The Packers were pleasantly surprised Donald Lee, a free agent pickup formerly with Miami, last season. He picked up on the offensive scheme from the get-go and led the tight ends with 33 catches, averaging 8.9 yards. Lee also functioned adequately as a run blocker, and he could be pushing Martin for the top backup spot behind Franks.
Franks finished with a career-low 25 catches and a touchdown, and his prolonged absences scuttled the game plan of incorporating three tight ends in the spread offense.
The oft-injured Martin has to have a good off-season in order to make the 2006 roster. He always teases the Packers with his potential and ability to catch deep passes over the middle, but his durability is a concern. Martin responded to an enhanced role with a personal-best 27 receptions and three touchdowns last year, but he strained his groin at midseason and sustained a concussion that kept him out of the finale.
Look for the Packers to either select a tight end on the second day of the NFL draft, or sign an undrafted rookie. Unless Franks' neck injury from last season is career-threatening, it would be very surprising to see Ted Thompson sign a top-level unrestricted free agent this off-season.
Here is analysis from Scout.com on some of the top tight ends slated for free agency:
• The biggest potential get at tight end in free agency is Jeb Putzier. The Denver Broncos have an important decision to make by March 1. That is whether to pick up the $1.5 million option on Putzier's contract or let him become an unrestricted free agent. The team is trying to develop first-year tight end Wesley Duke, who they are sending to NFL Europe. They also have veteran tight end Stephen Alexander, who is under contract through 2007.
• New York Jets TE Chris Baker is an unrestricted free agent. He wasn't heard from much after a seven-catch outburst on opening day, finishing with 18 receptions for 269 yards and one touchdown. His season ended prematurely when he suffered a broken leg against San Diego on Nov. 6. He has become a better blocker and receiver, although he still suffers from occasional drops and needs to be more consistent.
• TE Dan Campbell is the Cowboys' primary blocking tight end. He is key to the running game while also bringing toughness and leadership. An unrestricted free agent, Campbell's return is a top off-season priority for Dallas.
• TE Terry Jones was released by the Ravens in the middle of the season, the 49ers claimed him, and he ended up as the team's starting tight end for the final six weeks of the season.
• TE Chad Lewis re-signed with the Eagles at mid-season, but probably won't be back next season.
• TE Aaron Shea caught only 18 passes. He is an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return.
• TE Brandon Manumaleuna blocks well in tight quarters but poorly in space on the move. He's mostly forgotten in the passing game, catching just 13 passes for 129 yards. Manumaleuna's salary rises to over $1.3 million in 2006, and a decision will have to be made on his future.
• TE Marcellus Rivers emerged as somewhat of a dual threat. He was a solid blocker and had a career-high 24 receptions for 168 yards. He still struggled to hold onto the ball at times, though, dropping a number of opportunities.