The tight end market in free agency is not, shall we say, particularly robust this offseason. But if the Baltimore Ravens are really setting the table for what’s to come, then Nick Boyle’s three-year, $18 million contract, if it is indeed of that value pending the fine print, is bad news for anybody hoping that the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to retain tight end Jesse James.
Arguably the top name on the market this offseason will be Jared Cook, who spent 2018 with the Oakland Raiders and had a career year. At the age of 32, there are indications that he should expect to land himself a nice contract after playing for $5.3 million last year.
What are the other names to get excited about, however? Tyler Eifert is arguably the most talented of the group, but he has literally been injured more than he has been healthy over the course of his career to date, and thus won’t command a big contract.
The Green Bay Packers have Lance Kendricks and Marcedes Lewis hitting free agency. The New England Patriots cut ties with Dwayne Allen, who has already taken a number of visits with teams or has set ones up for the near future.
The list gets less and less exciting the future down you go before you start to realize that James may legitimately be one of the most attractive figures at the tight end position this offseason. Just 25 years old, he has put in a lot of work over the course of the past four years and has shown growth with each season, coming off his best year by far in 2018.
James proved to be a reliable target in 2018 in more ways than one. While he had a couple of drops—including one in the season opener that went off his hands and into those of a defender for an interception—he frequently made tough catches in traffic and on possession downs, producing a catch rate of 77 percent on just 39 targets after having 60 targets or more in the previous two seasons.
He still caught 30 passes for a career-high 423 yards, thanks in large part to about a half-dozen explosive plays that were almost entirely a by-product of his ability to adjust when a play breaks down to find the soft spots in the defense where his quarterback can find him.
Equally important—apparently, based on Boyle and his zero career touchdowns and 613 total yards—is the fact that he made strides as a blocker as well, both in pass protection and in the run game. He has always had some success in space, but his work in-line was the best of his career this past season.
A 25-year-old who can be a low-end starter with a lot of upside in spite of a lot of experience, in a depleted market, can very well command a salary that is going to price James out of Pittsburgh, even beyond the hometown discount level. At least that’s what the early market indications are suggesting.