NFL free-agent preview: Tight ends

Tight end isn't likely to create a huge buzz in free agency with a mix of mid-level guys available, and one aging all-star.

Tight end is becoming a more difficult position to analyze at the college level because of the proliferation of the spread offense at that level. Does that mean more action for proven NFL tight ends in free agency?

It isn’t typically a high-priority position, as the $9.1 million franchise-tag number indicates – the lowest among offensive and defensive positions – and there aren’t a lot of great ones out there. There is, however, one future Hall of Fame tight end set to hit the free-agent market, although age will certainly be a top concern with him.

ANTONIO GATES, SAN DIEGO

Was last year the start of the decline for the 35-year-old Antonio Gates with the San Diego Chargers? He started only four of the 11 games played, the lowest total of his career, and caught 56 passes for 630 yards and five touchdowns. The Chargers reportedly had talks scheduled with Gates’ agent at the NFL Scouting Combine, but any deal he gets, with the Chargers or otherwise, is likely to be a short-term contract well below the franchise number.

COBY FLEENER, INDIANAPOLIS

Coby Fleener offered nearly the same production for the Indianapolis Colts that Gates did for the Chargers last year, but there is a big difference: age. At 27, Fleener is eight years younger than Gates and therefore likely will get a longer and richer contract. Last year, he had 54 catches for 491 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts have reportedly struggled to make many inroads toward a new contract, meaning Fleener could hit the open market next week.

LADARIUS GREEN, SAN DIEGO

Ladarius Green wasn’t worth the franchise tag, but with Gates turning 36 years old before the season, keeping Green is a priority for the Chargers. Green is a highly skilled, albeit somewhat inconsistent, producer at tight end, having 37 catches for 429 yards and four touchdowns last year.

JERMAINE GRESHAM, ARIZONA

After five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Gresham went to the Arizona Cardinals, where his receiving production dropped, likely due to their talented and deep wide receiver corps. He had only 18 catches for 223 yards and a touchdown, but with the Bengals he averaged about 55 catches and more than 500 yards per season. He is also an adept blocker, adding to his value with his versatility.

BENJAMIN WATSON, NEW ORLEANS

After playing for New England, Cleveland and the last three years with the New Orleans Saints, Benjamin Watson would like to stick in Sean Payton’s offense. Last year, he was ultra-productive in the passing game while filling Jimmy Graham’s role. He had a career-high 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns. However, like Gates, Watson is 35 and his chance for a long-term deal is getting slimmer with each passing year.

Tight end usually isn’t a big priority in free agency (the 2015 trade for Graham aside), but there are some productive and experienced options available for any team in the hunt at that position.

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