Tight end is basically the wide receiver position on steroids. There's a Hall of Famer at the top of the depth chart, and then the depth chart ends up looking more like a shallow chart. Guffaw.
Tony Gonzalez is one of the best of all time at his position, and he remains effective at the age of 37. After that, the Falcons have Chase Coffman and some guys who have little more than practice squad experience. Gonzalez is only going to play one more year, more than likely, and the Falcons have no one to groom after him. That's a little terrifying.
If you want to understand why the Falcons are being linked to a lot of draft-eligible tight ends, I'll help fill you in. Let's break down the depth chart at tight end.
Starter: Tony Gonzalez
2012 stats: 93 receptions, 930 yards, 10.0 yards per reception, 8 touchdowns
Gonzalez needs no introduction. At 37, he's still one of the most reliable weapons in the NFL over the middle of the field. He averaged just 10 yards a catch and isn't the kind of guy who will break a ton of long runs after the catch, but he doesn't really need to. The Falcons have other guys for that.
What Gonzo offers is reliability, the ability to get open, the ability to make insanely tough catches in traffic and a compelling interview every Sunday. As the second or third option in this offense, he's a matchup problem against linebackers and safeties and Ryan's security blanket. Generally speaking, he's an amazing player. As long he stays healthy, the Falcons are in great shape at tight end.
If there's one knock on Gonzo, it's that he's not a great blocker. Frankly, the Falcons don't care all that much as long he puts in the honest effort.
Reserve: Chase Coffman
2012 stats: 1 reception, 12 yards, 12.0 yards per reception
Coffman is a bit of a polarizing figure in Atlanta. The 26-year-old was a non-factor during the regular season, but made one jaw-dropping catch in the playoffs. His draft pedigree and athleticism, combined with his relative youth, make him a popular sleeper as Gonzalez's backup.
Let me be clear: I'm not ruling out Coffman having value. I just think that value is likely to come as an athletic backup with the ability to catch a few balls and block when called upon, not as a starter. This is mostly guesswork, however, because we've seen a fairly limited number of snaps from Coffman, despite the fact that he's been in the league since 2009.
The Falcons will roll with him as their top backup in 2013, more than likely, since Michael Palmer hasn't been re-signed to my knowledge. His versatility and those glimpses of promise mean he could do some nice things for the Falcons, but he's got about as murky an outlook as any veteran going on his fifth season in the league. Stay tuned on Coffman.
Practice Squad: Adam Nissley
Nissley has excellent size at 6'6" and has local ties. At 24, he's young enough to eventually latch on in the Michael Palmer memorial role, with the size and strength to function as a blocker and soft enough hands to catch a handful of passes in the regular season.
Nissley wouldn't be the first lightly regarded player to surprise for the Falcons, but I don't think he'll be counted on for much in 2013, to say the least.
????: Michael Palmer
Palmer was a restricted free agent, but his re-signing has not been reported. If he's coming back, Palmer is an obvious choice for the final roster as a capable blocker and occasional pass-catcher who has plenty of experience in this offense. You may even be able to pencil him in ahead of Coffman, because he's a known quantity who does plenty of little things well.
Until I officially hear he's re-signed, though, question marks it is.
If Palmer comes back, this is a solid enough unit. Gonzalez is obviously awesome and Coffman and Palmer both bring enough to the table to get them on the field occasionally. What this position lacks is a young, high-upside player who stands ready to take over when Gonzalez retires, unless you count Coffman. I'm not overly inclined to do so.
For 2013, though, the team has one guy who looks like solid depth, another guy whose status is up in the air but is also solid and a practice squadder with a little upside. They could add a young tight end and probably will do so, but if Gonzalez misses any time, however, that depth will be tested awfully fast.