker may be willing to accept.Brandon Myers- Oakland Raiders
Myers had a breakout season last year in Oakland finishing fourth among all NFL tight ends in receptions (79) and yards (806). Oakland very much wants to re-sign the former Iowa star, but Myers may test the free agent market, knowing most likely he will never be as hot a prospect as he is currently.
Myers most likely caught the eyes of the Buccaneers brass last October when Tampa Bay beat the Raiders 42-32 with his eight-reception, two-touchdown afternoon. At age 27 Myers is in his prime and may be one of the most sought after tight ends this free agency period.Jared Cook- Tennessee Titans
The Titans are interested in retaining the services of Cook, however, the coaching staff shakeup in Tennessee was disappointing to Cook who was close to a couple of the assistants who were let go after the 2012 season. Cook recently voiced his displeasure to the local media in Nashville. The relationship will take a lot patching up between Cook and head coach Mike Munchak. Of course the Titans could always franchise Cook, which is at a very affordable price, thought to be around $5 million.
Cook played in 13 games for the Titans in 2012 and had a fairly productive year, catching 44 balls for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
If Tampa Bay is interested in signing Cook, expect former Titans coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams to also be players when free agency next month.
Other Notable Free Agent Tight Ends
Dennis Pitta (restricted free agent)
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