With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the focus is now entirely on 2020. The next important point on the offseason agenda will be free agency, which starts on March 18 and projects to be a big one for the New England Patriots: not only does the team have 19 players whose current contracts will expire — including quarterback Tom Brady — it also will need to use its limited resources to build a foundation for the upcoming season.
Up until the start of free agency, we will therefore take a look at some players who might interest the Patriots. Today, the series continues with tight end Darren Fells.
Position: Tight end
Opening day age: 34
Size: 6’7, 270 lbs
Experience: A former pro basketball player, Fells joined the NFL when the Seattle Seahawks signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2013. After he failed to find a permanent home in Seattle, he was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals and developed into a solid rotational tight end for the next three seasons. After one-year stints in Detroit and Cleveland, Fells was picked up by the Houston Texans and promptly delivered the best season of his career — setting a franchise record for tight ends with eight receiving touchdowns.
2019 statistics: 18 games; 59 targets, 41 receptions, 400 receiving yards, 8 receiving touchdowns
2019 salary cap hit: $1.5 million
Free agency status: Unrestricted
View from Houston
We asked our friends over at Battle Red Blog to share their thoughts on Fells:
Daniel Fells has to be in my Top 10 for guys I’d least like to tackle. He’s a monster of a man, and it does make him an asset in the red zone. That said, he might be the worst blocking tight end in the league, which is truly saying something.
Fells had moments for the Texans in 2019, but Bill O’Brien has no idea how to use tight ends on a week to week basis. Even Ryan Griffin looked competent at times for the Jests in 2019, after all. Fells had his best games against poor linebackers, which kinda figures, with his game against the Chiefs (non-playoff variety) being a sample of what he can do with a competent offensive coordinator.
At this point, Fells’ best spot is as a move tight end. You really can’t ask him to block, but he can hurt you in the passing game. Fells is precisely the kind of player I can see Bill Belichick using to great advantage. Think Benjamin Watson with more after the catch value.
The Patriots’ tight end trio of Matt LaCosse, Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo failed to consistently produce in 2019 both when it came to blocking in the running and passing games and as receiving options for quarterback Tom Brady. While Fells would likely not help a lot in the former department — blocking is very much not his strong suit — he would offer a reliable and experienced presence as a pass catcher.
Due to his skillset, Fells would only occasionally be used as an in-line blocker and more as a matchup specific part of the Patriots’ aerial attack: while the Texans preferred lining the veteran up inside the formation, New England could try to expand his usage and employ him as a traditional move tight end capable of serving as a serious threat in the passing game. His size could make him a viable option in the red zone — where the Patriots consistently struggled last season — while his route-running could be an asset in the intermediate parts of the field.
Accordingly, Fells could be the Patriots’ 2020 version of Benjamin Watson: the veteran, who returned from retirement to play in New England last year, was the club’s primary receiving tight end. Fells would likely not be the number one at the position, or a long-term solution given his age, but a veteran presence capable of being productive in a rotational and situational role.
While not in the top tier of free agency tight ends such as Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper, Fells is still an intriguing player due to his experience and abilities as a pass catcher. He could therefore very well find himself on New England’s radar as a comparatively cheaper option to fill the number two/three role at the position in lieu of Watson likely leaving and other upgrades at the position also expected to be brought aboard.