We’re quickly approaching NFL free agency, one of the most exciting times of the year. As veterans continue to be traded and released in the weeks ahead, nothing is official until March 17 at 4 p.m. EDT. That won’t stop us from getting energized about any news, nor will it prevent a look ahead at possible scenarios.
Here are the positional breakdowns of known unrestricted free-agent tight ends who may present fantasy football utility in 2021. Each player’s 2020 team is in parentheses, and we’ll focus only on relevant fantasy football commodities.
2021 fantasy football free agents to watch
Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): While the volume numbers weren’t there for fantasy purposes in 2020 after taking off the 2019 season, Gronk managed to provide some fake football help via his seven touchdown grabs. The Bucs have ample cap space and a decision to make about tight end O.J. Howard (Achilles).
Expectation: Tom Brady is returning, and Gronkowski is fully expected to follow TB12 for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. It’s a return to the Buccaneers or back to retirement or the goofy touchdown grabber.
Hunter Henry (Los Angeles Chargers): In his prime, Henry has averaged at least 10.2 PPR points per game in each of his four pro seasons in which he saw the field. Henry has not played more than 14 contests in any one of those campaigns, though, and his price on the market should reflect it. LA tagged him last year to the tune of $10.6 million.
Expectation: It’s widely believed he will be slapped with the franchise tag once again, locking in a salary of $12.7 million — a lofty cost with a depreciating salary cap. His market interest would be substantial, although the cost likely won’t approach what will be the second-highest cap charge for a tight end. New England, Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville are reasonable options for his services if Henry hits the market.
Jared Cook (New Orleans Saints): His 2020 employer doesn’t have the money to renew Cook’s deal, and last year’s third-round investment in tight end Adam Trautman. Cook turns 34 shortly after free agency opens, and while he has played well in recent seasons, no team should realistically expect to roster him beyond 2021.
Expectation: Of those teams, New England, Indianapolis, the New York Jets, Jacksonville, the Los Angeles Chargers, Seattle and Tennessee all make varying degrees of sense to lure Cook as a single-season rental.
Jonnu Smith (Tennessee Titans): A sound enough blocker, and a dangerous red-zone weapon, Smith is likely to hit the market. It’s not necessarily for a lack of interest from the Titans, but the team may struggle to retain him from a financial perspective with just $5 million in cap space and several other needs to address.
Expectation: If the Titans can creatively ink Smith to a deal that isn’t punitive to 2021 cap space, he has a real chance of returning. New England, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle and Cincinnati could throw more money at Smith than Tennessee can match.
Gerald Everett (Los Angeles Rams): Durable, playing 61 of 64 games in the regular season (all mixed in 2019), Everett brings athleticism and consistency to the field. The Rams drafted TE Brycen Hopkins in 2020 during the fourth round, and he shares similar skills to Everett. Los Angeles, of course, extended tight end Tyler Higbee on the eve of the 2019 season, further complicating whether the Rams have room for Everett.
Expectation: He will find a substantial role with some team in 2021. The New England Patriots are an intriguing option. Despite investing two draft picks on tight ends last year, there’s a need for a veteran presence in the passing game. Seattle, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Chargers, among others, also could be prime landing spots.
Trey Burton (Indianapolis Colts): Burton turned a strong performance as a role player in Philadelphia into a starting gig in Chicago, only to flop and find his way back to the brains of fantasy footballers as a member of the Colts.
Expectation: In the event Zach Ertz is released/traded by the Eagles, it would open the door for Burton to return as a backup. His overall market will be limited, due to durability concerns and a lukewarm need across the league for teams looking to fill his role.
Dan Arnold (Arizona Cardinals): Arnold showed promise while with the Saints and realized it to a decent degree with Arizona late last year. Could that be enough to translate it into an opportunity to start somewhere? Probably not.
Expectation: With New Orleans unlikely to re-sign Jared Cook, the Saints could kick tires on Arnold returning to pair with 2020 third-rounder Adam Trautman.
Jordan Reed (San Francisco 49ers): It’s difficult to see Reed’s career rebounding at age 31, especially after all of his past injuries. He managed to play fairly well in ’20 prior to suffering a significant ankle injury as a fill-in last season, which sadly sums up his NFL tenure.
Expectation: He could re-sign with the 49ers as a backup to George Kittle once again. Reed has coaching connections to Sean McVay, and Everett is a free agent. There could be an inroad for Reed to find a minor role as a situational pass catcher on a number of rosters.
Tyler Eifert (Jacksonville Jaguars): Four full seasons have passed since Eifert was a regular fantasy contributor. Eifert, 31, has a fraction of fantasy utility compared to his earlier seasons.
Expectation: He could have a market in an offense that has an established blocking tight end and is looking for a cheap, experienced body with a faint pulse.
Potential free agents to watch
Due to a likely shrinking salary cap, some teams will be in a bind more than expected when these contracts were signed.
Zach Ertz (Philadelphia Eagles): Ertz may have trade suitors, and the Colts could have interest in reuniting the vet with his former quarterback Carson Wentz and a past offensive coordinator in current Indy head coach Frank Reich. The Eagles will save $8.25 million if a move is made with a post-June 1 status. It will cost $3 million more in dead money to ax or trade him prior to June 1, which isn’t going to happen. The emergence of tight end Dallas Goedert has Ertz expendable for a team in serious cap trouble.
Jimmy Graham (Chicago Bears): Graham’s release, regardless if it is pre- or post-June 1, will save Chicago $7 million and cost $3 million in dead space for 2021. The Bears invested a second-round pick on tight end Cole Kmet last year, and Chicago ranks 22nd in most cap space. Graham is due the third-highest cap charge in 2021 among his positional mates.
Kyle Rudolph (Minnesota Vikings): The 31-year-old veteran is likely to find his way to another roster for the upcoming season. Whether it be by way of trade or a release from the Vikings, Rudolph’s cap hit is too high for his recent role. His primary backup is the future, too, further devaluing the veteran. Rudolph says he won’t restructure, so Minnesota can designate him a post-June 1 cut to save $7.937 million or trade him and save the same figure. A pre-June 1 release/trade would create $4.35 million in dead cap and save $5.037 mill.
O.J. Howard (Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Presuming Gronk returns, Howard’s future with the team is in doubt. This is the final year of his rookie deal that included the option for 2021, which was picked up by the team last year. Howard ruptured an Achilles tendon in 2020, so his recovery will be key in his return to the club. Cutting Howard would save $6.013 against the cap for a team that’s already in good shape financially.
David Njoku (Cleveland Browns): Njoku’s fifth-year option will pay him $6.013 million. After Cleveland gave Austin Hooper record money last offseason, combined with Njoku’s lack of productivity in relation to his draft placement, it wouldn’t come as a shock if he was released to save the team his full salary without financial penalty to the cap.
C.J. Uzomah (Cincinnati Bengals): Cincinnati signed him to a three-year, $18.3 million deal in March of 2019, only for Uzomah to statistically regress that season and miss all but two games last year (torn Achilles). He’s due $1.25 million via roster bonus as of March 20, and cutting him would save $5.075 million against the cap.