The NFC South doesn’t have the star power at tight end that it did just two years ago.
The most accomplished tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez retired from the Atlanta Falcons after the 2013 season. The New Orleans Saints parted ways with Jimmy Graham this off-season and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have struggled without much at the position last season. Only the Carolina Panthers have held steady with Greg Olsen at the top.
The starting NFC South tight ends combined for an impressive 35 touchdowns in 2013 with Graham leading the way with a career-best 16, followed by Gonzalez’s eight, Olsen’s six and Tim Wright’s five for the Bucs.
Those four starters averaged 74 receptions and 865 receiving yards for the year.
Fast forward to 2015 and Olsen is the top dog among the division with Wright back in play for the starting gig in Tampa Bay. The Saints don’t have a bonafide No. 1 with third-year man Josh Hill and longtime veteran Benjamin Watson in the mix.
Atlanta has a rather uninspiring bunch with 6’8″ Levine Toilolo the likely frontrunner for the No. 1 spot. The Falcons also have veterans Tony Moaeki and Jacob Tamme who will be competing for the starter role. Career special-teamer Mickey Shuler and rookie Beau Gardner round out the unit.
“Yeah, I think tight end is always important because it’s hard to have the threat of many runs if a tight end’s not out there,” first-year Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said in a talk with the Atlanta media back in February. “You’d love to go four receivers every single play, maybe five receivers, but it makes it a lot easier for the defense when they know you have to throw it.”
While Toilolo started all 16 games for the Falcons last season, the Stanford product finished with only 31 receptions, 238 yards and two touchdowns on 54 targets.
Despite that, the Falcons should have a chance to be more successful under Shanahan. He’s been able to work with some very talented tight ends since first becoming an offensive coordinator in 2008 with Houston.
Owen Daniels, Chris Cooley, Fred Davis, Jordan Reed, Jordan Cameron are the top guys he was able to coach.
Daniels combined for 110 catches and over 1,300 yards and seven touchdowns in Shanahan’s two seasons with the Texans (2008-09).
Cooley had his best season under Shanahan in 2010 when he caught 77 passes for 849 yards and three touchdowns. Davis would go on to add 796 yards and three touchdowns in 2011 before a down year in 2012 and then the emergence of Reed in 2013.
Cameron was limited to only nine starts last season with Shanahan, posting 24 catches for 424 yard and two receiving scores.
The tight end’s total receptions and receiving yards have always been there for Shanahan-run offenses, but the touchdown totals haven’t been. Daniels’ five touchdowns was the highest number of any starting tight end over his even-year run as an offensive coordinator.
With the Falcons it won’t be as easy to get that type of production simply because the talent isn’t there. However, Tamme and Moeaki have plenty of experience in limited roles.
Tamme has never been a full-time starter, but the 30-year-old Kentucky product who signed a two-year, $4 million deal with the Falcons this off-season is a good player. He has two seasons with 50 plus catches and 550 or more yards. Tamme has 10 career touchdown catches.
Moaeki, who has yet to really hit his full stride due to various injuries which included a torn ACL in 2010, a fractured shoulder in 2012, a hamstring injury in 2013 and calf and shoulder issues in 2014 wasn’t a highly sought after free agent.
Atlanta’s assistant general manager Scott Pioli drafted Moaeki back in the third round when he was the man in charge in Kansas City.
Between Tamme and Moaeki, the Falcons can get some production out of them if used correctly. Quarterback Matt Ryan is a great player and with Julio Jones and Roddy White serving as the top two targets, the tight ends should be open more often than not.
Ideally, a healthy Moaeki and a pass-catching Tamme will be the starters with Toilolo serving as a goal-line target.
The Falcons are still searching for a true No. 1 tight end, but with Ryan at the helm and Shanahan running the offense they don’t necessarily need one right now. They can patch some things together to make the offense respectable.