New England's Rob Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs last year) is the consensus No. 1 tight end in fantasy circles and possible Round 2 pick in standard-scoring drafts.
The following slideshow is my current assessment of the Top 25 tight ends in fantasy (standard-scoring leagues), a listing that doesn't fully recognize the proficiency of veterans Scott Chandler, Anthony Fasano, Kevin Boss, Todd Heap, Ben Watson, Visanthe Shiancoe or Tony Moeaki.
It also doesn't presume top-20 greatness for Jacob Tamme or Joel Dreessen in Denver's offense, even though the Broncos encountered a serious upgrade at quarterback during the offseason. Tamme's No. 23 ranking comes with a big, fat 'Prove-Me-Wrong' invitation.
But hey, there will be plenty of time to adjust these rankings accordingly before preseason play begins.
Enjoy the show!
Bennett, a four-year backup to Jason Witten in Dallas (2008-11), may have found the perfect landing spot with the Giants, a club long on big-name receivers and running backs but short on prospective starts at tight end (Jake Ballard/Travis Beckum).
Of course, that sentiment was formulated before news broke that Bennett weighed in at a whopping 291 pounds before the Giants' offseason workouts commenced. (Bennett reportedly attributes the substantial weight gain to a renewed commitment to working out.)
With Beckum and Ballard recovering from late-season ACL surgeries, Bennett theoretically has a clear shot at winning the job, racking up career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns and developing a substantial rapport with QB Eli Manning (38.6 passes per game from Weeks 6-17).
But if he's still carrying all that extra baggage come late July, this ranking over Todd Heap, Tony Moeaki, Scott Chandler, Ben Watson and Kellen Moore, among others, will be changed in an instant.
The owner who takes Kendricks in a 12-team setting will likely be the same fantasy GM who drafted either Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in Rounds 2 or 3, meaning they're simply drafting Kendricks on upside...or the hope he'll be a sneaky-good play during the Gronk or Graham bye weeks only.
That said, there's plenty of intrigue surrounding Kendricks, who had a good preseason for the Rams in 2011 but then finished with a meager 28 catches for 352 yards—including a seasonal best of four catches for 71 yards in Week 5 (vs. Green Bay).
Kendricks is a superb athlete with good hands; and with that, owners won't be reluctant to take a late-round flier on a player with a second-year ceiling of 50 catches, 550 yards and five touchdowns.
Regardless of who wins TE1 job for the Broncos—the ex-Colt Tamme or ex-Texan Joel Dreessen—they're sure to benefit from the club's offseason upgrade at quarterback (Peyton Manning).
So right now, 23 is probably a conservative ranking from what may be the case in August.
In years past, neither Tamme (67 catches/631 yards/4 TD with Indy in 2010) nor Dreessen (28 catches/353 yards/6 TD with Houston last year) has had a year-by-year chance to showcase their skills for their respective clubs; but this opportunity in Denver has nothing but upside.
Even if receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker take major steps forward with their own development under Manning's watch.
If memory serves last year, my preseason ranking for Lewis (No. 11) was more controversial than the ultra-conservative stance on Rob Gronkowski (No. 8).
But here's the funny part: I took equal amounts of guff from fantasy fans who thought I had put too much stock into Lewis's out-of-nowhere 58-catch, 700-yard, 10-TD campaign in 2010...and Jaguars fans who screamed that I wasn't giving enough credit to a potentially dominant tight end.
And with that commensurate heat from both sides, I knew No. 11 was probably the fairest ranking.
Obviously, Lewis fell woefully short of expectations in 2011, catching 39 balls for 460 yards and zero touchdowns. But to be that obsolete for a veteran, you need a lot of bad luck along the way, as well.
Translation: Lewis may no longer be anything close to an elite tight end; but at age 28, he's no doorknob, either.
The 2011 campaign was essentially a tale of two halves for Olsen.
For Weeks 3-11 (eight games), the Miami product drew seven or more targets six times (three double-digit efforts), while collecting 32 receptions and three touchdowns.
For Weeks 12-17, Olsen was limited to just eight catches for 113 yards and one TD, including two zero-catch duds in the final two games.
Bottom line: Olsen has demonstrated some flashes of fantasy goodness in his brief time with the Panthers, but we'll need to see consistent production throughout the season, or he'll be just another eminently replaceable asset by late September.
In his final five regular season games last year, when Matt Schaub wasn't the Texans' starting QB, Owen Daniels averaged 5.2 catches, 5.9 targets, 40 yards and zero touchdowns.
In the 10 games with Schaub, Daniels averaged 3.7 catches, 5.5 targets, 47.8 yards and 0.30 TDs.
Daniels (per-season averages: 50 catches, 3.3 TDs) may be marginally better with Schaub in the lineup (compared to T.J. Yates), but he's still a middling talent whose single greatest attribute might be avoiding goose eggs from Sunday to Sunday.
That overall description is not one of a fantasy starter, though—it's the calling card of a decent, but replaceable backup.
This ranking may be up for grabs during the preseason.
Depending on the scoring system, Heath Miller ranked in the lower 20s for tight ends last year, a justifiable status for a player with only four regular-season touchdowns this decade.
It also doesn't help that Miller is approaching his age-30 season, a time when most physical tight ends start falling off the fantasy radar.
So then, why does Miller garner a No. 19 ranking? Three reasons:
1. Miller encountered a noticeable bump in targets (74), catches (51) and receiving yards (631) last year, compared to the 2010 season.
2. The uncertainty of Pittsburgh's rushers—from Rashard Mendenhall (rehabbing from a torn ACL last January) to Isaac Redman (142 total yards vs. Denver in the playoffs) and Jonathan Dwyer—should open up more red-zone opportunities for Miller.
3. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley reportedly plans to make Miller a featured part of the Steelers' attack.
Bottom line: The last point may reek of an empty promise by season's end; but for now, it's worth moving Miller up a spot or two.
I have no super-confident proclamations of how Dallas Clark will fare in the Tampa Bay offense.
Yes, he's just three seasons removed from a 100-catch, 1,106-yard, 10-TD campaign with the Colts; and yes, Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, historically speaking, favors a conservative passing game, which may allow for more Clark opportunities in the red zone.
But we're still talking about an aging asset (Clark turns 33 on June 12) who's only played 16 total games in the last two seasons due to injury.
On the positive side, Clark caught 71 balls for 699 yards and five TDs during that 16-game stretch. Most fantasy analysts would accept those numbers for 2012, as well.
Of the many changes that occurred at tight end this NFL offseason, I still cannot wrap my head around Winslow playing for the Seahawks.
In fact, I haven't even seen a shot of K-2 in a Seahawks practice jersey, or from a meet-and-greet publicity photo with head coach Pete Carroll and team owner Paul Allen.
Since I don't have a true handle of Winslow's future yet, let's bring back the past for a moment.
From a receptions, yards and targets standpoint, Winslow profiles as a top-10 tight end. But it's also tough to ignore his paltry two touchdowns from last year, a career low for the 28-year-old, ahem, soldier.
Was he not properly motivated in the red zone last season? Or was he simply too far down the Tampa Bay totem pole for touches in that crucial area?
This is a big season for Winslow (75 catches, 763 yards, two TDs last year). It may even define the second half of his career...assuming he's ready to make the Buccaneers pay for releasing him—amid much media fanfare—for apparently missing a voluntary spring workout.
Similar to Greg Olsen, the Titans' Cook had two December goose eggs on his 2011 resume.
But Cook's response to that short-term infamy prompted this strong countdown ranking—21 catches for 335 yards and one touchdown in the final three weeks.
Does that burst of fantasy goodness portend greatness in his fourth NFL season? Too early to tell.
But it was good enough to suggest Cook will be more than a fantasy afterthought in 12-team leagues.
I might have been a little slow to fully commit to the Gronkowski bandwagon last season (Aaron Hernandez played a key role in that underwhelming decision), but I'm not going to make that mistake with Coby Fleener (34 catches, 667 yards, 10 TDs in 2011).
Here's my reasoning:
1. Outside of Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and rookie T.Y. Hilton, the Colts aren't blessed with many playmaking receivers.
2. Not only does Fleener have the size, speed and overall talent to be an all-world tight end within three years, he also has the immediate benefit of catching balls from Stanford teammate Andrew Luck, who has the stuff to be a dynamic fantasy quarterback within three years.
3. I have a little birdie inside the Stanford football program; and he has stated, without a hint of bias, that Fleener is one of the best athletes he's ever competed against on a daily or weekly level.
Put it all together...and the No. 15 ranking may have sold Fleener a little short by season's end.
The fantasy optimist would say that, in just two NFL seasons, Jermaine Gresham has become a reliable source for 4.5 catches, 7.5 targets, 55 yards and 0.4 TDs every week.
The fantasy pessimist, in turn, would say—roughly the same thing.
Yes, Gresham (56 catches, 596 yards, six TDs last year) made across-the-board improvements in his age-23 season, but the numbers were curiously similar to 2010.
Does that form of mild progress excite fantasy owners who crave upside with middle-round picks?
Is Gresham a TE1 in 12-team leagues? Does he have the capacity to post the occasional 10-catch, 12-target, 90-yard game against inferior pass defenses? Or is he simply the best of the backup lot?
Only time will tell.
One game typically doesn't define a player's future fantasy worth, but that may not apply to Dickson.
In Week 10 against the Seahawks last year, he pulled off a 10-catch, 79-yard, two-TD heist, eliciting two hard questions that still haven't been answered:
Were Dickson's 14 targets the result of a game plan that didn't intentionally feature tailback Ray Rice (13 total touches)—or did the Ravens' early deficit prompt the heavy workload?
Was Dickson extra motivated to perform well in Seattle, the closest NFL city to Eugene, Ore., home of the University of Oregon (his alma mater)?
From a statistical standpoint, Jermaine Gresham and Dickson are brothers in arms, but I'm siding with Dickson's upside—even if the Ravens won't visit Seattle again until 2015.
For the sake of convenience, we're going to ignore Celek's de facto disappearance from the Eagles offense for Weeks 1-5.
Instead, we'll focus on his top-10 production for Weeks 6-17—53 catches, 78 targets, 738 yards and five touchdowns.
With a reasonably healthy Michael Vick starting at least 13 games this year, Celek would be a safe bet to match or eclipse his numbers from 2009 (76 catches, 971 yards, eight TDs); and if he should pull that off, this conservative ranking will look foolish by season's end.
Keller is one of the few members of this countdown to post 10-catch improvements in the last two seasons.
He's also an annual lock for 100-plus targets and five TDs.
All this begs the question: Why is he languishing at the 11th spot?
Call me cynical, but I have a feeling Keller will suffer from the Jets' (needless) acquisition of QB Tim Tebow, especially in the red zone.
With New York going out of its way to shoehorn Tebow into the offense (my personal hunch), it's hard to imagine Keller eclipsing five TDs or entering the realm of elite tight ends in 2012.
Targets: 59 catches, 779 yards and five TDs.
Off-the-field problems aside, Fred Davis (59 catches, 796 yards, three TDs last year) should be an explosive asset for the Redskins this season.
He may even garner the lion's share of targets attention from rookie QB Robert Griffin III, who will have options galore with Pierre Garcon, Leonard Hankerson, Santana Moss, Evan Royster and tailback Roy Helu in Washington.
Bottom line: Davis should have no problems hitting 70 catches, 900 yards and six touchdowns, if he keeps the shenanigans to a minimum.
It's hard to qualify Witten as an elite tight end heading into his age-30 season.
That's the knee-jerk assessment from an across-the-board dip in numbers with Dallas (79 catches, 942 yards, 5 TDs), in a year when Tony Romo started all 16 games at quarterback.
Now for the good news.
For the first time since 2007, fantasy owners won't hold any preseason delusions of 95 catches and/or nine touchdowns for Witten.
Instead, they'll simply be happy with a modest uptick in production—perhaps 81 catches, 938 yards, seven TDs—and amazing value on draft day (Round 8).
The temptation to grab Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in Rounds 2 or 3 will undoubtedly be great this summer.
But why not wait for unassuming studs like Gates in Rounds 7-9?
If fantasy owners can accept that Gates (76 career TDs) may never complete another 16-game season or resemble a Hall of Famer in his prime again, they'll love his per-game production by year's end—roughly 60 yards and 0.5 TDs every Sunday.
Targets: 69 catches, 880 yards and eight TDs.
I would love to see Gonzo cap a Hall of Fame career with another 80-catch, 900-yard, seven-TD campaign.
But with the Falcons' deep fleet of playmakers and former O-coordinator Mike Mularkey's move to Jacksonville to become the Jaguars' head coach, that may be an ambitious wish for 2012.
So, Gonzalez (1,149 career receptions/95 TDs) sits at No. 7 here, a minor insult to his consistent greatness.
On the positive side, though, he garnered a better ranking than Jason Witten and Antonio Gates, former All-Pros who are not entering the final season of their illustrious careers.
Targets: 75 catches, 917 yards and six TDs.
There's really no secret to what makes Pettigrew tick—he loves getting red-zone touches and keeping NFL officials at arm's length (kidding).
For the sake of this countdown, though, we'll focus on Pettigrew's top-five production in targets and receptions last year, and his potential for taking a sizable leap in yardage and touchdowns this season.
He's the ideal Round 7 pick in 12-team drafts—Round 6 for PPRs. He's also Matthew Stafford's second-favorite weapon...which carries a lot of weight in my household.
Targets: 85 catches, 836 yards and seven TDs.
Pettigrew and Gonzalez might warrant higher rankings in PPR leagues, but for standards, Finley (55 catches, 767 yards, eight TDs in 2011) is the safest bet to collect the most yards and touchdowns by season's end.
He is also the likeliest of the trio to notch two or three touchdowns on multiple Sundays.
That's the inherent joy of owning/watching Finley in fantasyland. Yes, he occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when Green Bay's other stars are unconsciously dissecting opposing defenses; but he still has the athleticism, hands and raw power to dominate the scene four or five times during the year.
Targets: 64 catches, 867 yards and nine TDs.
Vernon Davis earned the No. 4 ranking on the strength of two monster playoff games last year (10 catches, 292 yards, four TDs)—not necessarily the regular-season stats that preceded the explosion (67 catches, 792 yards, six TDs).
The status also comes with the assumption that receivers Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss won't drastically cut into Vernon's red-zone opportunities, a reasonable assertion with QB Alex Smith running the San Francisco attack.
Bottom line: The 49ers finally have notable playmakers to match the greatness of their defense, but this is not a time for Davis to regress to 50 catches and four scores.
It seems out of whack to include two guys from the same team in a top-three listing of tight ends.
But who could possibly formulate an argument against Hernandez at this spot?
In just 14 games last year, Hernandez (79 catches, 910 yards, seven TDs) ranked among the top eight in receptions, yards, touchdowns and targets (113).
For seven weekends, he also carried his fantasy owners to victory.
Bottom line: Hernandez is the perfect cog in the Patriots' offensive attack, and his fantasy ceiling has yet to be determined.
Targets: 83 catches, 1,034 yards and nine TDs.
This ranking is based on the assumption that Saints QB Drew Brees will play a full 16-game slate this season, if healthy...and happy with his new contract.
It also presumes that Jimmy Graham (99 catches, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs) will lead all tight ends in catches and targets, incrementally bumping his pre-draft value in PPR leagues (Round 2).
Speaking of which, Graham registered at least seven targets in every game last season.
To put that into perspective, neither Wes Welker, Calvin Johnson, Roddy White nor Larry Fitzgerald accomplished that feat even once in the last four seasons (2008-11).
Of all the fantasy positions for 2012, Gronkowski (90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 TDs last year) might have the most separation between himself and the No. 2 player.
In fact, if Gronk had played in only eight regular-season games (first half/second half—no matter), he'd still be an outside candidate for the top spot.
Is Gronkowski (27 TDs in two seasons) a Round 1 pick in standard-scoring leagues? That's debatable.
But he has certainly earned the right to be a comfy Round 2 selection, essentially going one or two rounds higher than Antonio Gates in his draft heyday (2004-06).
The glowing praise notwithstanding, fantasy owners should have a little perspective on Gronk's value.
He probably won't catch 90 balls or rack up multiple touchdowns eight times. Anything just short of that, however, would still be worthy of the No. 1 ranking.