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Free-agent TEs the Buffalo Bills could sign

Does Dawson Knox need a tandem partner or an understudy?

The Buffalo Bills have, for the first time in a long time, found a legitimately talented starting tight end. Dawson Knox was far and away the best player in his unit, and an essential target down the stretch of the 2021 season. The other tight ends? Essentially discarded.

So at the very least, the Bills need to sign a backup they have faith in. Knox can’t solo the entire year in 2022. The choice to make is whether the team just needs a low-upside blocking tight end, or whether they want to pair Knox with another bona fide starter and diversify their 11-personnel offense going into the new year. The wide array of choices on the veteran market can cover either use case.

Rob Gronkowski

If he doesn’t retire, Gronkowski is still the top tight end on the market. The future Hall of Famer missed five games with broken ribs in 2021, but he still caught 55 passes for 802 yards and six TDs.

Turning 33 this year, Gronkowski conceivably could take a back seat to rising star Dawson Knox on the Bills. But he could also allow the Bills to pivot into more two-TE packages without losing their fastball—the passing game. A tremendous blocker, Gronkowski would seriously upgrade the running game while presenting a receiving threat, and maybe that’s exactly what the Bills are looking for.

Having made $8 million on his most recent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his next contract will land in a similar range, and maybe higher, now that he’ll have multiple suitors.

Of course, you can’t blame Gronk if he wants to run it back again with the newly unretired Tom Brady.

C.J. Uzomah

The Cincinnati Bengals bet on Uzomah with a three-year, $19 million contract after a breakout 2018 season. His 2019 was a disappointing regression (but you could say that about everyone on the 2-14 Bengals that year), and in 2020 he tore his Achilles tendon only two games into the season.

Uzomah did return to action in 2021 and had a solid year as the Bengals returned to the Super Bowl, with 49 catches for 493 yards and five TDs.

Uzomah just turned 29. Coming from a $6 million salary, and with a reasonably productive year, he’ll probably aim for a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-8 million per year on the open market, unless the Bengals re-sign him again.

Kyle Rudolph

Released by the New York Giants, who thought his $6 million salary was too much to bear, Rudolph says he’s still ready to play another season. The tight end definitely looked more limited in recent years with the Minnesota Vikings, and in a lesser role with the Giants he only managed 26 catches for 257 yards and a touchdown in 2021.

His better days behind him, Rudolph is still a respected veteran with the ability to block and catch as his role requires. He’d probably take a one-year deal for around $3-4 million in 2022.

Gerald Everett

One of last year’s potential upside-inflated contract signings, Everett’s free agency wasn’t as lucrative as Hunter Henry’s or Jonnu Smith’s. He signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks. And overall, he handled it well! He set new career highs in catches (48), yards (478), and touchdowns (four). Everett claimed a larger role on offense overall, playing 75% of snaps for Seattle.

With his contract up, Everett has at least earned a runback to the same deal as before. But this might be the time for the 27-year-old to sign a major, multi-year contract worth $8-10 million per year.

Jared Cook

It’s incredible to think that Shawn Nelson and Jared Cook entered the league in the same draft. One player flamed out of the league in two years, and the other is about to enter year 14.

And Cook just keeps rolling. It’s been five years since he had fewer than 500 yards in a season, and his productivity hasn’t really dipped despite his snap percent dropping into the 40s and 50s in recent years. Cook was pretty comfortably the number-four option in the Los Angeles Chargers’ passing game last year, and worked quite well in that role. Maybe the Bills could use him as their second tight end? The question is the price. Cook played on a one-year, $4.5 million contract in 2021. Will he look for a similar (or even lower) number as he turns 35?

Eric Ebron

Ebron’s been a fairly middle-of-the-road receiving tight end for his whole career. He’d signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020, and the first season saw a 56/558/5 receiving slash. In 2021, Ebron was passed on the depth chart by Pat Freiermuth, suffered a season-ending knee injury at midseason, and only caught 12 passes on the year.

In terms of cost, Ebron’s made at least $6 million for the last five seasons, so that’s what his agent will target. It remains to be seen if teams will run back for that cost for another year.

Evan Engram

One of the biggest enigmas on one of the worst teams in the league, Engram is a 240-lb de facto slot receiver with a 4.42 40-yard dash. His career yards per catch is only 10.8, and he averaged barely more yards after catch than Cole Beasley in 2021. In his five-year career, Engram’s best year was his first, and beyond that he’s had the production of a number-three or four target in an offense.

Of course, the terrible Giants coaching and quarterback play can’t be ignored here. Engram might be a sneaky way to boost the explosiveness of an offense. He just finished playing out his fifth-year option, and the market value for a tight end like him is in the neighborhood of $6-8 million per year.

Mo Alie-Cox

A former undrafted free agent, Alie-Cox played well in small opportunities early in his career, working his way into a role as the number-two tight end on the Indianapolis Colts. In the past two seasons, Alie-Cox averaged 28 catches for 355 yards and three TDs. He also contributes a little on special teams.

The Colts used a restricted free-agent tender of $3.4 million on him last year, and now he’s a 28-year-old free agent. $3-5 million would be the expected window of value for his next contract.

Robert Tonyan

In 2020, former UDFA Tonyan had a year that Gary Barnidge would be proud of, shaking up fantasy football with an out-of-nowhere 52-catch, 11-TD season. His 2021 season wasn’t on the same pace, with 18 catches for 204 yards and two TDs in eight games, then he tore his ACL and lost his remaining season.

GMs will have to project with the 6’5” 238-lb Tonyan. Was 2020 a fluke with an MVP quarterback playing his best? Can Tonyan be a top-ten tight end in the league?

Playing under a $3.4 million tender in 2021, Tonyan’s ceiling could be the four-year, $50 million deal signed by Jonnu Smith last year, but a more realistic deal might be the three-year, $24 million contract Logan Smith signed in 2021.

Anthony Firkser

Arguably a player overpaid because of his unique value to a single team, Firkser made $3 million to play 39% of offensive snaps for the Tennessee Titans (and a little bit of special teams) as a blocker. He was also a checkdown target, catching 34 passes for 291 yards and two TDs. Firkser just turned 27, but since his upside is mainly tied to blocking, I wouldn’t expect a raise on his next deal.

O.J. Howard

A first-round pick in 2017, Howard wasn’t able to develop into a high-quality starter over his career with Tampa Bay. Though they picked up his fifth-year option after the 2019 season, they opted to bring in Rob Gronkowski at the same time, and Howard’s usage plummeted. When he was the primary player from 2017-2018, he averaged 16.6 yards per catch and caught 11 TDs in those two seasons. That’s the upside you hope you’re getting with him.

Though Howard made a lot of money ($6 million) in 2021 because of his rookie deal, he’ll probably be relegated to a backup role and take a corresponding pay cut for 2022.

Hayden Hurst

Another first-round draft pick who didn’t live up to expectations, Hurst was traded to the Atlanta Falcons after only two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. In Atlanta, Hurst had the best year of his career in 2020, with 56 catches for 571 yards and six TDs. But the Falcons declined his fifth-year option, upgraded his position with Kyle Pitts, and will let him depart in free agency after he was a backup in 2021.

Making $2 million in 2021 on his rookie deal, Hurst heads into 2022 as a projected backup or low-end starter. So a contract in a similar range, say $2-4 million per year, is probably where he’ll land.

Geoff Swaim

A blocking tight end who can play on special teams, Swaim spent most of his career fighting for playing time, only to have injuries derail him. He tore his pectoral in 2016, broke his foot and injured his knee in 2017, broke his ankle in 2018, and had an ankle injury and a concussion in 2019.

Latching on with the Titans, Swaim stayed healthy in 2020 and was re-signed for $2.5 million in 2021. He had his most productive season, catching 31 passes for 210 yards and three TDs while more-or-less starting on offense and special teams. A run-heavy team might prefer him, but he’ll get good value on the market.

Will Dissly

Over the first five games of the 2019 season, Dissly had 23 catches for 262 yards and four TDs. Unfortunately he tore his Achilles tendon the next week, and over each of the next two seasons of his career he’s only been able to do in 16 or 17 games what he did in five in that year.

Dissly is still a solid blocking tight end, playing about 50-60% of snaps on offense for the run-heavy Seahawks, and he’s also a solid special teams contributor as well.

His rookie contract is coming to an end, and he’ll likely sign a deal in the $1.5 to $2.5 million range.

Durham Smythe

Standing 6’6” and 246 lbs, Smythe has been the main blocking tight end for the Miami Dolphins, with Mike Gesicki the spotlighted receiver. A special teams starter and good for between 45-65% of snaps on offense, he’s one of those cogs who keeps the machine running smoothly.

Smythe isn’t used much in the passing game, but in 2021 he had a career-high 34 catches for 357 yards.

Coming off his rookie contract, the 26-year-old Smythe would most likely fit into a range of $2-4 million per year as a blocking tight end with decent receiving production.

Tyler Conklin

A former fifth-round pick by the Vikings, Conklin spent most of his early career as a backup who played a healthy amount of special teams and didn’t see the field much. That changed in 2021 when he played his way into a starting role on offense. Taking 81% of snaps, Conklin had 61 catches for 593 yards and three TDs. That’s actually the second-most catches and third-most yards of any free agent TE this year.

Paid a pittance up until now, Conklin might not be able to justify a big multi-year contract, but something in the range of $3-5 million per year might work out for him. The 6’3” 248-lb tight end turns 27 this year.