It's no secret the Atlanta Falcons have to find a way to get more out of their tight ends.
A team that was spoiled to have Tony Gonzalez for four seasons saw the production at the position take a significant plunge during the 2014 campaign. According to ESPN Statistics and Information, the Falcons gained a league-low 241 yards from their tight ends in '14. The group finished the season with 33 receptions, which ranked 31st in the league.
Levine Toilolo, a 6-foot-8-inch target who just completed his second NFL season, had an inconsistent performance last season. He had his share of drops and finished with 31 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns. Toilolo averaged just 7.7 yards per catch. He has made significant strides as a blocker, however.
The Falcons are unlikely to give up on Toilolo, but he will have to be prepared to play a complementary role a year after starting 16 games. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is used to getting 10-plus yards per catch out of his tight ends since he's been an NFL coordinator. But for Shanahan, it's not all about just adding a pass-catcher. The tight end has to be able to block well in the outside-zone scheme.
"I think tight end is always important just because it's hard to have a threat of many runs if a tight end is not out there," Shanahan said. "You'd love to go four receivers every single play, or even five receivers, but it makes it a lot easier for the defense when they know you have to throw it. The more times fullbacks go off the field or tight ends go off the field, it limits your run options, which makes you not as balanced."
Shanahan obviously wants to see his tight end have versatility. Having the tight end in motion seems to be a staple in his offense.
"The threat of a tight end who could be out there, which opens up your run game but also is a threat and a matchup in the pass game, it makes a lot easier for a play-caller," Shahanan said. "It makes it easier for O-linemen, for everybody, because it's hard in this league when you become one-dimensional. Defenses are too good. Coaches are too good. Defensive lines are too good. And if anybody tees off on something, they're going to stop you. I think it's very important to have a tight end out there so you can always have a threat of a different number of runs."
This year's draft is said to be weak at tight end, so free agency might be the best alternative for the Falcons. Three tight ends Shanahan previously coached are set to become free-agents: Cleveland's Jordan Cameron, Baltimore's Owen Daniels, and Washington's Niles Paul. Cameron, a Pro Bowler in 2013, reportedly is eager to leave the Browns. But Cameron also has had concussion issues.
Daniels, who turns 33 in November, had a career-high 70 catches in 2008 while playing under Shanahan in Houston. He made the Pro Bowl that season.
Paul entered the NFL as a receiver and started at fullback in 2013 before settling in at tight end.
Another possible free agent to keep an eye on is Jermaine Gresham from Cincinnati. Drops are the biggest concern with Gresham, who had 62 catches last season but averaged just 7.4 yards per catch. He is known as a solid blocker.