Los Angeles Chargers Position Review: Tight Ends
With the NFL playoffs in full swing and the 2022 free-agency start date nearly two months away, Los Angeles Chargers fans now find themselves in football purgatory. Even more frustrating, this week in the AFC Championship game, Bolts fans will be subjected to watching two teams who they beat in the regular season battle it out for a chance to compete in Super Bowl LVI.
Even though rookie Head Coach Brandon Staley was unable to lead his team to a postseason berth, his impact in just a year has been truly remarkable. The Los Angeles Chargers are building something and it’s only a matter of time before this team is competing with the juggernauts of the AFC.
After a roller coaster of a year, it’s time to look back and see what worked and what did not. Here at LAFB Network we will be breaking down each position group and identifying two positives and two negatives starting with the tight ends.
Positive One: Depth
As competitive as the NFL is, it’s not often teams find themselves four players deep at a single position. Luckily for the Chargers, they had a very deep tight end group that provided the squad with some quality production. After second-round draft pick Hunter Henry signed with the New England Patriots this past offseason, the Chargers were forced to go in another direction. Two-time Pro Bowler Jared Cook signed with the team to help fill Henry’s void as a pass catcher and performed well despite being 34 years old. Henry is still a more reliable scoring option than Cook, Henry had nine touchdowns in 2021 compared to four from Cook, but the rest of their stat lines were nearly identical. Henry finished the season with 50 catches on 75 targets for 603 receiving yards. Cook led all Chargers’ tight ends with 48 receptions on 79 targets for 564 yards.
With the departure of Henry, second-year pro Donald Parham quickly emerged as another reliable option for quarterback Justin Herbert. The two built a strong rapport as the season went on which allowed Parham to finish with career highs in receptions (20) and receiving yards (190) while also adding three touchdowns. Parham’s impressive sophomore campaign came to an abrupt halt in a Week 15 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs when he suffered a brutal concussion in the back of the endzone, attempting to secure a diving catch. Parham has since recovered from his injury but because of it was forced to miss the remainder of the season. Still, his impact in the 14 games in which he appeared was significant. His passer rating when targeted of 135.1 led all Chargers players and was the fifth-highest mark from all NFL pass catchers that saw at least 25 targets.
While Cook and Parham were making the flashy plays, four-year veteran Stephen Anderson and rookie Tre’ McKitty were busy mixing it up in the trenches. Anderson was the only Chargers’ tight end to appear in all 17 games this season. His ability to contribute as a fullback and special team contributor made him an invaluable piece to the tight-end group. This allowed the team to move away from fullback/tight end Gabe Nabers who has shown some soft hands out of the backfield but is ultimately a liability as a blocker. Dealing with a slight rookie learning curve, McKitty did not make his first appearance until Week 8 against the Patriots. In the 11 games he did play, McKitty proved to be exactly the player he was expected to be when selected as the No. 97 overall pick in last year’s draft. At 6-foot-5, 245-pounds, McKitty is an imposing presence as an in-line run blocker. He has tremendous instincts in this area and the athleticism to make some remarkable blocks. Look back at some of the Chargers’ most dominant run performances from 2021 and chances are McKitty is out their clearing holes in impressive fashion.
Positive Two: Versatility
From top to bottom, the Chargers’ tight end room was easily the most versatile position group the team fielded in 2021. When comparing the skillsets of the four guys I mentioned above, you have everything you could possibly want. Cook entered the league in 2009 and with over a decade of NFL experience, he provides an indispensable veteran presence. Anderson serves as the Swiss army knife of the group and can do a little bit of everything. On top of his ability to play fullback and multiple special teams positions, Anderson as a former receiver at Cal has some unnatural wiggle for guys his size and can defiantly get you some extra yardage after the catch. Both players complement each other very well, but the future of the position relies on the continued development of the young tight ends on the roster.
With a 6-foot-8 frame, great leaping ability, and a natural feel to box out defenders, Parham has the intangibles to be an elite red zone threat. When you also consider his 7-foot wingspan and high 4.6 40-yard dash time, you start to see the potential for a field stretcher the Chargers have not seen at the position since Hall of Famer Antonio Gates donned the Powder Blue. I’m not saying Parham is bound for Canton, just that his physical attributes and his seemingly ever-growing potential are extremely exciting.
McKitty gives Los Angeles an extremely talented in-line blocker with a great blend of strength and raw athleticism. He also has some unexplored talent as a pass-catcher but because of his blocking prowess has not been a big part of the passing game during his rookie campaign or when he was in college. For what it’s worth, he hauled in all seven targets sent his way in 2021 for 45 receiving yards.
Negative One: Inconsistent Play from Cook
Carrying a cap hit of $4.5M last season, I think Cook was well worth the contract given the production he provided. Still, it might not have been enough for him to remain in Los Angeles next season. The main reason he might be headed to another team in 2022 is that his play was extremely inconsistent. He emerged as one of Herbert’s favorite targets to begin the season, saw a nine-game stretch where he finished with 30+ receiving yards just once, and turned in three decent games to close out the year. So what exactly happened during those nine, relatively unproductive games?
The most obvious factor had to be his miscommunication with Hebert which resulted in Cook dropping seven passes last season. That was the most by a tight end in 2021. Furthermore, Cook finished with a 12.7 percent drop rate which ranks second-highest amongst tight ends who saw at least 30 targets. Herbert also threw four interceptions when targeting Cook which included two game-deciding pick-sixes. Both the returned interceptions came on option routes where the two, simply did not see eye to eye. Of the 31 incompletions from Herbert to Cook, nearly a third of them were either dropped by Cook or intercepted by the other team. The silver lining here is that if Cook does return, the two will have a full offseason and training camp to help iron out their communication issues.
Negative Two: Impending Free Agent Roll Over
As good as the Los Angeles tight end group performed in 2021, the position might look drastically different next season with Cook and Anderson set to hit free agency. If those two, or players like them, are not signed the Chargers will be going from a deep, versatile tight end group to one with some glaring deficiencies. As frustrating as the Cook drops were I still think he brings value as a pass-catcher with his defensive awareness. He has a knack for finding the soft spot in the defense that no other tight end on this roster has. That is a big reason why he and Herbert played so well together in the early part of the year. Anderson will turn 30 before next season and has only accrued four years of NFL service which makes a cheap depth option the team should not think twice about re-signing. If it were up to me, I’d consider bringing back both guys because the alternatives would put Los Angeles in a bind financially.
There are nearly 50 NFL tight ends set to hit free agency in March. Of that group, all the obvious upgrades over Cook will cost this team a significant amount of cap space to sign. With other more pressing needs on the roster, this is a luxury the L.A. front office can’t justify investing in as they try to put together a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Cleveland Browns David Njoku, for example, is a name that many Bolt fans are raving about. Njoku is undoubtedly an upgrade over Cook in every facet of the game and it would be very exciting to see him catch passes from Herbert. With that being said, I just don’t see it happening especially with General Manager “Coupon” Tom Telesco managing the checkbook.
PFF predicts Njoku to sign a three-year, $37.5M contract which translates to $12.5M per year. I mentioned Cook signed for less than $5M last season and with him leading all NFL tight ends in drops, I can’t imagine his price tag is going up. The difference in salary (roughly $8M) outweighs the potential of getting increased production at the position. If the Chargers do decide to move away from Cook, look at the contract to be closer to the $5M range than the $12.5M. A relatively inexpensive option that I personally like is Tyler Conklin from the Minnesota Vikings. He finished last season with the ninth-most yards after the catch (332) from a tight end and is a much more capable blocker than Cook.