There was a time in the not-so-distant past when tight ends were regarded as nothing more than pseudo offensive linemen. However, as the NFL has evolved into a high-octane league where offenses reign supreme, the role of the right has since changed quite drastically. While having a mobile, big-bodied blocker is still a coveted attribute at the position, the utilization of tight ends has slowly progressed as these versatile athletes are becoming more prominent in the receiving game. As a result, many of these underappreciated athletes have added many more weapons to their arsenal, such as having soft hands for making impressive catches. Although this years group of tight end free agents may not boast what many would consider elite playmaking abilities, these hard-working athletes have made the necessary yet difficult adjustments to conform to a league that is all about scoring quickly and often.
10. Ed Dickson
Although Ed Dickson may not be the most athletic tight end in the NFL, his size (6’4″, 255 lbs) combined with his deep receiving abilities (14.6 yards per receptions) have allowed him to remain relevant in the pros. While he may never be considered a worthy starter by most teams, Dickson is more than capable of adjusting to any offensive system that he becomes apart of as he filled in nicely for Greg Olsen last season when the star tight end broke his foot.
9. Virgil Green
Similar to Ed Dickson, Virgil Green is a hefty pass catcher that is highly effective as a run blocker. Missing just four games in his last three seasons, Green is fairly durable, which is essential for an underrated athlete that simply needs to play for a competent quarterback to reach his potential.
8. Antonio Gates
Despite receiving 40 fewer targets than he did in 2016, veteran tight end Antonio Gates still flashed moments of being a capable pass catcher. At age 37, Gates is obviously nearing the end of his career in NFL. However, the elite receiver should not be overlooked if he decides that he still has enough left in the tank to be a valuable playmaker for a team that is looking to make a run at a Super Bowl Championship.
7. Trey Burton
Arguably the reason the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, back up tight end Trey Burton quickly became a household name as an athletic pass catcher that can also throw the football effectively. Playing for an injured Zach Ertz, Burton consistently displayed his strong hands in the receiving game as he was able to convert 23 catches into five touchdown receptions.
6. Benjamin Watson
At the age of 37, it would be fair to assume that the reliable tight end is no longer a viable free agent acquisition. However, playing for the Baltimore Ravens in 2017, Benjamin Watson was a prominent part of an offense who’s success was predicated on throwing quick and short passes to athletic tight ends. Although he may not be worthy of a long-term deal, Watson is clearly still capable of being a reliable security blanket for a quarterback that likes to play it safely .
5. Luke Wilson
As Luke Wilson has done throughout his career, the patient and the underutilized tight end was able to score four touchdowns last year despite only garnering 15 receptions in 2017. In an offense that places more emphasis on the intermediate passing game, Wilson could quickly emerge as a reliable playmaker.
4. Tyler Eifert
When healthy, Eifert has consistently looked liked one of if not the best tight end in the NFL. However, the incredibly athletic pass catcher has played in just 10 games in his last two seasons, an uncontrollable detriment that has prevented Eifert from reaching his potential. However, at the right price, Eifert is still worth taking a chance on given his natural abilities alone.
3. Crocket Gillmore
Despite being somewhat injury prone throughout his three-year career, Gillmore has both the size and exceptional playmaking abilities to eventually become a number one tight end in the NFL. Although his relatively small sample size in terms of production is a bit concerning, this tough-minded receiver is both highly versatile and effective regardless of where he is on the field.
2. Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Victimized by two poor calls that cost him valuable touchdown receptions, Austin Seferian-Jenkins still had a breakout year for a New York Jets team that was much better than many pundits expected them to be. At only 25 years of age, Seferian-Jenkins is in his prime as an athlete and could be even more productive for a team with a gunslinging quarterback.
1. Jimmy Graham
A dynamic athlete with tremendous hands, Jimmy Graham has consistently been one of the most reliable pass catchers in the red zone throughout his career (10 touchdown receptions in 2017). Although his age is somewhat of a concern (31), Graham emphatically proved in 2017 that his abilities as an elite receiver are not fading.