ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Boundless promise became brilliant performance for Julius Thomas as a receiving tight end during the 2013 season, and as a result, the Broncos appear to have found a linchpin at tight end for the foreseeable future.
The next step for Thomas will be developing as a blocker, and with a second consecutive full offseason at his disposal after injuries and a lockout scuttled the first two, it would come as no surprise if this is his point of emphasis to take him to the next level. But his long-term place in the Broncos' plans appears set, and Executive Vice President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway cited Thomas as one of the players whose looming contract expiration -- next year -- must be factored into the Broncos' plans for handling contracts given to this year's free agency class.
But what of the other tight ends? Virgil Green, a fellow member of the 2011 draft class along with Thomas, is a free agent after this year. Veterans Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, the primary duo of 2012, saw their playing time reduced in 2013.
But of the two, Tamme was the more prominent last season, and is a valuable insurance policy both as a receiving threat behind Thomas and as a slot option if Wes Welker is injured. Tamme's work at New England in Week 12 of last year was particularly notable; his ability to make catches in tight coverage and without separation remains as strong as ever.
Dreessen didn't play at all in the postseason and was bugged by knee problems that necessitated two surgeries last summer. And the wild card in the group could be practice-squad player Gerell Robinson, who spent the season adding bulk and learning the position after transitioning from wide receiver. Robinson has been a summer standout the last two training camps; his progress will bear monitoring.
With that group on hand it would be a surprise if the Broncos pursued any free-agent tight ends -- unless Dreessen and/or Tamme were released in advance of the new league year to create salary-cap room; each has a seven-figure cap figure for 2014. Nevertheless, the increased prominence of tight ends makes this year's free-agent class worth monitoring, particularly with AFC West-rival Oakland blessed with more projected salary-cap room than anyone else in the NFL and likely to be active.
**UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
Jimmy Graham, New Orleans:Franchising Graham if a long-term contract can't be reached should be a no-brainer; just four years into his pro career, he's threatening to put up a stat line that dwarfs any other tight end in league history. But the nature of the Saints' use of Graham -- and whether he is, in function, a wide receiver -- hovers over the Saints' decision. If regarded as a receiver, his franchise tag skyrockets to an estimated $11.6 million -- about $4.8 million more than if he's listed as a tight end.
Dennis Pitta, Baltimore: The wide receiver/tight end designation is in play with Pitta, but post-Combine reports indicate the Ravens and Pitta are making progress toward a new contract. There's logical reasons to tag Pitta as a tight end, but at the receiver's cost, it would be a jump; his career total of 1,224 yards is just nine more than Graham had last season alone. Pitta is productive, particularly in the last two seasons, but if the sides can't work out a contract and Pitta challenges the tight-end franchise designation, he could hit the market.
Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit:Physical talent has never been the issue for Pettigrew, and he has missed just four games in the last four seasons. But he has yet to live up to the potential that thrust him into the first round in 2009. He has averaged 63.5 receptions the last four seasons, and is a capable blocker. A fresh start should help him, and if Pitta and Graham are both off the market, he should generate a great deal of interest.
Ben Hartsock, Carolina: The best blocker in this class will be a good fit for someone -- particularly in the run game, where he was the highest-rated tight end in ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, with a 11.7 rating in run blocking alone. But the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has just 31 career receptions, including just four in the past five seasons. The 33-year-old's status will be fascinating to watch in the coming weeks. The Panthers have restructured some contracts and aren't in the dire cap shape in which they were at the start of the month. But the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross creates a conundrum. The Panthers don't want to further weaken their blocking by losing Hartsock, but at the same time, they might need all the cap room they can find for a replacement left tackle, and there are no viable internal options to succeed Gross.
Brandon Myers, N.Y. Giants: Two years ago, Myers had 79 receptions for Oakland, but his production fell off to 47 receptions in his only season with the Giants, although he matched his touchdown total from the previous season. Myers has always been a much better receiver than a blocker, and might be a fit with a team that likes to split its tight end into the slot.
Jermichael Finley, Green Bay: If healthy, there's little question of Finley's production and potential. But Finley suffered a bruised spinal cord and had subsequent neck surgery last season. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about Finley and wide receiver James Jones, "We'd love to have these guys back." Returning to Green Bay might represent Finley's best shot of a successful comeback.
Dustin Keller, Miami:Like Finley, a significant injury clouds his prospects; he missed the entire 2013 season after a massive knee injury in which he tore three ligaments and suffered a dislocation. Keller has not played a regular-season game since Dec. 2, 2012, and despite his solid production in the first three-plus seasons of his career, he'll be a gamble -- but perhaps one worth taking for a team that already has a solid tight end on hand.
Kellen Winslow Jr., N.Y. Jets: The team that signs Winslow must accept him as he is, rather than what he was; he has just four touchdowns in the last three seasons after averaging 4.5 a season in the previous four. Away from the field, he recently entered a not guilty plea to a charge of possession of synthetic marijuana, and faces a court date of March 13; if convicted, he could be subject to the league's substance-abuse program, which would cloud his status.
Bear Pascoe, N.Y. Giants:Myers' disappointing season opens the door for the Giants to retain Pascoe, who played less than half as many snaps but was more efficient and a better blocker than the man ahead of him on the depth chart. He'll need to become more involved in the passing game, but at minimum, he is a highly effective blocker.
Jeff Cumberland, N.Y. Jets:The New York Daily News has reported that the Jets and Cumberland are talking about a new contract, and he's an effective downfield threat and a capable blocker. If the Jets let Winslow walk, they're probably better served extending Cumberland and seeing if he can step up to the challenge of increased playing time than starting over with another tight end from the free-agent market.
Scott Chandler, Buffalo:Chandler isn't irreplaceable, but he is a solid all-around tight end and caught 53 passes for 655 yards last year and has seen his production increase steadily since joining the Bills in 2010. Buffalo likely won't overpay to keep him, but he's a solid contributor who should have no trouble finding a soft landing spot if he moves on.
Andrew Quarless, Green Bay: To a lesser degree than backup quarterback Matt Flynn, Quarless stepped in for a talented, injured starter and helped the Packers salvage an 8-7-1 finish and a division title from a messy season. Quarless's receiving productivity didn't match that of Finley, but he also didn't have the luxury of working with Aaron Rodgers for most of his time. If the Packers do want Finley back, they will need to retain Quarless as an insurance policy; otherwise, they will face viewing tight end as a need on draft day.
Garrett Graham, Houston: Graham offered solid production in place of the injured Owen Daniels last year; his 49-catch, 545-yard tally offers the promise of more. Given head coach Bill O'Brien's background in the Patriots' offense, the Texans should use their tight ends liberally, and even if the Texans don't cut Daniels for salary relief, there should be plenty of snaps for Graham if they retain him.
Jeron Mastrud, Oakland: He started 12 games, but was mostly used as a blocker and caught just six passes. The late-season emergence of 2013 draft pick Nick Kasa likely makes Mastrud expendable, and he will probably settle in as a second or third tight end elsewhere if the Raiders move on without him.
Michael Hoomanawanui, New England:In an expanded role because of Rob Gronkowski's injuries, he had his ups and downs, and was not as effective of a blocker as he had been in previous years. But if Gronkowski returns, he's an ideal complement in the Patriots' tight end stable. In the right role -- mainly as a blocker -- he is effective.
Clay Harbor, Jacksonville:He's coming off a broken ankle suffered in the season finale last year, but is expected to be ready for the coming season. He's a decent blocker who wasn't very involved in the passing game, but is a capable red-zone threat, and has averaged one touchdown every 12.5 receptions the last two seasons.
Ed Dickson, Baltimore: He has experience, but his run blocking was suspect last year, which helped contribute to Ray Rice's sub-par season. With just 25 receptions for 273 yards and a touchdown, he didn't contribute enough in the passing game to compensate. Re-signing Pitta is by far the Ravens' top priority at the position, but Dickson is young enough to get another chance elsewhere.
Others: Kyle Adams, Tampa Bay; Nate Byham, Tampa Bay; Dallas Clark, Baltimore; Chase Coffman, Atlanta; Kellen Davis, Seattle;
Jim Dray, Arizona; David Johnson, Pittsburgh; Jeff King, Arizona; Anthony McCoy, Seattle; Matthew Mulligan, New England;Michael Palmer, Pittsburgh, Dante Rosario, Chicago; Tony Scheffler, Detroit; Alex Smith, Cincinnati; Kory Sperry, Arizona; D.J. Williams, New England.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Jake Ballard, Arizona; Richie Brockel, Carolina; Allen Reisner, Jacksonville.