The Los Angeles Chargers will likely be having a different starter at tight end for the second straight year in 2022. It’s hard to see Jared Cook coming back; he was a decent stopgap veteran pickup last year after Hunter Henry departed, but he and Justin Herbert were not always on the same page and it led to a few interceptions. Given that Herbert likes targeting his tight ends, the Chargers should look to upgrade at the position – or at the bare minimum, get a younger and more long-term option. Fortunately, it is a good off-season to need a tight end, as there are a bunch of options to choose from – to the point where it’s easier to break them down by tiers rather than individually.
Los Angeles Chargers Tight End Possibilities in Free Agency
The likely top two free agent tight ends of all are Mike Gesicki and Dalton Schultz, and there is no guarantee either will return to their current teams. (Rob Gronkowski is a free agent, but it’s hard to see him going to the Chargers, assuming he doesn’t retire.) Either of these would be a strong asset to acquire. Gesicki would seem to be a better fit scheme-wise of the two, given that he can make plays down the field as well as move the chains, and he has the height (6’6”) and athleticism to make big plays. Schultz has generally been used as more of a short pass/chain-mover type, but he would be a great security blanket option for Herbert in those kinds of short pass or red zone situations.
The primary drawback of signing either of these two is the cost. Either of these two will likely cost at least $10 million a year, and the Chargers will likely be trying to give Mike Williams a long-term deal. Even with all the cap space they have ($57 million, and they haven’t cut Bryan Bulaga yet which would free up $11 million more), both re-signing Williams and signing a big-name tight end would cut into some of the space they will likely want to save for right tackle or certain defensive positions. Signing a name like Gesicki or Schultz would become more likely if Williams ended up departing.
One more higher-tier option that is unlikely to be quite as expensive as Gesicki or Schultz is Zach Ertz. He showed with the Arizona Cardinals last year that he still has plenty left in the tank. The drawback with him would be that he would probably only have up to a few more years of high-level play. However, this could still make sense if the Chargers want to develop somebody younger who’s not ready yet like Tre McKitty, and still want a more reliable proven option that may not require a large deal.
There are a good handful of tight ends that can certainly produce or have good upside but that will not be as expensive as the likes of Gesicki or Schultz. David Njoku has popped up at the forefront of this tier. I am not completely sold on him as he has had a bit of an up-and-down career, but this is certainly partially on the Cleveland Browns, who have had a variety of different tight end schemes and lineups – some of which have scarcely utilized the tight end position at all. When he has been given opportunities, he has generally produced and he does have big-play ability.
Other options in this tier include Hayden Hurst, who is quite sure-handed but ended up falling behind Kyle Pitts on the depth chart. However, his 2020 season where he was the Atlanta Falcons starter was strong enough. Hurst would be a lower-cost, lower-risk option. O.J. Howard has been in a similar situation the last two years after producing fairly well the first three years of his career. He would also likely be low-cost and low-risk but based on slightly more recent history, Hurst is the safer bet.
There is also Gerald Everett, who has yet to put up 500 yards in a season; but also has yet to play on a tight-end-heavy offense. He has some promising upside as well. A more overlooked option is Tyler Conklin, who had a semi-breakout year with the Minnesota Vikings and should not command a high price either. C.J. Uzomah is also a free agent, although it feels more likely that the Cincinnati Bengals would try to keep him after he and Joe Burrow developed a bit of a rapport.
These are some players who may be on the cheaper side but also come with a bit more risk than the players mentioned above, for one reason or another. At the forefront of that lot is Robert Tonyan. He had a breakout season in 2020 with 500+ yards and 11 touchdowns, but then spent half of 2021 on injured reserve and was not on pace to match his 2020 numbers. He would seem to have some upside, particularly in the red zone, but the risk is both him coming off an injury-prone season and the possibility that his success has been more a product of Aaron Rodgers than anything, especially given how few weapons beyond Davante Adams he’s had lately.
Mo Alie-Cox is another free agent option who has had two quarterbacks lately that have normally favored tight ends heavily (Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz), and yet he has not even crossed 400 yards receiving. Part of that has been due to a much more crowded tight end room, but at some point, you would think he would pull away more definitively from the rest of the pack. He definitely has some talent, but his ceiling may not be as high as some of the other options here.
The Chargers have a lot of options with good upside to choose from. It mostly comes down to how much they choose to spend on the position. And it’s certainly possible the Chargers could both re-sign Williams and nab a big name like Gesicki. But barring Williams departing, it is more likely the Chargers will sign someone more low-cost with good upside, like Njoku or Hurst – though the possibility of Ertz should not be discounted either. Regardless, this will certainly be an interesting situation to watch unfold.
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