A year ago, the Detroit Lions took the decision to rid themselves of Eric Ebron, after a fairly underwhelming run in the Motor City. Ebron landed with the Indianapolis Colts, and people wondered whether he would be able to coexist with the incumbent Jack Doyle, to become a productive member of their offense.
Well, for a variety of reasons, Ebron enjoyed the breakout season that he was never able to have with the Lions. Ebron set career highs in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. He posted a 66-750-13 line, with his 13 scores leading all tight ends. This can be the way it goes at the TE position, sometimes a place a player calls home first is not the place he should call home best. A move can make all the difference.
With this in mind, I thought it prudent to take a look at the TEs who, like Ebron a year ago, find themselves on new teams after the first wave of NFL free agency. Could any of them have a season like Ebron, now that they find themselves in a new city, in a new uniform, with a new quarterback? I mean, Ebron has shown it’s possible. But is it likely, among this group of players? Let’s look at some of the candidates.
At the time of writing, the consensus number one free agent TE, Jared Cook, remained unsigned. Given his excellent season with the Raiders, and track of success elsewhere, he would be my first choice to come close to an Ebron like season. But he has to sign for someone first for this opinion to be valid.
Jesse James – Detroit
After releasing Ebron last year, the Lions swung and missed on free agent Luke Willson, a former Seahawk. He had just 13 receptions for 87 yards last season, as a member of an offense that in general got very little from the TE position. Lions TE’s caught a mere 45 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns in 2018.
The Lions signed former Steeler Jesse James to a four-year deal, with $10.5m in guaranteed money. James was never able to make the Steelers gig his own, with his best season coming in 2017 when he commanded an 11 percent share of the targets. This dropped to a mere six percent last season, although he posted career highs in yards (423) and yards per reception (14.1). In his first three seasons, this average was down at 8.51.
While the Lions could hardly ignore the TE position in 2019 any more than they did last season, this doesn’t feel like a situation bursting with fantasy potential. The Lions, whilst still possessing Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, also added Danny Amendola to their receiving corps, giving Matthew Stafford three legitimate receiving options to look to.
There is also the fact that the Lions’ new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell does not have a track record of tailoring his offenses to suit the TE. In his 12 seasons as an offensive coordinator, his TE1 has averaged 486 receiving yards a season. The only times a Bevell-coordinated TE has topped 600 yards in a season came in 2015 and 2016, when he had Jimmy Graham with him in Seattle. I know you, Jesse James, and you sir are no Jimmy Graham.
Tyler Kroft – Buffalo
Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now, as I am about to reveal just what the Bills got out of their TEs in 2018.
If you want another reason to be underwhelmed, you should consider that the Bills got the same number of receiving scores from their offensive line as they did from TEs. Urgh.
It should then come as no surprise that no Bills TE was able to establish a productive partnership with QB Josh Allen. His Adjusted Yards per Attempt profile certainly bears this out.
Given Allen’s issues with accuracy and touch, especially regarding the short to intermediate areas of the field, it is hardly surprising that he struggled to link up with his TEs. After all, that’s primarily where they make their money. Throw in the fact that his TEs were not very good, and you’ve got further problems.
Charles Clay and Logan Thomas have been shown the door, with Clay winding up in Arizona where I can confidently state he will offer no fantasy value at all in 2019. That leaves Jason Croom and new signing Tyler Kroft. Kroft was able to play just five games for the Bengals in 2017, and it is fair to say he didn’t make much noise in any of them. He caught four passes for 36 yards and no touchdowns. He missed the majority of the season with a foot sprain but must be healthy enough to play considering the Bills gave him the 14th richest contract among current TEs.
Kroft is one of a number of players brought in by the Bills to bolster their offense, including John Brown and Cole Beasley. Given the presence of Robert Foster and Zay Jones, it would seem to be a tad crowded, although not exactly brimming with top-end talent. But one area in which Kroft can help with is red-zone efficiency. The Bills had the fewest red-zone receiving touchdowns in the NFL last season, scoring a mere seven. Kroft was ninth among TEs with seven red-zone receptions back in 2017, while he was third with seven touchdowns. He’ll have weeks where finding the end zone will make him fantasy relevant, but nothing to hang your hat on consistently.
Demetrius Harris – Browns
I’m not going to lie to you, this one breaks my heart. I’ve been a big fan of Demetrius Harris for quite some time, firmly believing that his next landing spot would be the key to unlocking his talent and fantasy value. He’s sat behind Travis Kelce for the whole of his NFL career with the Chiefs, and as you’d expect he has struggled for opportunities. In the last two seasons, Harris has only 30 receptions for 388 yards and four touchdowns.
But from an athletic point of view, Harris has some undeniable gifts. He stands an imposing 6 feet 7 inches and boasts 4.57 speed. Now, at 27 years old, it looked like a team was going to land a player that could be productive immediately, with very little wear on his tires. Perfect signing for a TE needy team like, oh I don’t know, the Lions?
Not the Browns.
The Browns are amassing an offensive juggernaut in Cleveland, with difference makers at QB, running back and wide receiver. They also already have one of the best young TEs in the game in David Njoku. After Baker Mayfield stepped into the starting QB spot with the Browns, Njoku immediately began to produce.
Between Weeks 4 and 17, Njoku was among the league leaders among TEs in all the key statistical categories.
Njoku took huge strides in his second year in the NFL, and big things are expected of him with Freddie Kitchens now the head coach for the Browns. That is why it is hard for me to believe that he will be overtaken on a weekly basis by Harris.
One factor we have to consider in looking for a 2019 Ebron is circumstance. Would Ebron have been able to produce the way he did, had his wingman Jack Doyle been healthy all season? His splits suggest he would have been good, but not great.
If Njoku were to get injured and have to miss extended time, then it is possible that Harris could be the main beneficiary. But to believe this will happen is to almost wish injury upon Njoku, and I refuse to do that myself. But even if Njoku were to get injured, Harris is still competing with multiple top WRs for targets and red-zone looks. Don’t expect a breakout in 2019.