Free Agent Preview: Tight End

By PFC Writer Wayne Lin

The Tight End free agents this offseason are dominated by backups and tight ends that are used sparingly because of the offensive system that the team uses, but these tight ends could have a high value on a team that is in the process of rebuilding or employing a new offensive system. 

Desmond Clark Chicago Bears: Clark was a stalwart in the Chicago system before the Bears drafted Greg Olsen.  Olsen scored two touchdowns and gained 574 yards in 2008, as opposed to Clark’s 367 yards and one touchdown.  Clark’s production has declined since Olsen stepped foot on Solider Field.

Strengths: An excellent blocker.  He rarely misses a block and when he does, he has enough speed and strength to make it back to his assignment.  He has the instincts of an offensive lineman and can play on both sides of the line without too much adjusting.  His size is incredible, making him a threat even if he doesn’t catch the ball.  Clark is hard to cover because of his tremendous size.

Weaknesses: Speed.  He doesn’t have a lot of it.  That might be a reason he doesn’t have a lot of suitors for him.  He went from a 4.55, 40 runner to a 4.73, 40 runner.  Clark is also a one-dimensional runner.  His innovation after running isn’t that great, but he makes up for it with shear strength.  Also, his age.  He’ll be 32 when the season starts.

Prediction: Detroit.  He may not start, but Clark has leadership abilities to help the Lions get better.  Depending on how the Lions draft, Clark may end up in the starting lineup.  There’s not much demand for Tight Ends in this market, but Clark could very well be a gem this offseason.

LJ Smith: Smith is a bit of an anomaly.  Smith enjoys it in Philadelphia, but the offense isn’t conducive to using the Tight End.  Philly’s offense utilizes the Running Back and Wide Receiver much more than they will ever look at the Tight End position.  That’s not to take a shot at his abilities.  Smith can strive in an offense that can open him up.

Strengths: He’s a hybrid Wide Receiver/Tight End, even though he weighs 258 lbs.  He’s a great blocker and has good footwork.  Because he’s so big he primarily stays on the line.  Smith has great speed to make it down field in a hurry, but he’s used as a decoy as opposed to a person of prevalence.

Weaknesses: He leads the league in false starts, holds, and overall penalties for a tight end.  The one next to him (Justin Peelle) doesn’t even come close.  Smith mustered up 350 yards in penalties.  His route running isn’t that great either.  There’s a difference between getting to your spot and turning around and there’s a difference between improving by looking at key situations.  Smith isn’t good at reading the defense and adjusting the route to that.

Prediction: He will stay in Philadelphia. The problem is, he might ask for a hefty price.  McNabb and Smith were good together, but McNabb may not be in Philly after the dust settles.  With Smith relatively young, he has a lot of upside left in him.  If Kolb takes the reigns as the QB, Smith’s stock may go up.

Leonard Pope, Arizona:
Pope is a player who needed to adjust to the pro style system and he’s thrived in it, but it took a few years to develop.  His rookie season wasn’t anything to write home about, but now he knows the nuances of the game.  That’s going to prove handy when he handles the offseason, especially now that the Super Bowl is over.

The ability to get open, even for a tight end.  That’s rare because he’s not that fast, but he can find the holes and create mismatches.  He has big, strong hands and he uses them to his advantage every time, particularly in the red zone.  Something else about Pope is his ability to learn quickly, now.  His learning curve was slowed down early in his career, but now a light bulb goes off very quickly, which will help him land with any team.   Another thing that Pope does well is get yards after the catch.  Often a tight end is not adept at doing that, but he does it well.

Weaknesses: Speed.  He ranks as one of the slowest tight ends in the league, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for with muscle and power.  His ability to learn slowly early in his career might have turned some teams off, but if that’s the case, it’s the team’s fault, not his.  However, in the NFL, some teams are naïve enough to think zebras never lose their stripes.  Pope does drop a lot of passes.  Not as often as Terrell Owens, but he does.

Predictions: St. Louis.  The Rams are in need of a dominate Tight End and Pope could fit that mold for a struggling team.  More help is needed on the line and he also fills that need.  If given the right quarterback, the Rams could very well find a Witten-esque Tight End.  In Arizona, he couldn’t make waves because he was competing with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

Justin Peelle, Atlanta: Peelle’s role in Atlanta was all about one thing: blocking.  He blocked, blocked and did more blocking, but he did an excellent job of it, even against bigger defensive ends.  He was a stalwart in the Falcons plans, but unfortunately, the Falcons don’t use the Tight End that much as a receiver, which is okay.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Strengths: As mentioned previously, he blocks very well.  He is on the best blocking Tight Ends in the league.  He looks small, but he can put down a hit.  Not only does he block well at the line, but blocking downfield.  The ability to get off the line is incredible and he uses that to help receivers down field.  Decent speed, but not that great.  However, his speed, coupled with his size makes the linebackers and safety, at times, bite down, opening room for the receivers.   Cut backs are a skill he employs very well.  Even though he had 159 yards and two touchdowns, he has the ability to fancy his foot work to shed blocks.

Weaknesses: He has trouble with false start penalties, as in eight of them he committed this season.  Aforementioned LJ Smith had more (10).  Hip movement to make snappy turns isn’t in his repertoire.  He has issues turning both ways because much of his weight is in his lower body.

Prediction: Jacksonville.  Jacksonville needs line help and Marcedes Lewis isn’t the guy to help protect the line.  Though Garrard and the Jags are a more receiver and running back attack, the tight end won’t be used in many formations other than blocking.  Peelle was never a pass receiving Tight End, even in his college career.  What a better way to fill his role in sunny Florida.

Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings may have found their TE for the future in Visanthe Shiancoe, but Kleinsasser has the leadership ability for a younger team.  He has had a formidable career that prides itself on blocking and hard hitting.

Strengths: Experience.  He has 10 years in the league, but for a Tight End, that’s a lot of years.  His body has definitely slowed down.  Kleinsasser also has good foot work.  He was reported to take dance classes, an urban legend in football.  Statistically, he’s blocked well on the right side of the line as opposed to the left.

Age.  He’s taken lump after lump and he keeps getting up, even though it may not be the best thing for his health.  He can stay relatively healthy, as in staying off the IR, but he has had to miss many games over his career because of injuries.  Aggression is a little low on his end.  Tight Ends are usually your more aggressive players, but Kleinsasser, though big, doesn’t strike the fear in opponents’ eyes.

Prediction: Retirement.  His career is admirable, but he does have too many injuries in his past that may force him to take retirement.  If he does play for more years, teams will sign him at a lower price and a shorter contract.

If I left your favorite Tight End off the list, let me know and I’ll address him in the message boards