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Tennessee Titans will key in on TEs in free agency, but who are the top targets?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 2022 group of free-agent tight ends is really starting to take shape now that the window to place the franchise tag on players has closed.

Three of this year's top tight end options were taken off the market when the Miami Dolphins tagged Mike Gesicki, the Cleveland Browns tagged David Njoku and the Dallas Cowboys tagged Dalton Schultz.

However, there are still options left for the Tennessee Titans to pick from to fill the void left from losing Jonnu Smith last offseason.

This offseason, the Titans have three tight ends hitting the market in Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim and MyCole Pruitt. It's very likely that Tennessee will resort to free agency as part of its restocking process.

"We'll have to have a tight end at some point," Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. "We're going to work through the process here. There are guys in the draft, guys in free agency and guys that are on our football team who played some great snaps."

The Titans may have tipped their hand at how they value the tight end position when they let Smith walk via free agency.

Over the last two seasons, Smith was one of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill's favorite pass-catchers. Tannehill targeted Smith 110 times over that stretch. A.J. Brown was the only player who had more targets (190) from Tannehill over those two seasons.

Smith signed a five-year, $50 million deal with the New England Patriots after posting 41 receptions for 448 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020.

Here are some options that would likely fall into Tennessee's preferred price range for the position:

Rob Gronkowski

32 years old | 55 receptions, 802 yards, 6 touchdowns

Tom Brady's retirement could lead to Gronkowski hanging up his cleats as well. Gronkowski is an option who would probably cost a pretty penny, but it wouldn't likely be more than a one-year deal.

The Titans present another opportunity to win a championship. Coach Mike Vrabel's approach to managing workloads for veteran players would appeal to Gronkowski as well.

Adding Gronkowski to the mix would give Tannehill a big, reliable target who fits Vrabel's "be great around the quarterback" mantra. Gronkowski wouldn't have to be the top receiving option with Brown in the lineup. But he'd be heavily involved in the passing game.

O.J. Howard

27 years old | 14 receptions, 135 yards, 1 touchdown

Howard is a talented player who was once considered to be a future star. The talent that led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to use the 19th overall pick to select Howard in 2017 is still evident. But injuries have plagued Howard over his five-year career.

Howard has yet to play a full season and has 46 career starts. The injury history will make Howard a less-expensive option. At 6-foot-6 and 251 pounds, Howard has the size and athletic ability to vertically challenge defenses with seam routes. Howard is also a capable blocker. Perhaps he is willing to sign a one-year 'prove it' deal in hopes of cashing in on a big season.

"I think a change of scenery would be good for him," former NFL tight end Anthony Becht said. "When you look at his size and athleticism, his speed, he can be a game-changer. It's just a matter of does he have the confidence to be that guy after all these years of not really being a big-time performing tight end like he was in college."

Hayden Hurst

28 years old | 26 receptions, 221 yards, 3 touchdowns

Like Howard, Hurst is a former first-round pick. The Baltimore Ravens selected Hurst with the 25th pick in 2018. Hurst lasted two seasons in Baltimore before the Ravens shipped him to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for a fourth-round pick. His final season with the Falcons was under former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, so there's definitely some familiarity with the offense.

Atlanta elected not to pick up Hurst's fifth-year option, making him a free agent. Hurst would be a bargain-level player who can get the job done by catching the ball in the middle of the field.

"Hurst will be on his third team now," Becht said. "He has that maturity level and should be able to pick up a scheme really quickly. I think he can be a productive player. He runs hard, he blocks well, and I think he's a really good jack of all trades. I think the Titans would be a good spot for him."

Tyler Conklin

26 years old | 61 receptions, 593 yards, 3 touchdowns

Conklin is an ascending player who was a rookie during Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing's final season as the Minnesota Vikings' tight ends coach. He took advantage of increased playing time when starter Irv Smith Jr. suffered a torn meniscus and missed the entire season.

Conklin put together a very nice season in his first year as the primary tight end in Minnesota's offense. He started 15 games and caught 61 of the 87 targets that came his way. It's not likely that he'll generate many yards after the catch, but he is a versatile player who can be used as an inline and move tight end.

If the Titans sign Conklin, he'd quickly become a favorite pass-catcher of Tannehill's because of his consistent hands and ability to make tough catches over the middle.

A couple of others

Gerald Everett | 27 years old | 48 receptions, 478 yards, 4 touchdowns

Evan Engram | 27 years old | 46 receptions, 408 yards, 3 touchdowns