Patriots

NFL free agents 2022: Ranking the top 10 tight ends

Patriots

After doling out a combined $87.5 million on Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith last offseason, the New England Patriots are likely content to sit out the free agent market for tight ends this time around.

Should they be?

While Henry developed into a favorite target for rookie quarterback Mac Jones, particularly in the red zone, Smith was essentially a nonfactor for New England in Year 1. The Patriots still have Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, third-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, under team control, although neither player caught a pass in 2021.

Top 2022 NFL free agents by position: QB | RB | WR | OL | DLEDGE | LB | CB | S | KTop 25 overall

Should New England dip back into the free-agent pool for upgrades at tight end, it will find several notable veteran players -- including one who called Foxboro home for nine seasons. Here's a look at the top 10 tight ends set to become free agents this spring.

10. Mo Alie-Cox

Age: 28

2021 stats: 24 catches, 316 yards, 4 TD

The former basketball star at VCU might not be putting up numbers like some other notable tight ends who shined on the hardwood in college (Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez), but with a 6-foot-5 frame and solid contributions as a blocker as well, Alie-Cox could be in line to earn a starting gig away from the Colts.

UPDATE(March 14): Alie-Cox is staying in Indianapolis on a three-year deal, per reports.

9. O.J. Howard

Age: 27

2021 stats: 14 catches, 135 yards, 1 TD

After suffering a torn Achilles four games into the 2020 season, Howard returned to appear in all 17 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021, but seemed to learn the hard way that the Tom Brady circle of trust is all too real. Originally a first-round pick (19th overall) out of Alabama in 2017, Howard topped 500 yards receiving in a season just once with Jameis Winston as his quarterback, but he did catch 11 touchdowns over his first two NFL seasons.

 

8. Hayden Hurst

Age: 28

2021 stats: 26 catches, 221 yards, 3 TD

Just a year removed from catching 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns for the Falcons, the former 25th overall pick for the Ravens should have his share of suitors elsewhere as Atlanta builds its passing game around Kyle Pitts. For what it's worth, Hurst attended the same high school as Mac Jones, graduating five years earlier from the Bolles School in Jacksonville. Like many notable tight ends, Hurst has a background in other sports, too; he was a 17th round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, spending two years playing minor league ball before walking on at South Carolina.

7. David Njoku

Age: 25

2021 stats: 36 catches, 475 yards, 4 TD

It's been an up and down five seasons for Njoku in Cleveland, who's missed 16 games over the last three seasons (just one in 2021) and once requested a trade from the Browns. The third tight end was drafted (29th overall) in the first round in 2017 after O.J. Howard and Evan Engram, one advantage Njoku has is that he's a full two years younger than either player.

UPDATE (March 8): The Browns have placed the franchise tag on Njoku.

6. Evan Engram

Age: 27

2021 stats: 46 catches, 408 yards, 3 TD

Though he made the Pro Bowl in 2020, Engram's best season was really his rookie year in 2017, when he had career-highs in catches (64), yards (722) and touchdowns (6) for the Giants. A change of scenery would probably benefit the former Ole Miss star, who seemed to enjoy playing with fellow Rebel Eli Manning the most.

UPDATE (March 14): Engram is joining the Jacksonville Jaguars on a one-year contract.

5. Jared Cook

Age: 34

2021 stats: 48 catches, 564 yards, 4 TD

Cook is like a middle reliever in baseball who quietly hangs around the league forever with solid, if unspectacular, production. He does have two Pro Bowl nods on his record, in 2018 with the Oakland Raiders and 2019 with the New Orleans Saints, but he's never topped 70 catches for a season, never gone over 900 yards receiving and never caught double-digit touchdown passes. After 13 NFL seasons with six NFL teams in all, Cook still hasn't been to a Super Bowl. Staying put in Los Angeles with Justin Herbert and the Chargers might not be the worst idea in the world.

 

4. Rob Gronkowski

Age: 32

2021 stats: 55 catches, 802 yards, 6 TD

The only quarterback he said he'd ever play for is retired, we think, but Gronk also mentioned he wouldn't mind playing with Joe Burrow. The Bengals' starting tight end, C.J. Uzomah, is also a free agent. Cincinnati is in the Rust Belt, not far from where Gronk grew up in Buffalo. Most importantly, Gronk can still play; his numbers this season in Tampa were his best since 2017 in New England, despite playing in only 12 games. He'll be 33 in May, but if Burrow -- or Brady himself -- called, could Gronk say no? Brady said he hopes Gronk continues his career.

3. Mike Gesicki

Age: 26

2021 stats: 73 catches, 780 yards, 2 TD

Though his two touchdown receptions were his fewest since catching none as a rookie, Gesicki enjoyed his best season outside of the end zone for the Dolphins, catching 20 more passes than his previous career-high. Per Pro Football Focus, Gesicki lined up in the slot or split out wide 85 percent of the time for Miami in 2021. At 6-foot-6, he's a matchup nightmare regardless of where he is at the snap.

UPDATE (March 8): The Dolphins have placed the franchise tag on Gesicki.

2. Zach Ertz

Age: 31

2021 stats: 74 catches, 763 yards, 5 TD

Easily the most accomplished tight end on the market after Gronk, Ertz enjoyed his sixth season with at least 70 receptions and seventh with at least 700 yards receiving despite being traded midway through it from the Philadelphia Eagles, the only team he'd played for, to the Arizona Cardinals. A three-time Pro Bowler, Ertz is ninth all-time in receptions by a tight end (635) and 13th in yards (6,841).

UPDATE (March 13): Ertz is staying with the Cardinals on a three-year contract extension

1. Dalton Schultz

Age: 25

2021 stats: 78 catches, 808 yards, 8 TD

In his first two seasons with the Cowboys, Schultz had just 13 catches for 122 yards and no touchdowns over 27 games. Over the next two, he has 141 catches for 1,423 yards and 12 touchdowns, with steady improvements across the board even from 2020 to 2021. After 16 seasons of Jason Witten, Dallas seems to have the perfect heir apparent within its grasp in the 6-foot-5 Schultz. The Cowboys surely want to keep him, but he won't come cheap.

UPDATE (March 8): The Cowboys have placed the franchise tag on Schultz.