Levine Toilolo was not an indispensable man. We all knew that, but it was still a surprise to see him cut.
Atlanta’s going to save $3.5 million by designating him as a post-June 1 cut, and they’ll likely replace him with a player who can be (or at least become) a more prominent part of the passing game. But Toilolo was the clear-cut #2 tight end in this offense, played a ton of snaps, threw a lot of blocks, and occasionally played the ukulele. His departure does leave a hole.
If the Falcons had an elite option atop the depth chart, they might simply bring in a late round pick or cheap veteran and let Eric Saubert compete for backup duties. Because Austin Hooper is a promising tight end but not yet a great one, and because Steve Sarkisian loves to use two tight ends, the Falcons are likely going to aim a bit higher. Here are some options to keep an eye out for as we moved forward.
Option 1: Draft A Tight End, Rounds 1-3
At this point, it would not be a surprise to see Atlanta invest a Day 2 selection in the tight end position. I anticipate their first round pick will be either a defensive tackle or guard, as I have all offseason, but tight end appears to be a legitimate option as early as the second round.
The Falcons reportedly have real interest in Hayden Hurst, widely considered to be one of the best players at his position in the class. Hurst is good enough to potentially push Hooper to be the team’s nominal starter at tight end, though both players would get a ton of time on the field. He’s a productive, capable receiver and decent blocker with the tools to improve, though his route running and hand usage in blocking situations both need to improve to make him an impact player. Still, he’d be a prominent part of the offense immediately, one guesses, and the second round appears to be his wheelhouse.
Other options include Penn State’s Mike Geisicki, an athletic and dangerous receiving tight end who doesn’t look like a great blocker at the next level, and Troy Fumagalli, a well-rounded Wisconsin product who could probably be had in the third round. Fumagalli’s solid all-around game makes him particularly interesting to me.
Option 2: Sign A Veteran Tight End
The name to watch here, per the always reliable Vaughn McClure, is impending Carolina Panthers free agent Ed Dickson. Dickson is coming off an underwhelming 10 catch, 134 yard, one touchdown season in Carolina, but he’s always been primarily a blocking tight end with unusually good hands for that sort of role. He’s not particularly fast, however, and you can sort of think of him as Jacob Tamme if Tamme was less interested in catching the ball than paving the way for running backs.
Dickson doesn’t do anything to solve the team’s red zone issues—he’s got 12 career touchdowns in eight NFL seasons—but he’d serve that blocking role well, give the team a slightly more reliable receiving option than Toilolo, and allow Eric Saubert and/or the team’s next draft selection time to develop.
There are other options on the market, of course, but the Falcons probably didn’t cut ties with Toilolo and his contract just to take on major money for the likes of Trey Burton, Jimmy Graham, or Tyler Eifert. They’re much more likely to wind up with a cheap, one year option like Dickson, former Bronco and Falcoholic draft crush Virgil Green, or ancient wonder Ben Watson.
If the Falcons do sign Dickson or one of these guys, it’s a clue as to their draft plans. I doubt you’ll see the team invest an early selection at tight end if they bring him aboard, and depending on how much they like Saubert, they may not draft one at all.
Option 3: Elevate Eric Saubert
I mention this one only in passing, because I don’t expect it to be a legitimate option for 2018. Saubert is an intriguing tight end prospect who barely got on the field for the Falcons as he picked up the NFL game, but his athleticism and quietly strong career at Drake make me optimistic for his chances of becoming a useful player over the long haul. If the Falcons really do like Saubert, they could bring aboard a third-string caliber tight end via a late round draft pick or a bargain basement free agent signing and let him run with Hooper.
Given this team’s Super Bowl aspirations, though, this still feels like a stretch.