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What exactly do the Falcons have in Jacob Tamme?

The former Broncos tight end has spent most of his career in the shadow of more talented players, but he could be primed for a bigger role in Atlanta.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere in the offices of the Falcons' communications department, there lies six-foot-long list of the milestones and records Tony Gonzalez achieved during his Hall of Fame career. He is perhaps the greatest player to ever suit up at the position. Few will deny that.

So in the wake of his retirement last season, saying "Gonzalez left big shoes to fill" almost does a disservice to all parties involved. He is basically the hardest act to follow, and second-year Stanford product Levine Toilolo was not only called upon to replace him, but thrown into the fire on a team with glaring weaknesses in many other areas.

What's a fourth-round blocking tight end to do?

It was only a matter of time until the Falcons added talent at the position this offseason. As the group of proven free agents quickly shrank, however, options dwindled until the front office evaluators settled on a pair of (they hope) cost-effective players. Tony Moeaki, though talented, is far from a sure bet given his injury history. His one-year, vet minimum deal reflects that.

And while many hoped for budding Broncos star Julius Thomas, the Falcons' other signing would be his enigmatic backup, Jacob Tamme, who if anything has experienced filling in for a top-tier tight end. This season, however, he's the likely No. 1 heading into training camp.

And that warrants a closer look.


For more than two seasons with the Colts, Tamme was an unknown. The former fourth-round pick out of Kentucky came into the league with the pass-catching skills and the 6-foot-4 frame to make a difference, but at 232 pounds he remained too undersized to really establish himself as a reliable blocker. What's more, he looked far away from meaningful playing time with Pro Bowler Dallas Clark ahead of him on the depth chart.

That career trajectory, however, would change entirely when Clark landed on injured reserve with a wrist injury in Octobor of 2010. Tamme -- who up until that point had been limited to special teams duty -- assumed the starting role and seized his window, recording 67 receptions for 631 yards and four touchdowns over the remaining 10 games of the season. Suddenly, he was on the map.

His ratings from 2010, according to Pro Football Focus:


Clark returned the next season, but neither he nor anybody else on the Colts offense produced much without Peyton Manning taking snaps under center. And so Tamme faded into the background for a year before resurfacing with Manning and the Broncos in 2012, when he caught 52 passes for 555 yards and a pair of touchdowns behind Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Despite his success in the passing game, however, he lost snaps to Joel Dreessen on running plays. This trend continued on into the 2013-14 seasons, with Virgil Green taking more blocking snaps and the talented Julius Thomas emerging as a dynamic receiving threat for Manning. Tamme had become the forgotten man.

So when reportedly choosing between returning to Denver or joining a team that only had one experienced tight end on its roster, it's easy to see why Tamme inked a two-year deal with the Falcons.

"I really appreciated the Broncos' interest, and I really loved my time in Denver," Tamme said to the Denver Post. "Loved the organization, loved my teammates, loved the city. Obviously, Peyton is one of my best friends and it's going to be difficult not being out there with him because that's been a great ride for me and a lot of fun. But the Falcons had what I was looking for — a fresh opportunity and a fresh challenge."


Knowing this background, I'd imagine many aren't bursting with excitement at the addition of a 30-year-old veteran. After all, he's not exactly brimming with breakout potential. But context is key, and I'm here to offer a little more.

First, a simple comparison:

Player A: 53.2 recs, 603.4 yds, 11.43 YPC, 4.3 TD

Player B: 59.5 recs, 593 yds, 10.05 YPC, 3 TD

Player A is Steelers tight end Heath Miller, and those are his 10-year career averages. Miller is a two-time Pro Bowler and generally embodies an average to above-average tight end. Player B is of course Tamme, and the numbers are what he averaged over the 26 games in 2010 and 2012 during which he saw significant playing time. They're pretty similar.

Last season, Toilolo caught 31 passes (25th among tight ends) and averaged a mere 7.7 yards per catch. The only starter with a lower YPC average in 2014 was Jermaine Grasham (7.4). Toilolo struggled to finish catches (he had three drops in the loss to the Bears) and simply did not give the Falcons a reliable red zone target.

Tamme will offer quality production as a receiver, and when compared to the sort of passing production the Falcons got at tight end last year, it will look downright stellar. Simply the threat of knowing that Tamme can catch passes on intermediate routes -- which almost certainly wasn't the case with Toilolo -- prevents the offense from becoming too predictable.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also prefers having the flexibility to shift a tight end out wide pre-snap, as he did with Jordan Reed in Washington. Here's Shanahan quoted by the esteemed Vaughn McClure back in Februrary:

"I think tight end is always important just because it's hard to have a threat of many runs if a tight end is not out there," Shanahan said. "You'd love to go four receivers every single play, or even five receivers, but it makes it a lot easier for the defense when they know you have to throw it. The more times fullbacks go off the field or tight ends go off the field, it limits your run options, which makes you not as balanced."

Toilolo, while an ineffective receiver, certainly has the size to provide blocking, as does Moeaki. So while the Falcons don't have one "complete" tight end on the roster, they do have three players that complement each other and prevent one-dimensionality. It's like a three-player voltron! And remember: teams don't need Jimmy Graham to make the playoffs. The Falcons went 11-5 with Justin Peelle as their starting tight end. It can be done.

Ultimately, this setup gives the team a serviceable, stop-gap solution, and I'd imagine tight end falls high on the list of priorities next offseason. But for now, it's Tamme time, who is not Tony Gonzalez, but who is an upgrade nonetheless.