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Rams free-agent preview: Tight ends

2/24/2015

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The free-agent market is scheduled to open March 10 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the St. Louis Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

Under contract: Jared Cook, Alex Bayer, Justice Cunningham, Brad Smelley

Pending free agents: Lance Kendricks, Cory Harkey (restricted)

What's needed: The Rams' offense asks a lot of its tight ends, and they regularly deploy two or even three at a time. Cook, Kendricks and Harkey have played a lot over the past two seasons. Now that tight ends coach Rob Boras has more responsibility, particularly in the run game, it's probably safe to assume that will only continue if not increase. Cook has been the best pass-catcher of the bunch, though he has yet to play up to the standard of the lucrative contract the Rams signed him to before the 2014 season. He's still a solid piece, but the Rams would undoubtedly like more from him. Kendricks and Harkey have been jack-of-all-trade types who have played many positions and moved around a lot. The Rams love Harkey, and there is little chance that he will go elsewhere as a restricted free agent. Kendricks, on the other hand, might draw more interest than the Rams can overcome. Boras is a big fan of Kendricks because of his versatility, but Kendricks has said he'd like an expanded role in the passing game. The buzz in Indianapolis at the NFL combine indicated Kendricks might draw offers for roughly $4 million a year. If that happens, it might be difficult for the Rams to match. In that case, they could turn to promising youngsters Bayer or Cunningham for more, or look to find help elsewhere. A consistent threat at tight end isn't a pressing need, but it sure wouldn't hurt.

Possible fits: There are some big names that figure to hit the market, including Denver's Julius Thomas and Cleveland's Jordan Cameron. But the Rams don't figure to be bidders for either of those players considering their prices. Other names that could be available include Miami's Charles Clay, Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham, and Baltimore's Owen Daniels.

Verdict: There is almost no chance the Rams will allow both Harkey and Kendricks to depart. Although they would like to keep both, the guess here is that they retain Harkey but Kendricks lands a better offer with a bigger role in the passing game elsewhere. Remember, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the man who pushed hardest for Kendricks in the 2011 draft. A reunion there could be one possibility. If indeed the Rams lose Kendricks, they might need to go in search of someone else to compete, but I wouldn't expect such a replacement to be of the high-priced free agent variety.