The Pittsburgh Steelers are patiently waiting on free agent acquisition Ladarius Green to dress for the first time at the tight end position as he heals from offseason ankle surgery. Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert recently underwent surgery on his ankle, the recovery time from which might bleed into the regular season. For the Baltimore Ravens, tight end Crockett Gilmore is recovering from shoulder surgery and Dennis Pitta is trying to return after missing essentially the past two years.
The Cleveland Browns are now joining the party, as they announced on Thursday that their veteran tight end, Gary Barnidge, underwent sports hernia surgery.
Now, to be clear, Barnidge’s situation is not quite the same. Sports hernia surgery is quite minor in comparison to surgery on an ankle or a shoulder, and while the veteran is expected to miss most of the spring, the Browns to believe that he will be up and running at full capacity with the rest of his teammates at the start of training camp.
But noting the injury does present cause for pause when one considers the utter dearth of reliable talent on the tight end roster behind Barnidge after losing key veteran Jim Dray, as well as Rob Housler, who was placed on injured reserve after six games and was later waived when he was healthy.
The ‘leader’ of the group of tight ends behind Barnidge now is E.J. Bibbs, a 2015 undrafted free agent who played a couple dozen snaps last year and caught a seven-yard pass. Returning from the practice squad is first-year tight end Connor Hamlett. Randall Telfer, a sixth-round pick last year, never played last year after having foot surgery.
Rounding out the group is a pair of rookies, fourth-round pick Seth DeValve and undrafted free agent J.P. Holtz. The former was a wide receiver at Princeton and pretty widely believed to have been overdrafted by at least a round, if not more.
This rather shockingly undistinguished group of players has just one reception to their names combined, and certainly raises an important question for the Browns, namely: what in the world are they going to do if something happens to Gary Barnidge?
A former 2008 fifth-round pick of the Panthers, Barnidge signed with the Browns in 2013, but it was only last year in which he was ever featured, and he outperformed even the loftiest expectations that Cleveland might have had going into the season trying to replace Cameron Jordan.
The 6’6”, 250-pounder put up 79 receptions for 1043 yards and nine touchdowns, which accounts for substantially more than half of his total career output in each of those categories. It was enough to earn him a trip to the Pro Bowl, though it did come as an alternate.
The Browns signed the 30-year-old to a three-year extension in December worth $12 million, showing how much they value what he showed last season. But they had better hope that somebody else shows something in training camp, because they can’t go into the year with just one credible tight end.