Free agency preview: Tight ends

Free agency is never a sure thing, but there are some accomplished pass-catching tight ends scheduled to hit the open market next week. We take a look at their production, drawbacks, injuries and potential interests.

Not many of the top tight ends in free agency come without a bit of inconsistency.

With two five-star prospects that could keep Pro Bowl status for a few more years and three four-star prospects that should be starters no matter where they sign, the market offers some intriguing possibilities, but not without risk. Several of them have had up-and-down times in recent years, whether because of injuries or switches in schemes.

Here are the best available:

Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos: With Peyton Manning coming back and Demaryius Thomas receiving the franchise tag, there is decreasing cap space and growing doubts for Julius Thomas’ return to Denver. While he is an adequate blocker, his strength lies in his pass-catching, specifically the red zone. He tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with 12 touchdown catches last year and led the league in red zone receptions before he hurt his ankle. He finished the season with 43 catches for 489 yards while starting only 10 games. That was a significant dropoff from 2013, when he started 14 games and had 65 catches for 788 yards, but he also had 12 touchdowns in that season. Oakland and Jacksonville are reportedly two of the teams interested in Thomas once free agency starts.

Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns: At 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds, Cameron provides a big target, one that the Browns took full advantage of in 2013, when he had 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games (14 starts). However, he had a significant dropoff in 2014, when he played in only 10 games, starting nine, and caught 24 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns as a concussion took him out for more than a month. His 2013 season accounted for more catches and yards under offensive coordinator Norv Turner than his other three seasons there combined, so it will be incumbent on whichever team he plays for in 2015 to find the right fit for him, but he has made it clear he doesn’t view Cleveland as that place.

Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals: He dealt with back, toe and hernia issues in 2014, but still managed 62 catches for 460 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers are about average for his five-year career, during which he has caught 280 passes for 2,722 yards and 24 touchdowns, but his 7.4-yard average per catch in 2014 was the lowest of his career and more than 2 yards less than his career average. He has also has 11 fumbles in his five-year career.

Owen Daniels, Baltimore Ravens: Daniels has always had the athleticism to be one of the league’s better receiving tight ends, but he hasn’t had a run of good health to support that and he’s now 32 years old. After playing in only five games in 2013, his final year with the Houston Texans, Daniels signed with the Baltimore Ravens and played in 15 regular-season games last year, starting 13. He produced 48 catches for 527 yards and four touchdowns. He reportedly wants to return to Baltimore.

Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins: Clay received the transition tag from the Dolphins, which has him in line to earn $7.07 million from the Dolphins on a one-year deal, but other teams are allowed to talk with Clay and offer a contract that the Dolphins would have the opportunity to match. He had a solid season in 2014, starting all 14 games he played and catching 58 passes for 605 yards and three touchdowns. That followed up a career, breakout year in 2013, when he played in all 16 games and hauled in 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns. He also offers more versatility than most of the strong pass-catching tight ends on the open market this year, but would any other team be willing to give him a better deal than the transition tag offers him?

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