With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.
For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.
Next on the list: Tight end.
Draft: North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro are the top prospects, with Ebron projecting as a mid first-rounder and Amaro possibly sliding into the back half of the first round. Notre Dame's Troy Niklas, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz fall into the next tier of prospects who could draw consideration in the second/third-round range. This looks like a solid-but-not-particuarly-deep crop of tight ends and teams will naturally value them differently depending on what they are looking for (e.g. big blocker or combination run/pass player vs. more of a "move-in-the-passing game" prospect).
Free agency: Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew and Buffalo's Scott Chandler catch the eye as two players who don't project to break the bank but have starting experience and could help a team in different ways. Pettigrew, in our view, is more of a combination tight end who offers value in both the blocking and pass-catching areas, while Chandler is more of a pass catcher whose 6-foot-7 frame could help a team in the red zone. Baltimore's Dennis Pitta and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (likely target for franchise tag) are notable names who are in position to get paid well.
Patriots perspective: This projects as one of the team's top needs. Even if free agents Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan return, the Patriots figure to be looking closely at tight ends who offer a bit more of a dynamic presence in the passing game and Rob Gronkowski insurance. D.J. Williams is already under contract for 2014, so he'll have a head start on whatever tight end(s) is brought into the fold. This looks like a good year to be seeking help at the position -- both in free agency and the draft.