The front offices of all 32 NFL teams have descended on Indianapolis this week. With the NFL Scouting Combine wrapping up today at Lucas Oil Field, teams have had the opportunity to get closer to the players that will shape their franchises for years to come. However, the impending free agency frenzy could see those draft plans alter as teams find the best way to assemble a winning team for 2020. In the latest of a series of free agency pieces, let’s look at the top free agent tight ends available for the 2020 NFL season.
The tight end position is rapidly becoming one of the most important positions in the NFL. With multiple responsibilities on the field, it is becoming harder to find players that excel in all facets of the game. There is no greater example of that than the 2019 New England Patriots, who were a very different team without Rob Gronkowski from the one that won Super Bowl 53 with him.
Many teams now use multiple tight ends to devastating effect, with the likes of the Baltimore Ravens finding success with Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst, and Nick Boyle. The trio was crucial in helping establish the run and provided reliable targets for Lamar Jackson.
If your team is in the market for a tight end for 2020, who should they be targeting?
The 2020 NFL Draft is lacking a true top talent, like a Noah Fant or T.J. Hockenson from the 2019 class, so free agency may be the route to take.
1. Austin Hooper – OSM grade: 40.14
As is so often the case, Austin Hooper had the best season of his career as he came to the end of his three-year deal. According to reports, Hooper is looking to secure around $10 million per year on a new deal, and the Atlanta Falcons either aren’t willing or aren’t able, to pay him. He’ll hit the open market as the top free agent tight end.
Hooper racked up 787 receiving yards in 2019, with six touchdowns despite playing the fewest games since his rookie season. He had the sixth-most receiving yards out of all tight ends, despite only ranking 21st in targeted air yards.
He was our top graded tight end by OSM three times and received six elite grades (40+) with standout games coming against the Arizona Cardinals (52.31), Minnesota Vikings (51.47), and Tennessee Titans (47.33).
Although Hooper doesn’t make big plays after the catch, with an average -0.3 YAC versus expectation, he is one of the best tight ends in the NFL in creating separation, allowing him to make big, chain moving plays. With a 77.3% catch completion percentage, he is also one of the most reliable pair of hands available.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about Hooper being one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL. With reported interest from the Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, and the Green Bay Packers, not only is he set to emerge as one of the league’s best tight ends, he is about to be paid like one too.
2. Vance McDonald – OSM grade: 33.81
Unless the Pittsburgh Steelers decide to restructure Vance McDonald’s contract, he will become a free agent at the start of the new league year. The Steelers have little cap room to play with and have players like Bud Dupree who they want to keep inside Heinz Field.
McDonald is probably not the name that most people would suggest as one of the top free agent tight ends. Without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019, he struggled to just 273 receiving yards.
However, OSM helps us to show what he brings to the table.
He was our top graded tight end in the Steelers close defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 with an OSM grade of 49.36. He hauled in all seven of his targets and created 3.7 yards of separation.
His ability to create separation has been the key to his game in 2019, with an average of 3.8 yards being the second-best amongst tight ends. Unfortunately for McDonald, with just 4.6 targeted air yards on average, he hasn’t been able to make the chunk plays that saw a career-high 610 yards in 2018.
3. Jason Witten – OSM grade: 38.22
The two-time All-Pro tight end returned to the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 after a year in the Monday Night Football booth and showed that he could still make an impression in the league.
He was our ninth-ranked tight end in 2019, and one of the top free agent tight ends available. He could still return to the Cowboys. However, he is set to be a backup to Blake Jarwin, another free agent tight end, and could look for one last hurrah with another team.
Witten provided a reliable target for Dak Prescott last season, with a 75.9% catch completion percentage placing him in the top ten tight ends in the NFL. Despite being out of the game for a year, it was his highest catch completion percentage of his career.
He isn’t a player that is going to go out and make plays after the catch but can still help a team move the chains, picking up 27 first downs in 2019. The Cowboys leaned on him in their Week 9 win over the New York Giants, with his performance earning him an elite grade of 43.39.
It’s ironic that he should have his highest-graded game against the Cowboys NFC East rivals as the Giants are one of the teams that are reported to have interest in him if he does become a free agent in March.
4. Jacob Hollister: OSM grade: 37.15
Jacob Hollister has a Super Bowl ring from his time with the New England Patriots, but it is his season spent with the Seattle Seahawks that sees him make our list of top free agent tight ends.
In 2019, he showed he could be productive when given the opportunity, something that didn’t happen a lot in New England. Behind Gronkowski, he had just 16 targets in two seasons. In Seattle, he had 59 targets from Russell Wilson and snagged 41 of those for 349 yards and three touchdowns.
Hollister was ranked in our top 10 tight ends on four separate occasions in 2019, most notably in Week 10 when he received an elite grade of 42.86 in the Seahawks 27-24 overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers. He led all tight ends in separation and had an 80% completion percentage on his way to 62 yards and a touchdown.
With the Seahawks signing Greg Olsen to team up with Will Dissly, it seems likely that Hollister will test the open market. After a more productive 2019, it might be a better market for him than when he was traded to Seattle for a seventh-round pick in April 2019.
5. Hunter Henry – OSM grade: 34.76
The Los Angeles Chargers had such high hopes for tight end Hunter Henry when they drafted him out of Arkansas in 2016 that they allowed All-Pro tight end, Antonio Gates, to test the free agency market following the 2017 season. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Henry’s career has hit some injury stumbling blocks and he hasn’t yet achieved his full potential.
Many would argue that Henry should be at the top of this list of the top free agent tight ends. He has, after all, had more touchdowns, receiving yards, and yards per game than all the others bar Hooper.
Whilst Henry has been consistently good in his 12 games for the Chargers in 2019, he hasn’t had the elite level games that the other players on this list have had during the season. His OSM grades all fall in the “very good” bracket between 31 and 39. Whilst his overall catch completion percentage (72.4%) and targeted air yards (10.2) statistics are in the top 10 amongst tight ends, his separation (2.6) and completion percentage against expectation (-0.7%) are some of the lowest.
This off-season has been one of considerable change for the Chargers, with quarterback Philip Rivers leaving the team. However, as our Tony Pauline reported this week, there is a hope that they can get a long-term deal done with Hunter Henry. If he can stay healthy, then we may see some elite games in 2020 as he provides a reliable receiving option for the new face of the franchise.