Another day, another great question from a Bucs’ fan for the Pewter Plank Mailbag. Today’s inquiry comes from Rob on Facebook, who asks:
Who do think will be the starting offensive tight end? And do you think it will be considered an area of weakness for the Bucs that might make it the area they might want to consider for the first round of the draft next year and if so who would best fit as a Buccaneer coming out of college?
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Tight end was a position that a lot of mock drafters had going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and for good reason. The team’s best option at the position last season, Dallas Clark, does not appear to be returning, and the remaining options on the roster have all yet to prove themselves. And with a lack of reasonable options on the free agent market, the current options on the Bucs’ roster at tight end are likely to be the ones on the field week one against the New York Jets. So who is going to start?
Much like the backup running back position that I speculated about yesterday, I don’t think there is a solid answer to be had here. But that’s a cop-out answer, so let’s explore the players the Buccaneers have, and see who best fits what the team needs.
The plan in 2013 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is to be a run-first team with Doug Martin and company shouldering the load on offense. This comes with the expectation that the defense will keep the offense in the driver’s seat, and not allow the score to get out of hand. For that reason, the tight end who plays the most snaps will likely be the tight end who blocks the best, which is something we simply can’t know at the moment for certain. But based on pedigree and some scouting information, we can do our best to predict.
Luke Stocker is a physical force at the tight end position, checking in at 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing over 250 pounds, yet still showing a good amount of athletic ability for a man of his stature. He was also on the field fairly often for the Bucs in 2012, having almost as many snaps played as Dallas Clark. And while Clark was graded out as the worst run blocker on the team according to Pro Football Focus (Yes, even worse than Jamon Meredith, who was good as a pulling guard at times but struggled taking on a man face-to-face), Stocker was the best run blocker on the team that is not a former Pro Bowler as an offensive lineman (Donald Penn and Carl Nicks were the only players who did better blocking for the run, according to PFF).
So it would seem that Stocker is in line to have the lion’s share of snaps at tight end, because he fills an important need, but is not an entirely one-dimensional player. But he has company that may challenge him for playing time.
One of those competitors is Nate Byham, who was just shy of Stocker when it comes to run block grades from PFF despite playing considerably less than Stocker. Byham played just shy of 100 plays as a run blocker, and only 45 plays in the passing game, so it’s clear what his role is with the team. But that can be a useful trait for a player to have, as he knows his job and can execute it well. And should Stocker assume the role of Dallas Clark and take pass-catching snaps at tight end, it’s reasonable to think that Byham will take some of the snaps as a run blocker that Stocker has left behind. Byham is a candidate to be a breakout player, because he’s not very well-known, but he has obviously shown some positive game tape over the past year. But he could also fail to make the team if he’s usurped by…
Tom Crabtree, who is my personal favorite of the tight end bunch, but mainly for his hilarious Twitter account. Crabtree was a member of the Green Bay Packers, but was stuck behind Jermichael Finley, and sought out greener pastures in Tampa Bay. But the news from Pro Football Focus isn’t positive about Crabtree’s run blocking, although this is a situation where pure grading systems like PFF’s might let us down. Crabtree graded negatively as a run blocker, but he was also a part of an offense that struggled to run the ball well on most occasions, and lined up next to an offensive line that didn’t feature a ton of help in the run blocking game. Crabtree did impress in the passing game, making some big plays when given the opportunity, but never getting chance to take over for Finley.
That said, I think it’s clear that Stocker and Byham are both capable blockers, whereas Crabtree has question marks in that area. And with Stocker being more heavily invested in (being a fourth round draft choice), he’s almost certain to get the first chance to start. But should Crabtree prove to be a much better pass catcher, or should Byham step up and prove he’s capable in the passing game, the waters could be a lot muddier than they appear to be today.
As for the position being address via the draft next spring, I would expect that it will be a focus should none of the current crop of players stand out. But the question then becomes “What kind of tight end is Mike Sullivan looking for in his offense?” The best tight end in next year’s draft is Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but he’s currently suspended and is facing DUI charges, so he’s unlikely to be a target for the Buccaneers. According to Walter Football, the next best options are both tight ends of similar stature to Stocker, but who may feature a bit more athletic ability and provide a bigger threat in the passing game. You can check out their profiles on Walter’s website, here. So there are options, and depending on the Bucs’ willingness to take a chance on Seferian-Jenkins, they will have their choice of tight ends in the first few rounds who provide an interesting option as a pass catching tight end in this offensive system.