Colts’ 2021 offseason concerns: Tight end

Colts

Indianapolis Colts tight end Trey Burton (80) warms up before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

INDIANAPOLIS – When the discussion turns to tight ends in Frank Reich’s offense, just sit back, put your feet up and listen.

He’ll do the heavy lifting.

“I could talk all day about that because it’s really a big dynamic,’’ Reich said last season. “It’s a really, really important dynamic, how you use those tight ends.’’

Those. Plural.

Reich routinely relies on two-tight end formations and occasionally trots three onto the field.

“It creates all kinds of options,’’ he said.

Versatile tight ends are capable of stressing defenses. They remain viable components as blockers in the run game – Reich always is going to prioritize his ground attack, whether it was with Marlon Mack or Jonathan Taylor – but also are legitimate threats in the passing game.

That brings us to the final installment of offseason concerns as Reich and the Indianapolis Colts must upgrade a roster that was good enough to go 11-5 and earn a wild-card playoff berth last season, but not good enough to take a deep dive into the postseason.

Work needs to be done. And that’s especially true at tight end. There’s zero chance Reich and the Colts decide to devalue the position.

Among the constants of Reich’s 15 years as an NFL assistant/coordinator/head coach has been stellar play by tight ends: Dallas Clark with the Colts, Antonio Gates with the Chargers, Zach Ertz in Philadelphia, Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron during his second tour in Indy. All earned at least one Pro Bowl nod.

Clark became the second tight end in NFL history with 100 receptions in 2009; Gates was in the midst of building a Hall of Fame-worthy resume during Reich’s 2013-15 stay in San Diego; Ertz led the Eagles in receptions and yards in 2016-17; Ebron had 13 receiving touchdowns in ’18, a franchise record for a tight end.

In Reich’s three seasons as head coach, Colts’ tight ends have been a collective force, averaging 94 receptions and 1,026 yards with 36 total TDs.

So, yes, dynamic.

The idea is to find that positional balance that includes a point-of-attack blocker and athletic, hybrid tight ends capable of presenting matchup issues with defenses.

“It’s a team game,’’ Reich said, “but within the game there are these little matchups that you have to try and find and create and take advantage of. One of those, I think, is at the tight end position.’’

Here’s a look at the options of Reich and general manager Chris Ballard at tight end:

INTERNAL SOLUTION

  • Going?: Trey Burton (expiring contract), Mo Alie-Cox (expiring contract).
  • Here: Jack Doyle, Noah Togiai, Farrod Green, Andrew Vollert.
  • Comment: Re-signing Alie-Cox seems a given, either with the one-year restricted tender valued at about $3.4 million or a reasonable multi-year deal. He possesses too much upside to be allowed to hit the open market.

It’s possible Ballard re-signs Burton, but it again would have to be at a very team-friendly price. The Colts signed Burton last offseason to a one-year, $910,000 contract and got a moderate return on their investment: 28 receptions, 250 yards, three receiving touchdowns and another two on the ground. He might represent another low-risk option.

Doyle and Alie-Cox provide a nice veteran foundation. Alie-Cox is coming off his best season – 31 receptions, 394 yards, two TDs – while Doyle represents the steadying force that’s required at the position and with the offense. The only issue with the Cathedral H.S. grad is he turns 31 in May, but there has been no discernible decline in his performance.

VETERAN SOLUTION

  • Free agents-to-be: Hunter Henry, L.A. Chargers; Jared Cook, New Orleans; Tyler Kroft, Jacksonville; Jonnu Smith, Tennessee; Rob Gronkowski, Tampa Bay; Gerald Everett, L.A. Rams; Kyle Rudolph (free agent); Tyler Eifer, Jacksonville; Zach Ertz, Philadelphia (possible cut/trade); Dan Arnold, Arizona.
  • Comment: This has been the frequent avenue traveled by Ballard: Brandon Williams in 2017 (one year, $855,000), Ebron in ’18 (two years, $15 million), Burton in ’20 (one year, $910,000).

And this seems to be the most reasonable avenue to again reinforce the position. The only question: how hefty of an investment will the Colts make?

At the high end of the market are Henry and Smith. The 26-year old Henry is coming off two strong seasons with the Chargers – a combined 115 catches, 1,265 yards, nine TDs – and is projected to command a multi-year deal worth nearly $11 million per year, according to Spotrac.com.

The Titans decided not to tag Smith, making the 25-year old and 2017 third-round pick an attractive free-agent option. Smith’s last two seasons in Nashville: 76 receptions, 887 yards, 11 TDs. His projected cost, per Spotrac.com: $8 million annually.

It will be interesting to see if the Colts have an interest in Ertz, if he’s cut loose by the Eagles. He was part of Philly’s team-wide downer last season – 36 catches, 335 yards, one TD – but earned three Pro Bowl nods from 2017-19 while piling up 278 receptions, 2,903 yards and 22 TDs. And he’s 30.

More reasonable possibilities might include Everett and Arnold.

DRAFT SOLUTION

  • Top prospects: Kyle Pitts, Florida; Pat Freiermuth, Penn State; Hunter Long, Boston College; Brevin Jordan, Miami; Matt Bushman, BYU; Tre McKitty, Georgia; Kenny Yeaboah, Mississippi; Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame; Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State.
  • Ammunition: 21st overall pick in round 1; 22nd pick in round 2, 54th overall.
  • Comment: It seems a given Pitts is headed for a top-10 entry into the NFL, but the Florida hybrid might be the only tight end taken in round 1. There’s also a good chance the only ones to go in round 2 are Freiermuth and Long.

Regardless the overall quality and depth at the position, the Colts haven’t bothered to invest a draft pick in a tight end since Ballard’s arrival in 2017. He’s 0-for-38. In fact, the last tight end drafted by the Colts was Justin Cunningham, Mr. Irrelevant in 2013. The previous season, Indy used a second-round pick (34th overall) on Coby Fleener and a third-rounder (64th overall) on Dwayne Allen.

Make of that what you will.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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