2019 NFL Free Agency: Jared Cook, Jesse James, trio of Bengals top an underwhelming tight end group

The unfortunate reality of the tight end market is that it's virtually impossible to find a superstar in free agency. The tight end position is so incredibly top heavy -- even more so than the quarterback position -- that if teams stumble upon a Gronk or a Kelce or an Ertz or a Kittle, they're not letting them depart in free agency. As a result, the market is littered with unproven, past-their-prime, and replacement-level options.

But that doesn't mean tight end needy teams, of which there are many, can't find ways to upgrade at the position next month. It just means they need a bit of luck and foresight to turn tin to gold. Most of the time, it doesn't work out. Sometimes it does. Just look at what happened last year. 

A year ago, the Bears tried to turn Eagles castoff Trey Burton into their version of Zach Ertz by giving him a four-year, $32 million contract with $22 million in guarantees even though Burton caught only 63 passes for 629 yards and six touchdowns in four seasons as Ertz's backup and was is best known for a pass he threw. While Burton managed to post career-highs in receptions (54), receiving yards (569), and touchdowns (6) in Chicago, he also didn't tranform into Ertz. 

To the north, the Packers made a splash by signing former basketball player Jimmy Graham, who was the most accomplished of the available tight ends with 6,800 yards and 69 touchdowns in eight seasons split between New Orleans and Seattle. But Graham was also on the wrong side of his 30 and coming off a 10-touchdown season that adorned his otherwise inefficient output (9.1 yards per catch). The warning signs were there. Sure enough, Graham didn't entirely live up to expectations in the Green Bay, finishing the year with a solid 55 catches, 636 yards, and two touchdowns. 

Burton and Graham were the big fishes this time a year ago, but the best signing was Eric Ebron. The former top-10 pick of the Lions was cut by Detroit after four disappointing seasons. But Ebron was still only 24 years old. His measurables, which made him a top-10 pick in the first place, hadn't yet disappeared. As I wrote at the time of his departure from Detroit, "someone will take a chance on him with the idea that they'll be the one to finally unleash his full potential." Less than a week later, that's exactly what the Colts did, and boy, were they rewarded. They signed him to a two-year, $13 million deal. He proceeded to experience a career revival with Frank Reich and Andrew Luck, garnering 110 targets (24 more than his previous career high), 66 catches (also a career high), 750 yards (another career high), and 13 touchdowns (yes, that's another career high). The Colts struck gold.

So, who will be this year's Graham, Burton, and Ebron? If I knew the answer to that question, I'd probably be employed by an NFL team. What I do know is that this year's tight end group is mostly similar to the groups of years prior. It's mostly depth. What's different, though, is that there aren't any Jimmy Grahams or Martellus Bennetts. If a tight end needy team is hoping to fix their problem in free agency (the draft looks like a better route to take this year), they'll need a bit of luck on their side.

Now, who needs a tight end? Check out this handy chart via ESPN's Mike Clay:

With all that in mind, let's take a look at the tight ends scheduled to hit free agency next month. 

We begin with a first-time Pro Bowler. 

The headliners

Jared Cook 

Cook's always been a frustrating player because (like Ebron) the measurables have always been there. What's been missing is consistency. But Cook enters free agency as the best tight end available. He's coming off a career-best season in Oakland where he caught 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns. Among all tight ends, he ranked fifth in catches, fourth in yards, and fourth in touchdowns. As a result, he made his first Pro Bowl. 

Entering his eleventh season, Cook is what he is. He'll be 32 soon. He's probably not going to suddenly morph into a superstar. But what he is, is the best tight end available in free agency who can help a team that wants to win now.

Jesse James 

To this point, James is best known for a touchdown that didn't count, but he's been a quietly consistent performer over the past three seasons. Stuck on the same offense as Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, James Conner, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, which made it virtually impossible for him to be more than a secondary option for Ben Roethlisberger, James has averaged 37.3 catches, 377.7 yards, and 2.7 touchdowns per season since 2016. Those numbers certainly won't blow anyone away, but James will be 25 when next season begins. Someone is going to look at his height (6-foot-7) and blocking ability, and think they can get more out of him on a less crowded offense. According to Sports Info Solution, he didn't blow a single block last season.

By DYAR, a Football Outsiders' metric that measures total value, James was the seventh-best tight end last season.

The blockers

Nick Boyle

The Ravens tight end won't contribute much as a pass catcher. He's never caught 30 passes in a single season. But Boyle is a tremendous blocking tight end, which is why he ranked third in total snaps last season among this free agent class. According to Sports Info Solutions, Boyle had only five blown blocks and zero holding penalties on 378 blocking snaps. For the sake of comparison, Rob Gronkowski finished with two blown blocks and three holding penalties on 385 blocking snaps. Boyle will turn 26 on Sunday. 

James O'Shaughnessy

O'Shaughnessy also won't offer much as a pass catcher. In Jacksonville for the past two seasons, he caught 38 passes for 363 yards and one touchdown. But like Boyle, he can block. According to Sports Info Solutions, he finished with four blown blocks and one hold on 241 blocking snaps last season. He's 27 years old.

Luke Stocker

The Titans tight end is coming off a season that saw him miss three blocks and commit zero holds on 230 blocking snaps, per Sports Info Solutions. At 30, he's older than both Boyle and O'Shaughnessy, but someone will want him for a blocking role.

Maxx Williams

Like Boyle, Williams' future in Baltimore is uncertain after the team drafted Hayden Hurst in the first round and watched third-round pick Mark Andrews rack up 552 yards. The Ravens might not keep either of their blocking tight ends. They almost certainly won't keep both. Williams wasn't used as much as Boyle (159 blocking snaps compared to 378), but he only got called for one holding penalty while missing zero blocks, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Marcedes Lewis

Seldom used in Green Bay this past season (he logged fewer than 200 snaps), the 34-year-old could be a cheap signing for a team looking to improve its run blocking, which is what Lewis excelled at during his 12-year run in Jacksonville -- as recently as 2017, too.

That still holds value, even in today's pass-heavy NFL.

Starters, not stars

C.J. Uzomah 

The Bengals have three tight ends scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Kroft, and Tyler Eifert. Out of the three, it's Uzomah who is coming off the best 2018 season. This past season, Uzomah posted career-highs in every important statistical category with 43 catches, 439 yards, and three touchdowns. The former fifth-round pick turned 26 last month. He could be this year's Burton in free agency.  

Tyler Kroft

So could Kroft. Injuries limited Kroft to only five games this past season. But his 2017 season saw him post a Uzomah-ish statline. In 2017, Kroft caught 42 passes for 404 yards, and seven touchdowns. The former third-round pick is also 26. Expect Uzomah and Kroft to get similar deals in free agency if the Bengals don't bring them back. 

The injury risk 

Tyler Eifert

Eifert is the last of the Bengals' tight ends hitting free agency. It wasn't long ago that he appeared to be on track to become one of the league's top pass-catching tight ends, but injuries have taken their toll on him. Since his 52-catch, 615-yard, and 13-touchdown season in 2015, Eifert has played in 14 total games. He lasted only four games this past season. At 28, he's still young enough for someone to take a chance on him. But nobody should expect him to morph back into what he was in 2015. Those days are likely behind him, but he's worth a flier. 

Replacement-level players 

Ricky Seals-Jones

Seals-Jones is less accomplished than Kroft and Uzomah, but he's younger (he'll turn 24 next month) and is coming off a similar type of season. Stuck in an insipid Cardinals offense, Seals-Jones caught 34 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown last season after briefly making noise late in the 2017 season. He probably has more potential than the players listed below him. Seals-Jones is an exclusive rights free agent, though, which means the Cardinals control his destiny. 

Jeff Heuerman

After back-to-back nine-catch seasons to begin his career in Denver, Heuerman managed to rack up 31 catches, 281 yards, and two touchdowns in 2018. He functioned more as a blocker with 237 blocking snaps, during which he blew three blocks and generated zero holding penalties, per Sports Info Solutions. He's 26 years old and should operate in a complimentary role somewhere. 

Levine Toilolo

After five years in Atlanta, Toilolo headed to Detroit this past season. In his career, he's averaged 164.3 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per season. He'll be 28 next season. At this point, he is what he is. In 314 blocking snaps, he blew four blocks, per Sports Info Solutions. He'll likely compete for a backup job. 

Geoff Swaim

Can I interest you in 26 catches, 242 yards, and one touchdown? If so, Swaim is your guy. In fairness to him, his 2018 season with the Cowboys was a career-best campaign after accumulating 94 yards during his first three seasons. He had two blown blocks last season in 233 blocking snaps, per Sports Info Solutions. Most likely, he'll be used as a TE2 next season, when he'll be 28.  

The future Hall of Famer

Antonio Gates 

Gates could retire after 236 games, 955 catches, 11,841 yards, and 116 touchdowns. He's already a first ballot Hall of Famer. If he doesn't retire, it seems incredibly unlikely he'd be willing to leave the Chargers after spending all 16 years of his career with them. So, 31 teams shouldn't expect to be in the market for his services. It sounds like he's leaning toward returning if the Chargers want him back. 

Final names to consider

For the complete list of tight ends scheduled to hit free agency next month, click right here -- many thanks to Spotrac for compiling the list.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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