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Falcons 2022 free agent targets: Tight end

The Falcons will almost certainly grab a veteran to play with Kyle Pitts. Who will it be?

Chicago Bears v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Kyle Pitts is a tight end who functions as a wide receiver quite a bit of the time. That’s not a bad thing—he showed off game-changing ability no matter where he was lined up in 2021—but it does highlight the need for this Falcons team to have capable blockers and pass catchers at the tight end position outside of Pitts. Hell, even if Pitts was lined up as an in-line tight end on every snap, you’d still want those players.

Today, Atlanta’s depth chart behind Pitts is diminished. Lee Smith has retired, Hayden Hurst is headed to free agency, and the team has to this point collected solid blockers (Daniel Helm, Ryan Becker, Parker Hesse) and an intriguing pass catching option they imported from the CFL (Brayden Lenius). Hesse is the only semi-proven option behind Pitts, and while he had an encouraging stint on the roster late in the year, ideally he’d be your third tight end.

With that in mind, and given that the Falcons have plenty of other places to spend their draft capital, they may well want to explore the free agent market. Fortunately for them, there are loads of capable options out there if they want to open the checkbook. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

High-end starters

  • Zach Ertz, 31
  • Gerald Everett, 28
  • David Njoku, 26
  • Mike Gesicki, 26
  • Dalton Schultz, 26

How important is tight end for the Falcons? Kyle Pitts gets plenty of run lined up wide, and ideally you’d have a terrific traditional tight end to pair with him. It’s a short list of players this year if you’re dipping into free agency, however.

Ertz has been getting it done forever, and while he’s the oldest player on this list, he’s also the most-established and an absolutely rock solid receiver and blocker. Adding Ertz to this offense with Pitts would take the sting out of the Falcons having to rebuild their receiving corps outside of that duo, and it would let Arthur Smith run plenty of his favored two tight end sets.

Everett and Njoku have not been elite producers to this point in their respective careers, but both have tremendous talent and may benefit from a new opportunity elsewhere. Njoku, in particular, is a deeply intriguing talent with terrific athleticism, while Everett has battled inconsistency but turned in an impressive second half in Seattle and graded out well as a blocker.

Gesicki would be coming to Atlanta as a pass catcher first and foremost, and a damn good one. Because he’s so young and so athletic he’s going to command a sizeable deal, but his best years of football are ahead of him and he just finished up a season where he reeled in 73 catches for 780 yards.

Finally, Dalton Schultz has blossomed into a tremendous pass catcher even if Dallas fans aren’t necessarily in love with his blocking. Again, he’s young enough that his best years are likely ahead of him.

If the Falcons want to make a splash and reel in a free agent tight end who can serve as a top weapon in the offense, there are options. None of them are going to be cheap.

Stopgap starters/high-level reserves

  • Jared Cook, 35
  • Robert Tonyan, 28
  • C.J. Uzomah, 29
  • Rob Gronkowski, 33
  • Anthony Firkser, 27
  • Mo Alie-Cox, 28
  • Jimmy Graham, 35
  • Hayden Hurst, 28
  • Evan Engram, 27
  • O.J. Howard, 27
  • James O’Shaughnessy, 30
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, 27
  • Will Dissly, 26
  • Durham Smythe, 26
  • Tyler Conklin, 26
  • Donal Parham, 24

This is likely the sweet spot for the Falcons, and it’s loaded with legitimately interesting players. Let’s highlight a handful.

First, there’s Hurst, who has maddening potential that he’s been unable to turn into elite production. His red zone production might convince the team to bring him back and give him another shot, but given how flooded the market is with capable players, he’ll likely find a new home elsewhere.

Howard and Engram are two tight ends who could benefit tremendously from a change of scenery. Engram has battled injury and Howard has just not been able to position himself as a starter under Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay, but both are gifted athletically and have shown flashes of tremendous pass catching ability. Buying a little low on either one would be exactly the kind of move Terry Fontenot seems likely to make.

Cook, Graham and Gronk all offer you varying degrees of pass-catching acumen at this stage of their respective careers. Gronk’s body could break down at any moment and he’s not a lock to return with Tom Brady retiring, but the future Hall of Famer still gives you tremendous production and would be a welcome signing. Ditto Cook, who despite his uneven play over the years has put together a strong career and is still an extremely capable receiving option. Graham is the weakest option of the bunch but is still a useful receiver.

Finally, there’s Firkser, who seems almost too logical a signing to actually happen. He has ties to Arthur Smith, has a proven track record of being a capable receiver and blocker, and does not figure to be expensive in a flooded market coming off a down year.

Reserves

  • Maxx Williams, 28
  • Eric Ebron, 29
  • Geoff Swaim, 29
  • Tyler Kroft, 29
  • Levine Toilolo, 31
  • Jesse James, 28
  • Ross Dwelley, 27
  • Blake Bell, 30
  • Derek Carrier, 31
  • Demetrius Harris, 30
  • Jacob Hollister, 28
  • MyCole Pruitt, 30
  • Garrett Griffin, 28

You can’t rule out a reunion between Arthur Smith and Pruitt or Swaim, who he coached with the Titans, but the Falcons don’t feel like they need another reserve tight end. Parker Hesse was plenty effective in his limited playing time a year ago, the team brought back Ryan Becker after injury wiped out his 2021, and they added blocking tight end Daniel Helm and CFL receiver-turned-tight end Brayden Lenius. There’s two capable reserves somewhere in that group.

That’s why I don’t think the Falcons will be super interested in anyone on this list outside of Pruitt and Swaim, though an established quality blocker like Carrier or Toilolo could be of interest for competition purposes at minimum. The Falcons really need to aim higher and give Pitts a pass-catching complement, though.

Who would you sign from these lists?