Falcons must explore contingency plans at tight end

Ertz, Eifert and Escobar are three top tight ends at NFL combine

While the great Tony Gonzalez is working through his own version of “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” the Falcons must carry on.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith are set to leave for this week’s NFL scouting combine while working on several contingency plans for the tight end position.

Both of them, along with the team’s assistant coaches and scouts, will be on hand for scouting and information sessions with more than 300 of the nation’s top NFL prospects that start Wednesday and run through Tuesday in Indianapolis.

While waiting to hear if Gonzalez, the future Hall of Fame tight end, is going to retire or sign up for another season, they plan to thoroughly scout for tight ends.

Gonzalez, who will turn 37 on Feb. 27, played at a high level last season when he caught 93 passes for 930 yards and was voted to his 13th Pro Bowl. He’s widely considered the greatest tight end of the modern NFL era.

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His 1,242 catches over 16 seasons — 12 with Kansas City and the last four with the Falcons — rank second on the all-time receiving list behind Jerry Rice’s 1,549 receptions.

The Falcons have not placed Gonzalez on a timetable, but Dimitroff has stated that he believes there’s a 50-50 chance that Gonzalez will return. During the season, Gonzalez repeatedly stated that he was 95 percent sure that he would retire but left himself some wiggle room. With the Falcons ending up just 10 yards short of making the Super Bowl, he might want to chase a Super Bowl title for one more season.

“Simply stated, the sooner we know the better and yet there are no deadlines on this for Tony,” Dimitroff said. “Tony needs to come to his decision and be at peace with his decision.”

After the NFC Championship loss to San Francisco, Gonzalez was the last player to leave the locker room at the Georgia Dome. Following his end-of-the season meeting with club officials, he met with Smith privately and the coach let him know the team wanted him back.

“We have evolved and have been quite outspoken about our interest in having Tony back,” Dimitroff said. “He’s still a very adept and athletic tight end in our minds and can continue to help us win a lot of games. But again, it’s ultimately up to Tony to make that decision for himself and his family.”

Among Falcons tight ends, Chase Coffman and Michael Palmer finished the season as Gonzalez’ backups. Andrew Szczerba was on the practice squad and Adam Nissley and Tommy Gallarda were on injured reserve. Palmer is a restricted free agent.

If Gonzalez does not return, the team will have to explore free agency which starts on March 12, draft a college tight end in April or they can remain with their current group. That could require Harry Douglas, the team’s third wide receiver, to pick up some the production void that Gonzalez’s retirement would create.

Tennessee tight end Jared Cook, who played at North Gwinnett High and South Carolina, appears to be the best available possible free agent tight end. But Cook could receive the Titans’ franchise tag, which would take him off the market.

Other possible free agent candidates include Martellus Bennett (Giants), Fred Davis (Redskins), Heath Miller (Steelers) and Dustin Keller (Jets).

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes there are two elite tight ends in the draft class: Stanford’s Zach Ertz and Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock believes that San Diego State’s Gavin Escobar fits in next to Ertz and Eifert.

“Those are the two battling to see who the first tight end drafted will be,” Kiper said. “The teams (seeking tight ends) would be the Giants at 19, possibly Pittsburgh at 17, the Bears at 20 and Atlanta at 30. Those could be some of the teams looking at the tight end spot. I have Eifert going to Atlanta at 30.”

There’s some depth at the position after the top two tight ends because of the junior-eligible players who entered the draft.

 “Jordan Reed out of Florida and Dion Sims out of Michigan State have made this a very good tight end crop at the top,” Kiper said. “I didn’t even mention a guy like Gavin Escobar out of San Diego State, who is another underclassmen coming out early. (Levine) Toilolo, another guy from Stanford, is coming out early.”

Cincinnati’s Travis Kelce, Rice’s Vance McDonald, Arkansas Chris Gragg, UCLA’s Joseph Fauria and San Jose State’s Ryan Otten are other draftable tight ends, according to Kiper.

“Philip Lutzenkirchen (Lassister High) with the (hip) injury at Auburn, I think is a versatile kid who can help you,” Kiper said. “Jack Doyle is a kid from Western Kentucky who can help you. He has ability. Lucas Reed at New Mexico can catch the football.  There are going to be an awful lot of tight ends looked at, but the junior influence  . . . is the reason why the tight end position is pretty dog gone good.”

While serving as the fourth target in the offense over the past two seasons, Douglas caught 77 passes for 894 yards and two touchdowns. Douglas would likely move into the slot position as the third target if Gonzalez doesn’t return.


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