Tight ends that are big, fast, and can catch well are the latest up-and-coming trend with NFL offenses. As such, we’re seeing tight ends put up big time fantasy football numbers, and some of them are putting up stats that are better than most wide receivers. This is the first year, however, that we have serious considerations for tight ends going in the first three rounds of fantasy football drafts.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham took the league’s defenses by storm last year, as both broke the single-season record for tight end receiving yards. Gronkowski also broke the record for touchdowns by a tight end, with an insane 17 scores. Behind those two players, however, lays a lot of the same that we’ve seen over the years. Guys like Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, and Vernon Davis are still kicking around the middle rounds despite being some of the top players at their position. The problem is that lots of wide receivers are scoring more points than them, and you have to play multiple receivers each week, making the position less of a priority.
Many people are wondering when the right round is to go draft Gronkowski and Graham. I think the timing is more dependent on what wide receivers are still available. I’m taking Gronkowski before any receiver not named Calvin Johnson, and Graham is probably only behind Larry Fitzgerald and Greg Jennings in my books. Especially considering how deep the wide receiver position is this year, don’t feel bad about using a second-round pick on Gronk and Graham. As far as the rest of the tight ends go, I really don’t see much statistical difference between them, so don’t feel bad about waiting after the first two tight ends are drafted.
For more on the rest of the tight end crop, let’s look into the rankings.
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England – The artist currently known as Gronk looks like he’ll be the number 1 tight end for years to come, as long as he can prove his worth over Jimmy Graham. Double-digit touchdowns are almost a guarantee, although 17 for a second season in a row seems unlikely. He’s the cream of the crop, and there’s very minimal downside.
2. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans – Many will argue that Graham will be better than Gronkowski this year, and there really is no right answer as to who’s better. But the bounty scandal surrounding New Orleans and a back injury sustained earlier in camp give me the slightest bit of pause. Still expect big things from Graham, but I’d take him with a grain of salt.
3. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay – The first guy I’m looking to after the two G’s are off the board. We all know Finley has the size, speed, and talent that is required of an elite tight end, but injuries and an offense with a lot of weapons have limited his true potential. This could be the year that Finley finally breaks out big time.
4. Antonio Gates, San Diego – Not long ago was the time when Gates was head and shoulders ahead of all the other tight ends. Now back in the middle of the pack, Gates still has the talent, and Philip Rivers will still look to him constantly. But you have to wonder how his feet will hold up. Also, is there another respectable option in the Chargers’ passing game to take attention away from Gates?
5. Jacob Tamme, Denver – Now, Tamme is obviously not as talented as a few of the tight ends ranked below him. But his quarterback happens to be Peyton Manning, and that counts for a lot. In 2010 when Tamme started in Indy ahead of an injured Dallas Clark, Tamme notched 67 receptions for 631 yards and 4 scores in 10 games. That should be the floor for Tamme’s performance this year, and the ceiling is pretty high.
6. Vernon Davis, San Francisco – Although he started the year relatively slow under new coach Jim Harbaugh, Davis really got involved in the offense at the end of the season and in the playoffs. If you’re willing to bear with the ebb and flow of his consistency, Davis is worth being drafted among the top tight ends.
7. Aaron Hernandez, New England – Hernandez derived much of his value last season working in between the 20’s. He stretched the field, but he’s not the red-zone threat that Gronkowski is. With Brandon Lloyd coming in, I fear he will eat heavily into Hernandez’s yardage totals. But the Patriots revolutionized the 2-tight-end set, and you know they will get the ball to Hernandez enough to keep fantasy owners happy.
8. Jason Witten, Dallas – Witten is another guy who’s been one of the top fantasy tight ends for a very long time. He’s a reliable target for Tony Romo, and the fact that he succeeds despite being less athletic than his peers will help Witten as he ages into his 30’s. However, the emergence of Dez Bryant could continue to reduce Witten’s role in the offense. Not worth a reach in drafts, but still a reliable option.
9. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta – Gonzalez is completing the path that Witten is starting down. Gonzalez is probably retiring after this year, and he’ll go out as the best tight end the NFL has retired to date. Atlanta does seem to be running a bit of a higher-tempo offense this year, so the looks will still be there, a year after he posted 875 yards and 7 scores. But remember Gonzo is 36 and the upside is low.
10. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis – The first tight end drafted this year, Fleener is built like the prototypical tight end that NFL teams long for these days. Reunited with college teammate Andrew Luck, Fleener should see early success, but Indianapolis’ offense will struggle as a whole. Fleener has top-5 upside, but things could potentially go very, very bad again this year for the Colts.
11. Fred Davis, Washington – Davis will be catching passes from another rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III. It remains to be seen how much attention Davis will get as opposed to the plethora of slightly-above-average receivers Washington has compiled. But Davis was on pace for 1,000 yards last year, and if he stays on the field and keeps his mind on the game, we could see a stellar season from him.
12. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit – Pettigrew is more of a throwback blocking tight end, but he still sees a lot of short-yardage and red-zone targets. Matthew Stafford is throwing a ton and loves having Pettigrew as his checkdown target. But checkdown targets rarely put up the big points in fantasy football, so he shouldn’t be counted on to start for your team.
13. Brent Celek, Philadelphia – Celek found some chemistry with Michael Vick last season, especially in the final three games where he totaled 294 yards and 3 scores. The hope is that the Philadelphia offense will be running on all cylinders this season now that DeSean Jackson got paid and Jeremy Maclin is healthy. Hopefully Celek will join in on the parade.
14. Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati – There isn’t a more frustrating tight end for me than Gresham. The hope is that the Bengals would let Gresham spread the seams of the field and get long passes down the middle. However, Gresham seems to be used more for blocking, and the Bengals are content with A.J. Green working the deep passes. He’s worth a flier for the upside.
15. Jared Cook, Tennessee – Cook falls under a lot of the same categories as Gresham: super-athletic, underwhelming, and the such. Cook has now finished two consecutive years on very high notes, giving fantasy owners hope all offseason. But until he puts together a stellar 16 game season, I’m not buying.
16. Dustin Keller, New York Jets – Keller was a former first-rounder, and he has a nose for the end zone when the Jets get down inside the 20. But Rex Ryan still really wants to get back to the ground and pound, and he brought in a backup quarterback to do it. Keller is trending down, but there is still some hope that he could get huge value from touchdowns.
17. Owen Daniels, Houston – There seems to be a trend developing here, doesn’t there? Daniels used to be a starting-caliber tight end, but the elimination of Houston’s high-flying offense in favor of a pounding running game has drained Daniels’ fantasy value. Injuries have also been a problem the last few years, so Daniels has a lot of red flags. Watch out.
18. Scott Chandler, Buffalo- Chandler started out hot last year with 4 touchdowns in the first 3 games, but then the Bills’ offense headed downhill and sunk Chandler with the rest of the ship. With Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson returning to health, maybe the offense gets its mojo back. If that’s the case, Chandler has very good upside.
19. Greg Olsen, Carolina- Olsen has been one of the great receiving tight ends of the past five years. Unfortunately, the offense in Carolina is still trying to figure out its identity with Cam Newton at the helm and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. Still, Carolina lacks receivers outside of Steve Smith, so Olsen still has a great chance to contribute.
20. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota – Entering his sophomore season with the Vikings, Rudolph will try to establish himself as a greater player in the offense with Visanthe Shiancoe in New England. At 6’6″ and 260 pounds, Rudolph looks the part. More of his value depends on how much Christian Ponder has developed.
If you’re still looking for sleepers past these 20 guys, here’s a few names to remember. Kellen Winslow (Seattle) and Dallas Clark (Tampa Bay) have both changed teams and could see an improvement over last year. Charles Clay of Miami is more of an H-back than a conventional TE. However, he had 3 receiving touchdowns in limited action last year and had one in Miami’s first preseason game, so stay alert on Clay. Lastly, Marcedes Lewis was a huge bust last year with Blaine Gabbert at the helm, but he might be a bit undervalued at this point and could bounce back in 2012.