Being an NFL tight end is not an easy task. The best athletes in the world end up playing EDGE in the league, and you, as a 250 (if you’re lucky) pound pass catcher by trade, are supposed to keep that player from killing your $200 million quarterback a few times a year. And depending on what kind of player you are, you may simply not fit what a new coach is looking to do schematically, so your numbers plummet into the Indian Ocean. Yet, the 2023 tight end free agency rankings are not beholden to scheme.
2023 TE Free Agency Rankings
Tight ends come in all shapes and sizes. Some are 6-foot-2, 235-pound players who can play in the slot, as an H-back, or occasionally play in line. Others are 6-foot-7 tree tops with the wingspan of a Wandering Albatross. And they find themselves all over PFN’s Top 100 Free Agents.
1) Dalton Schultz
Stanford tight ends were always a pain to evaluate. They played a lot of their snaps in-line, and most of their work seemed to come up the seam. Dalton Schultz wasn’t a towering Stanford Tree like many of his teammates, but the 6-foot-5, 245-pound TE had NFL size and was a good blocker leaving Stanford.
However, that’s not the same player he’s been in the NFL. The transition from college to the pros is difficult at most positions, but tight end can be particularly ruthless. It takes some a half-decade to figure things out at the position.
Schultz entered Year 3 as a much-improved route runner, and he showed off better athleticism than many gave him credit for in college. His separation quickness is apparent, and while he’s no Travis Kelce, Schultz is better after the catch than many of his peers, who simply turn and fall over after catching a stick route.
But since entering the league, Schultz has been an underwhelming blocker. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because it’s damn hard to do, but he had expectations from his days in college that he was never able to live up to. Nevertheless, he’s a reliable outlet for quarterbacks, and he’s been a solid red-zone target for Dak Prescott over the years.
2) Evan Engram
It would be a shame if Evan Engram didn’t get a chance to run things back with Trevor Lawrence and Doug Pederson. Calvin Ridley’s potential return will only open things up more for the freakishly fast tight end, who is finally in a place where his physical abilities can be maximized.
Pederson can get Engram running down the seam, across the field, and in the screen game. Adding Ridley to Christian Kirk and another offseason of progression from Lawrence and the Jaguars’ offense could be looking up like the “stonks” meme.
Engram is that 6-foot-3, 240-pound freak I discussed in the opener. He ran a 4.42, posted a sub-seven-second three-cone drill, and was above the 80th percentile in all explosiveness drills at the Combine.
For all intents and purposes, Engram is a receiver listed as tight end. Using him as a tight end is an assault to common sense. Engam can occasionally throw a block, and using him as a sifter coming across the formation is fine. But asking a 235-pound TE to block a 280-pound DE is about as smart as smacking a hornet’s nest naked while your feet are tied together.
If used correctly, Engram could be insanely productive.
3) Mike Gesicki
Speaking of producers getting a raw deal, meet Mike Gesicki. Mike McDaniel is a great offensive mind. Kyle Shanahan is one of the best in the business. But we all should have seen what happened to Gesicki coming by taking a peek at what we’ve seen from SF throughout the years.
Sure, at times, George Kittle has boasted insane production. But when there are wide receivers worth their salt on the roster, the WWE-loving freak of nature is often relegated to being an in-line blocker who releases late or is used as a decoy.
Gesicki isn’t Kittle in any way other than some athletic testing measures. But Kittle is one of the few who survives playing in the trenches. Gesicki is an Inspector Gadget impersonator, plucking balls out of the sky with the vice grips we call his hands. He’s not particularly quick, and it takes time to get up and go with his long strides, but by golly, the young man could catch a cold in hell.
And that type of reliability would go perfectly with quarterbacks who are consistently willing to test tight windows and throw passes leveraging away from draping defenders.
4) Hayden Hurst
Hayden Hurst’s career got off on the wrong foot, and it was entirely out of his control. He should have never been a first-round pick, but first-round expectations come with the territory.
Hurst began his adult life as a baseball player who flamed out spectacularly, and he’s been open about overcoming that adversity while being an integral voice in the battle for men’s mental health.
He’s also, coincidentally, a pretty good tight end. The position is a bit weird. There are a very small few who are legitimate stars at the position. There is another small second tier of tight ends, but most of the league consists of players in Hurst’s category or lower.
It actually makes Hurst a great value in a league lacking value. A season ago, Hurst made $3.5 million on his deal with Cincinnati. Is someone like Schultz worth nearly $8 million more than Hurst to an offense?
There’s also value in knowing what you’re going to get. Drafting a tight end is a complete coin flip, and the coin may be three or four-sided. Having a dud at the position can kill an offense, so having someone like Hurst to be the starter while you pray a fourth-rounder develops is the winning strategy.
5) Foster Moreau
Foster Moreau has been waiting for his opportunity to shine for four years now in Las Vegas. Moreau may be the most tight end of of the tight ends in this group. He can survive lined up two feet away from an offensive tackle, and he’s one of the better pass protectors you’ll find at the position.
While he hasn’t received many opportunities as a pass catcher, he has flashed some legitimate ability catching the football and turning it upfield. If one thing has rung true with tight ends, it’s that they need to be relatively athletic. Moreau had decent size, great length, and was explosive coming out of LSU.
Given more opportunity as a pass catcher in a starting role, there’s no reason to believe Moreau cannot contribute 500-700 yards while also being a serviceable blocker. At just 26, he should still be improving his craft, too.
Rest of TE Free Agency Rankings
6) Robert Tonyan
7) Austin Hoopepr
8) Juwan Johnson
9) Irv Smith Jr.
10) Zach Gentry