13 Tight Ends To Draft For Success (and 4 to avoid)
Depending on your expectations, finding a suitable tight end can be the easiest or most difficult part of fantasy football. On the one hand, tight ends tend to be like weak wide receivers and finding one who produced on a consistent basis can make you pull your hair out. Last season, only two TEs scored over 9 points per game, while only four managed to score more than 8 points per game; you would drop any wide receiver who wasn't scoring you at least 8 points per game. On the other hand, there are a plethora of TEs in the 6-8 ppg area, meaning that you could build a team that nearly ignores the tight end position. This season there are two tight ends who are so far ahead of the rest that they don't even warrant discussion, while there are another 11 tight ends with huge question marks surrounding them. Hopefully this post will help you make an informed decision. Compare these rankings to mine from a month ago (a lot has changed).
1. Jimmy Graham
I would absolutely not consider drafting Rob Gronkowski ahead of Graham because Graham actually comes into 2012 in a better situation than he had in 2011. The Saints lost one of their extra pieces (Robert Meachem) in Free Agency, and while that shouldn't hurt the Saints' production, it does ensure Graham a similar, if not improved, number of looks this season. Graham and Gronk are truly 1A and 1B in terms of fantasy value, but Gronkowski has a bigger chance of producing at a lower level than Graham.
2. Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski had an amazing season in 2011, but his path to repeating is much more cluttered than Graham's. Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Brandon Lloyd will all be fighting for limited looks, which should reduce Gronkowski's value just enough to fall below Graham. The argument here would be, "well he did it last season, why shouldn't he do it this season," and the reason is that there are more targets in the Patriots offense this season compared to last season. Hernandez missed games last year, and Brandon Lloyd should be twice as good as Ochocinco was. The upside on Gronkowski is simply lower than the upside on Graham.
3. Aaron Hernandez
Hernandez had nearly 1,000 receiving yards last season, and he should approach that value again this year. Hernandez was used occasionally as a running back for the Patriots, and this could set him up as a slightly better prospect than the players below him on this list. The Patriots lost BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the Bengals, and if Hernandez gets 100 rushing yards, that is a huge bonus for fantasy owners. He does have a bit of an injury history, which is something to consider when deciding where to draft him.
4. Antonio Gates
Gates has been a serious fantasy contributor over the last decade, but has been riddled by injuries over the past two seasons. Gates just turned 32, and the Chargers don't have a replacement for him, but you have to be a bit worried about his injury status this season. Rivers did favor him as a target at the goal line last season, and Gates could be in line for a more mediocre season than he is used to. The saving grace here is that the Chargers are lining up 3 receivers who have very little experience being the primary receiver in any offense. As we see the Chargers depth chart solidify at the end of training camp we can get a better feel of where Antonio Gates belongs on this list. At this point, I would strongly suggest you draft Gates with extreme caution. He comes in 4th because the players behind him are less certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up towards the bottom of the top-10 TE list at the end of the season.
5. Vernon Davis
Davis is a bit of a risky pick. The 49ers brought in so many new receivers that he might find it difficult to get the number of looks he is accustomed to. He has an advantage over the other receivers, though, because he has been able to consistently produce while Alex Smith (and ever other 49ers quarterback) have struggled around him. Davis also tends to find the end zone a reasonable amount. Last season was a step back from 2009 and 2010 for Vernon Davis, but I think that Harbaugh will find a way to get him more involved this season. He is a risk, but his consistency and youth is truly valuable.
6. Jermichael Finley
I prefer players with huge upside at this point in the draft, and Finley certainly provides that. Despite the crowded Packers depth chart, Finley certainly has the ability to have a break-out season. Finley is a risky pick, given his injury history and his inability to separate himself as an outstanding target for Aaron Rodgers, but at this point in the list of tight ends, he has the highest potential and easily has the best upside. I can't imagine Finley being any worse than an average tight end (even last season he had 8 receiving touchdowns), so he should be a good option as the 6th overall tight end.
7. Jason Witten
If you are looking to take the risk out of your tight end position, pick Witten over Davis or Finley. Witten has playing 16 games per season for the past 8 seasons and has accumulated over 900 receiving yards for the last 5 seasons. The problem is that Witten is only averaging just over 5 touchdowns per season during that same stretch. I don't want to bet too heavily on a player who has only had one season with over 7 receiving touchdowns. He should be a consistent player, but I wouldn't count on him to win you any leagues, although he can play an important role on your fantasy team.
8. Dustin Keller
Keller has a lot of potential, and should be one of the few Jets players who isn't impacted by the addition of Tim Tebow. Keller will still be an option at the goal line with Tebow throwing (he could actually see an increase in touchdowns since teams will be keying on the run), and will stay a consistent target in the middle of the field. Of course, Keller has been marred by inconsistency in the past few seasons, and that makes him a risky fantasy player. There aren't really any better options at this position, and all of these tight ends should be low-round picks anyways.
9. Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez is ancient, in terms of football players, but I can't ignore the fact that he is still a consistent contributor for the Falcons. There really isn't much to say. He will score you points throughout the season, but don't think that he is going to have a great season. Draft him for consistency, but I would pick up a second TE just in case his body breaks down this season.
10. Brandon Pettigrew
Pettigrew actually has a ton of potential. He had the third most receptions by a tight end last season, but his yard-per-reception was absolutely atrocious. It is not difficult to imagine that he gets 1-2 more yards for every catch he makes, which would lead to 100-200 more yards than last season and easily putting him into the top-5 TE listings. If Pettigrew can break and extra tackle and score a few more touchdowns, he could be an amazing contributor on your fantasy team. The obvious downside here is that Pettigrew hasn't done any of these things yet. This guy has more reward than risk, because you can't go wrong with 83 receptions, especially in ppr leagues.
11. Fred Davis
You can say anything you want about his potential, but he only had one decent season and will have a new, rookie quarterback this year. Fred Davis could create a great rapport with RG3 culminating in an amazing season. He could just as easily have 600 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The downside on Davis is especially steep, but he is worth a look at a TE2 or a starter in deeper leagues. History dictates that either Luck or RG3 will be a bust as a starting quarterback. If RG3 throws for fewer than 3,000 yards, how is Davis going to score you fantasy points?
12. Jared Cook
Cook has been very inconsistent over the last few seasons, but I really like him this year. The Titans had two new quarterbacks in 2011, and Cook finished the year as a great fantasy tight end. There is always the chance that Cook could be a complete bust, but he has the necessary upside to be a late round tight end. Target him as a TE2 to back up some of the older TE options.
13. Jermaine Gresham
Gresham caught 6 touchdown passes last season, making him a viable option at tight end this season. Unfortunately, he never really put up the kind of numbers I wanted to see from him last season. As training camp progresses we will see how well Andy Dalton trusts him, and he could end up being a top-10 fantasy tight end if the two of them connect. At this point, given the relative lack of firepower from the Bengals offense, I would be cautious about drafting him as a starting TE.
A Few Players I Won't Draft
Coby Fleener - There is virtually no way that a rookie tight end makes a fantasy impact with a rookie quarterback. We don't even know if the Colts will be a team that relies heavily on their tight ends this season. They certainly didn't last year. This is no longer Peyton Manning's offense.
Brent Celek - I like Celek as a football player. He is productive for the Eagles, but he doesn't catch touchdowns from Mike Vick. I have real concerns about the chemistry between those two, and the fact that he is kept in to block more often when Vick is running. I don't plan on drafting him this season.
Jacob Tamme - Yes, I remember those 8 games when the second-string tight end for the Colts played with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Denver is not Indianapolis, and we have no proof that Tamme will be the dominant tight end in their system. I know Manning loves tight ends, but if Tamme is so good then why did he only catch passes when Dallas Clark was injured? If he was good and Manning liked him, they would have found ways to get him on the field in 2-TE sets and the like. Let me see an official depth chart and I might change my mind.
Owen Daniels - Injury prone and doesn't score enough touchdowns. What are the two reasons why you shouldn't draft Owen Daniels in 2012? (The most he had in a single season was 5 touchdowns)