Fantasy Football 2012: Breaking Down the Tight End Position
There was no steeper drop off at any position in fantasy football last year than at the No. 3 tight end (TE) position. The top-2 tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, did the fantasy football equivalent of "lapping the field."
After those two, there are some solid players at the position worth a mid-round draft pick. After that you find a ton of players with nice upside but also many questions. Your draft slot could ultimately determine your TE strategy.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham will most likely end up being late first round picks. If not, they will fall no later than round two. If you wind up selecting later in round one, you could very well end up with one of them. If not, you will probably find yourself waiting on the position, especially if you pick early in the first round.
I have no problem taking Gronkowski or Graham early. After that, I'm more likely to load up at running back (RB) and wide receiver (WR) early in the draft as opposed to reaching for a TE from the next tier. Most likely I will take two tight ends later in the draft and hope one of them blows up or I can at least play the matchups well enough to have a passable Tight End-By-Committee (TEBC).
Let take a look at some of the tight ends who could be viable fantasy football options in 2012.
For comparison between TEs I will be using the Expert Consensus Ranking (ECR) from Fantasy Pros. ECR is the average ranking of many other rankings compiled from "experts" all over the Internet.
The Enormous Two
Rob Gronkowski - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 1 (Standard), 2 (PPR)
Jimmy Graham - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 2 (Standard), 1 (PPR)
These two players are in a tier of their own. No matter which order you prefer them, only injuries will be able to slow them down. Graham should see more targets and receptions while Gronkowski is a threat to lead the NFL in TDs. Sure taking a tight end at the end of round one just feels wrong, but these players transcend their position.
Not to mention how much better they are than whomever you select as the No. 3 TE.
The Rest of the "Elite" Tight Ends
Jason Witten - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 5 (Standard), 4 (PPR)
Witten has disappointed with his TD totals, be he still sees a ton of targets. He has a bit more value in PPR leagues and could see a few more red-zone targets in 2012 with the departure of the Cowboys No. 3 WR, Laurent Robinson.
Antonio Gates - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 4 (Standard), 5 (PPR)
This is more about the health of Gates than anything else. It's almost universally accepted at this point that Gates will have to deal with foot problems for the rest of his career. But we've seen him go absolutely nuts when Vincent Jackson wasn't on the field. Gates should be the primary focus of the Chargers passing game. If the stays healthy, he's probably the only TE with a shot of breaking into Gronkowski/Graham territory.
Aaron Hernandez - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 3 (Standard), 3 (PPR)
Hernandez should continue to be a fine fantasy option in 2012. His main problem will stem from the nature and talent of the Patriots offense. Tom Brady spreads the ball around, so for every awesome game Hernandez has, he will have a clunker. The addition of Brandon Lloyd could cost Hernandez some of his targets and force him to play less snaps split out wide.
The Rest of the "Elite" Tight Ends (Continued)
Vernon Davis - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 6 (Standard), 6 (PPR)
Davis has a much physical talent as any player in the NFL. He just doesn't play on an offense that throws the ball a ton. Davis doesn't get enough credit for his skill as a blocker, which results in him going out on routes less often than you would think. He should be the 49ers primary red-zone receiving threat, but his overall numbers might not be as good as you would think.
Jermichael Finley - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 7 (Standard), 7 (PPR)
When I drafted Finley in 2011, my exact quote was "If Finley stays healthy, there's no way that he's not a top-3 TE." But something went terribly wrong. Finley led all tight ends in dropped passes. He seemed out of synch with Aaron Rodgers. Maybe it too much time away. Finley missed the last half of the 2010 season and with the lockout in 2011, he just didn't get enough practice time in. There's still a ton of upside here. But Aaron Rodgers also likes to spread the ball around, so Finley could be very dependent on scoring TDs to achieve fantasy success.
Solid Veteran Options
Tony Gonzalez - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 9 (Standard), 9 (PPR)
Gonzalez benefited in 2011 as the Falcons shifted to a more passing-based offense. He proved that he is still an excellent red-zone target and he has the trust of QB Matt Ryan. He might not see as many targets as some of the other tight ends around his draft slot, but there's no reason to think he won't finish up as a top-10 TE.
Brandon Pettigrew - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 10 (Standard), 8 (PPR)
The Lions ran "Two TE" sets on offense often in 2011. Pettigrew was often the "blocking" TE while Tony Scheffler was the "receiving" TE. With the Lions going to more "Three WR" sets, Pettigrew will see more time as the primary TE. Matthew Stafford spreads the ball around to everybody not named Calvin Johnson, but Pettigrew is definitely the Lions second-best red-zone target.
Owen Daniels - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 14 (Standard), 13 (PPR)
Daniels started off 2011 slow as he recovered from injury. With Daniels returning to full health in 2012, he should be the No. 2 target in the passing game for the Houston Texans. The departure of Jacoby Jones and the health issues of Andre Johnson could lead to an increased role for Daniels.
Young Players with Breakout Potential
Fred Davis - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 8 (Standard), 10 (PPR)
All of sudden, Davis is probably the most proven receiving options the Redskins have, Unless you really love Pierre Garcon. Davis is very athletic, has good hands and experience in the offense. He was flashing his TE1 (starting fantasy TE) potential before he was suspended in 2011. He could be out for the season with another failed drug test, so there is some added risk here.
Jermaine Gresham - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 12 (Standard), 12 (PPR)
Right now Gresham is the clear No. 2 target in the Bengals passing game behind AJ Green. Even if other wide receivers step up, Gresham should be the No. 2 target in the red zone for Cincinnati. With a full offseason to work with QB Andy Dalton, Gresham could be ready to take the next step in 2012.
Brent Celek - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 11 (Standard), 11 (PPR)
After having quite a bit of fantasy hype two seasons ago, Celek fell off of the map. The combination of injuries and the Eagles QB switch from Kevin Kolb to Michael Vick were the primary factors. Halfway through last season you could see that Celek was healthy and getting comfortable with Vick. Remember, Vick has always been a QB that likes to lean on the TE position. Celek is probably the best red-zone receiving target that Philly has, so there is some nice TD potential here.
Young Players with Breakout Potential (Continued)
Jacob Tamme - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 13 (Standard), 15 (PPR)
Tamme left Indianapolis to join Peyton Manning in Denver. Tamme isn't much of a blocker, but he is an excellent receiving TE. Since the Broncos are incorporating portions of the old Colts offense, its safe to say that the "receiving TE" is probably going to be a big part of the Denver offense. There is some risk here, but the upside is excellent, especially in PPR leagues.
Jared Cook - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 16 (Standard), 16 (PPR)
Myself (and quite a few others) had Cook pegged as a breakout player in 2011 after he finished 2010 with some excellent games. Cook is an athletic freak and he has immense big play potential. For the first time he should have a full offseason to work as the Titans starting TE. With Kenny Britt struggling to recover from his ACL tear, Cook and Nate Washington are the Titans most experienced receiving targets.
Greg Olson - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 18 (Standard), 17 (PPR)
Olson was another player expected to breakout in 2011 after being traded from the Chicago Bears to the Carolina Panthers. Olson had a decent season, but wasn't a TE1. But last season he had to deal with learning a new offense with no offseason work, a rookie QB and he split targets with Jeremy Shockey. All of those things should change in 2012. Since the Panthers still haven't added a quality WR option opposite Steve Smith, it's fair to think that Olson could be the No. 2 target in the Panthers passing game.
Young Players with Breakout Potential (Continued)
Coby Fleener - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 17 (Standard), 19 (PPR)
The Indianapolis Colts drafted Coby Fleener in order to pair him up with his college teammate, QB Andrew Luck. Because both players are rookies, there will be some growing pains and inconsistency here. But Fleener could end up leading the Colts in targets and any TE who is the No. 1 option in his team's passing game can be an solid fantasy TE.
Kyle Rudolph - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 21 (Standard), 23 (PPR)
Rudolph is another high draft pick that could take the next step in 2012. At the end of last season Rudolph was starting to show his potential as his playing time increased. The Vikings are trying to find a No. 2 receiving target after Percy Harvin. Rudolph has the potential to be that target. If he gets the bulk of playing time at TE, he could be an excellent fantasy option this season.
The Best of the Rest
There are still a few other tight ends that I would draft as my TE2 in deep leagues or in leagues where I waited until the very end of the draft to select my TE1. I wouldn't want to draft these players as my starter, but there is some upside here. As the regular season draws closer, some of these players could rise or fall based on how some things shake out.
Dustin Keller - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 15 (Standard), 14 (PPR)
Ed Dickson - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 22 (Standard), 20 (PPR)
Heath Miller - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 23 (Standard), 22 (PPR)
Tony Moeaki - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 25 (Standard), 24 (PPR)
Martellus Bennett - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 24 (Standard), 29 (PPR)
Mercedes Lewis - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 27 (Standard), 31 (PPR)
Lance Kendricks - Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus Rankings = 32 (Standard), 33 (PPR)
To Jimmy, or Not to Jimmy?
What do you want in at TE? If you're in a PPR league and you just want 10-12 points a week from the position, there's plenty of those players out there. Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham showed what an elite TE can do for fantasy owners last season.
The problem will be finding the tight ends that make good on their potential. So my approach will be to grab two of the players with the highest upside. For me Jared Cook is the perfect definition of a post-hype sleeper. Greg Olsen could become Cam Newton's go-to player between the hash marks. Jacob Tamme could flash his 2010 form with Peyton Manning.
Those are the kind of players I want. Young players with big-play potential. The type of tight ends who can be split out wide. This is fantasy football, not actual football. In fantasy football, we don't care how well our players block. We just want them to catch the ball, accumulate yardage and get in the end zone. For us, this new breed of players with TE size and WR speed are where it's at.
Again, always try to know the tendencies of your league. Do tight ends go early? Do other owners pay that much attention to the position after the "name" players are off of the board? Will a TE have trade value in your league?
In my big 14-team league last season I got bailed out by a TE who I didn't draft and never played for me. I drafted Jermichael Finley and Jared Cook. After Week 1 I dropped Cook for Fred Davis. Then I traded Davis for Percy Harvin in Week 4 and picked Cook back up. Davis wound up getting suspended and Percy carried me to the championship game.
What do ya'll think of the TE position this season? How early are you willing to draft Gronkowski or Graham? Who will be the No. 3 TE?
Thanks for reading, and please use the comments feature if you have anything to add to the discussion.
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