Next up in my series of AFC rankings are the tight end groups. Like before, I have separated each AFC team into three groups or tiers. These rankings are not based solely on which team has the best tight end, but rather has the best group of tight ends. Let’s start with the top tier.
If these were number rankings, the New England Patriots would be number one with ease. Tom Brady (who will be out the first four games of the year) loves his tight ends, and he has an even deeper group than usual this season. He will still have the league’s best in Rob Gronkowski, who is deadly when healthy. The Patriots have let go of Tim Wright, but in his place have added former Buffalo Bill Scott Chandler and former Redskin Fred Davis. Both have great hands, and Chandler is a good run blocker. Michael Hoomanawanui rounds out a deep group of Patriots tight ends that should see the majority of the passes thrown their way.
The Ravens bolstered their already talented tight end group in this year’s 2015 NFL Draft by selecting Maxx Williams out of Minnesota in the second round. Williams was the consensus number one prospect at his position this year and should start opposite of Dennis Pitta, who is dynamic when healthy. Joining these two studs will be Crockett Gillmore, last year’s third round pick. The 6-foot-6, 251 pound pass catcher will play a much larger role entering his sophomore season.
Other than Tom Brady, nobody loves their tight ends more than Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. The Broncos suffered a huge loss when they lost third round draft selection Jeff Heuerman for this season earlier this offseason. However, they still have great depth at the position. Virgil Green emerged as a valuable starter last season and will be joined by former Houston Texans starter Owen Daniels. Marcel Jensen, a third year guy out of Fresno State should get playing time, as the Broncos will likely play three tight ends to please Peyton.
No chance that Julius Thomas puts up the numbers he did last year with Peyton Manning, but I think he will become Blake Bortles’ favorite target in his sophomore season. Thomas will pair well with Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor, who combined for three scores and 500 yards receiving last year. Not great numbers, but they were on one of the league’s worst offenses. That should change this year. Bortles has taken great strides and improved his mechanics, and the Jaguars have tons of talent at receiver, which should free up these tight ends over the middle. They have three great options at the position.
Few NFL players last year surprised more than Colts tight end Dwayne Allen. The 6-foot-3 pass catcher had a whopping eight receiving touchdowns last year, and was still considered the team’s number two option for part of the season behind Colby Fleener. Speaking of Fleener, he also added eight touchdowns and 774 receiving yards. That is 16 touchdowns between two tight ends. Enough said.
Despite their overall terrible record last season, the Titans had a bright spot in tight end Delanie Walker, and he was prepared to let us know just how good he was. He did have 890 receiving yards and four touchdowns on an otherwise anemic Titans offense. Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota (who should win the job) will also have former Miami Dolphin and Kansas City Chief Anthony Fasano to throw to. The Titans, who like to run two tight end sets, will have two starters at their disposal. Keep an eye on rookie Tevin Westbrook out of the University of Florida too.
The Dolphins got Ryan Tannehill two big-bodied receivers this year. They drafted DeVante Parker 14th overall, and they added free agent Jordan Cameron from the Browns. Cameron has proven he can be an elite tight end when healthy. In his last full season in 2013, Cameron posted 80 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. That is great production. He will join Dion Sims, who is more of a run blocker but emerged last season as a pass catcher. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor should employ both in red zone packages, and Cameron can line up anywhere on the field. This duo could become Tannehill’s favorite targets on third down next season.
San Diego Chargers
If Antonio Gates was five years younger, he would almost move this group into the top tier by himself. That being said, Gates proved last season he can still produce at a high level, hauling in a ridiculous 12 touchdowns in 2014, the second most in his 13 year career. However, the Chargers are middle tier simply for the fact that Gates was basically the only tight end that produced last season. John Phillips and Ladarius Green combined for a meager 227 yards and one score. They will need to show up more this season to help out the aging Gates.
The Buffalo Bills got arguably one of the most underrated offensive weapons in the AFC by signing Charles Clay this offseason. Clay, the former Dolphin, had an insane 187 receptions and nine touchdowns his past two seasons in Miami. He will more than make up for the departure of Scott Chandler. Joining Clay this season is a group of talented rookies, led by draft pick Nick O’Leary out of Florida State. O’Leary was one of the favorite targets of Jameis Winston in college and should win the starting spot opposite of Clay.
In one of the most bizarre sports stats in a while, the Chiefs had 0 touchdown receptions by receivers all of last year. That means their tight ends had a huge influence on their offense. Travis Kelce was their athletic leader, bringing in 67 receptions for 862 yards and five touchdowns. Pretty good. The question is who will step up beside Kelce? The Chiefs currently have five other players not named Kelce competing for the second and third tight end spots. I think the frontrunners are 6-foot-7, 230 pound Demetrius Harris and fifth year man Richard Gordon out of the University of Miami.
The AFC East is filled with good tight ends, as the Jets round out the last of them middle tier teams. They bring back the gigantic pair of Jeff Cumberland and Jace Amaro, who combined for 99 targets, 592 yards and five scores last year in a terrible Jets passing game. With an absolutely loaded receiving corps, these two should build on their success last year.
The Texans love their tight ends. They have two guys with great potential in Garrett Graham and last year’s third round draft pick C.J. Fiedorowicz. These guys rank in the lower tier for one main reason: Fiedorowicz barely has any experience (he was targeted just seven times as a rookie) and Graham struggled to stay healthy last season. However, the talent is there and they could easily move into the middle tier by season’s end.
The Browns, like at the majority of their skill positions, lack the big name or proven player at tight end. With Jordan Cameron in South Beach, their projected starters are guys named Gary Barnidge, who I bet you didn’t know has been in the league for eight seasons, and Jim Dray. Barnidge caught a lousy 13 balls for 156 yards and no touchdowns last season. Dray did a little bit better, totaling 242 yards and one score. Behind them the names become even more unknown. Emmanuel Bibbs, Randall Telfer (a great run blocker) and Kevin Haplea. Who knows, one of these guys could become the next Dwayne Allen or Larry Donnell this season.
The Bengals had big hopes for Tyler Eifert when they selected him with the 21st overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Since then, he has not even come close to living up to their expectations. He played in one game last year with an injury. With Jermaine Gresham gone, the Bengals will rely heavily on Eifert in the passing game. Joining Eifert as of now are rookies Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah and Matt Lengel, as well as Jake Murphy and John Peters. Just like the Browns, the Bengals desperately need somebody to step up at the position.
How old is tight end Heath Miller? 40? Maybe not that old, but it seems like Heath has been a Steeler since the days of Terry Bradshaw. Still, he will enter the 2015 season as one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets and a red zone and third down producer. Joining Miller is last year’s drafts pick Rob Branchflower and rookies Cameron Clear and Jesse James. Not likely to make the roster? Former Dolphins’ draft pick Michael Egnew, who just never quite reached his ceiling.