JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said he’s never seen anything like it.
At no point in his 28-year coaching career has he been around a team that has had as much trouble at one position as the Jaguars have had at tight end. Nothing the team has tried really worked in Marrone’s three-year tenure -- but the problems go back much further.
And that means finding a dependable tight end is one of the team’s top priorities heading into the offseason, which is a repeat from pretty much every year in the last decade.
“Usually when that [run of bad luck at a position] happens, you are not going to win a lot of games and you are in trouble,” Marrone said. “It is tough to have that run and be successful.”
The last time a Jaguars tight end was a significant factor in the passing game was 2012, when Marcedes Lewis caught 52 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns. That came two years after the best season of his career: 58 catches, 700 yards, 10 TDs.
Since 2012, however, only one tight end has averaged more than two catches per game. Julius Thomas had 46 catches in 2015, the first year he joined the team on a big free-agent contract. Thomas had 30 catches the following season, but no other Jaguars tight end has more than 26 catches in a season since 2012.
Last season’s leading receiver among tight ends was James O’Shaughnessy (14 catches, 153 yards, 2 TDs) -- and he only played the first five weeks of the season before going on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
Before last season, the Jaguars signed Geoff Swaim in free agency and drafted Josh Oliver in the third round. Both finished the 2019 season on IR. Swaim had 13 catches in six games and Oliver just three catches in four games.
From 2017-19, Jaguars tight ends have 155 combined catches, which is the second-fewest in the NFL (Arizona tight ends have 143). Philadelphia tight ends have 420 catches in that three-year stretch.
The Jaguars’ tight end struggles have come when tight ends have become major factors – and in some cases the focal point – in the passing game. In every season since 2007, there have been double-digit tight ends that had 50 or more catches in a season, including a high of 20 in 2016. There were 12 last season, which included Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, whose 97 catches led all tight ends and were eighth overall in the NFL.
Pete Mitchell, Kyle Brady, and Lewis (twice) are the only tight ends in franchise history to surpass 50 catches in a season.
It wouldn't be smart to count on a significant breakthrough from Oliver in 2020 and O’Shaughnessy is coming off the torn ACL. He did seem to have a good rapport with quarterback Gardner Minshew, but the Jaguars need a bigger threat at the position.
The Jaguars have major needs at other positions – specifically interior defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, and left tackle – and they just drafted Oliver last season, so they’re not likely to make tight end a high priority in the draft. However, there are two good options potentially available in free agency: Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry.
Only five tight ends have more catches than Hooper’s 214 since he entered the league in 2016 -- Kelce, Zach Ertz, Jimmy Graham and Kyle Rudolph – and Hooper is coming off a career-high 75 catches for 787 yards and six touchdowns in 2019.
Atlanta could use the franchise tag on Hooper (approximately $10.3 million) but if Hooper hits the open market, he’s likely to end up being the league’s highest-paid tight end in terms of annual salary. (Graham averages $10 million.)
The Jaguars don’t need to make any other expensive signings on offense, especially with receiver DJ Chark, Leonard Fournette and receiver Dede Westbrook still on their rookie deals, so splurging on Hooper wouldn't be considered irresponsible.
If the Jaguars don’t want to spend what it would take to land Hooper, Henry is a slightly more affordable option. But he comes with significant risk: Injuries limited him to 12 games last season and he missed the 2018 season with a torn right ACL.
When he was healthy, he was effective: 136 catches, 1,709 yards and 17 TDs in 41 games with the Los Angeles Chargers. That might force the Chargers to at least consider using the franchise tag on him, but if not, he’ll likely be the most-sought after player behind Hooper. Still, the Jaguars might be able to get him for less than $10 million per year, so it would be a bit of a discount from Hooper.
The Jaguars can’t afford for the tight end position to continue to be a non-factor in the offense, so spending in free agency is likely the best option.