Like receivers, tight end breakouts are also becoming extremely frequent. However this trend could be attributed to the evolution of the position as much as it as volume. The majority of the league’s starting tight ends can easily run past linebackers, while being anywhere from 6’4″ to 6’6″ and carrying to 240 to 260 pounds. Recent breakouts in the past few years such as Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed and Travis Kelce all apply to those physical attributes one way or the other. The players I mention that could make a leap in 2016 have some of the similar traits. With the right opportunity, they could have big things on the horizon.
Clive Walford, Raiders: A rookie in 2015, Walford didn’t put up huge numbers but he showed plenty of flashes as a pass catcher when given the opportunity. At 6’4” 250, Walford has a nice catch radius and also has the speed to make plays down the seams. The Raiders figure to make him a larger part of their offense this upcoming season as in 2015 he was targeted on just 50 of Derek Carr’s 573 pass attempts.
While a 1,000 yard campaign is highly unlikely, I would expect Walford to almost double the amount of targets thrown his way. A season with around 600 yards and a half dozen touchdowns on a team that many feel could be in contention for a division is nothing to scoff at.
Coby Fleener, Saints: When the Colts resigned Dwayne Allen, it was an indication that Fleener (who was drafted in the same class as Allen) was expendable. Fleener hit the open market and entered a fantastic situation when it comes to making an impact in the passing game. The Saints last year showed that regardless of if Jimmy Graham was in the picture or not, the tight end would be heavily involved in their offense.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the career high 110 targets a 35 year old Ben Watson saw in 2015. Physical gifts have never been an issue for Fleener who stands at 6’6” 250 with the speed to get by linebackers. Instead, he has been plagued by inconsistency when it comes to matters such as drops. Fortunately, Fleener now has one of the most accurate quarterbacks in league history by his side in Drew Brees. While they may not click instantly, the 100 plus targets from Watson’s departure have to go somewhere. A double digit touchdown campaign with at least 800 yards doesn’t seem out of the question.
Zach Miller, Bears: Last year, Gary Barnridge came out of nowhere to have a huge season for the Browns. For tight ends this season, Miller fits that mold. We saw a peek late in 2015, but Jay Cutler liked looking Miller’s way. A former quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha, Miller (not the former Raider/Seahawk) is a big target with plenty of speed for the position. Since been drafted in 2009, the main thing that has plagued Miller has been staying on the field.
If he can stay healthy, I wouldn’t be stunned if he is the Bears second leading receiver behind Alshon Jeffery. That may sound crazy, but someone will be picking up the 80 plus targets Martellus Bennett saw this past season and Kevin White despite his tantalizing potential, is still very raw in terms of being a complete receiver (missing ones rookie year due to injury never helps these matters). A healthy Miller would be a huge boost for a Bears team that after losing Matt Forte this offseason is still searching for its offensive identity.
Crockett Gillmore, Ravens: Unfortunately, a sad circumstance had to occur for me to place Gillmore here. After Ben Watson tore his Achilles in the opening play of the third preseason game, Gillmore suddenly became the starting tight end in a Ravens offense that utilizes the position. While there are two other tight ends the Ravens have that could see extensive playing time, Gillmore is the most complete player of the three.
At 6’6” 260, Gillmore is an imposing target who can also stay on the line and block when called upon. In the ten games he played last year, Gilmore did impress as he not surprisingly showed to be a nice redzone threat , but also managed to catch over 70 percent of the passes thrown his way. It is worth noting that the Ravens offense does suddenly have a lot of mouths to feed in the passing game. Not only are Steve Smith, Mike Wallace, Kamar Aiken and Breshad Perriman (assuming he’s healthy) in the fold, but Dennis Pitta and Maxx Williams are both tight ends who do most of their work as pass catchers. Despite that, I still feel Gillmore should see at least four or five passes thrown his way a game with the potential for more depending on game flow.