Times are changing in the NFL, which of course extends to fantasy football. As tight ends become top options on some offenses, their fantasy value suddenly increases exponentially.
You only really need to look at two players from last year to see what kind of numbers a tight end can put up in the right situation. Rob Gronkowski scored a tight end-record 17 receiving touchdowns last year and he continues to be a matchup nightmare that no defense can stop.
Jimmy Graham also had a brilliant season with 1,310 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He was the only other tight end with numbers remotely close to Gronk's. Therefore, it shouldn't surprise fantasy players that Gronkowski and Graham are universally ranked as the top two tight ends in the game.
What should surprise owners, though, is where these two tight ends are going to be drafted. With their 2011 numbers being more comparable to a WR1, Gronk and Graham could easily go in the second round. It's even conceivable that someone could pull the trigger on one of them in Round 1, after the elite quarterbacks and running backs are gone.
Drafting a tight end in Round 1? It seems like an insane move, especially considering that tight ends are not only pass catchers but also pass blockers.
Whoops, maybe I should say they used to be pass blockers. In today's changing NFL, only a few tight ends are blockers first and receiving targets second. With three quarterbacks throwing for over 5,000 passing yards last season, it's clear that passing games are thriving and tight ends are going to be a major part of that.
My main problem with this is that it can lead to the top tight ends being overvalued. Both Graham and Gronkowski had historically good seasons that rank among the greatest of any tight end. Therefore, it's reasonable to expect regression towards the mean as these two tight ends will likely have less numbers, perhaps even significantly less numbers.
But don't let your fellow fantasy owners in on this. They can choose to forego a truly elite running back or a top wide receiver to get their hands on one of "the best" tight ends in the game. This leaves you to wait several rounds until the other starting tight ends will be taken.
Now there is basically a chasm between the top two tight ends and everyone else. At least that's what draft position says with the third best tight end usually being taken in the fifth or sixth round in most mocks that I have seen this summer.
Although Gronk and Graham deserve credit for their 2011 seasons, my argument is that this chasm shouldn't exist. There are other tight ends out there who are capable of having tremendous 2012 seasons. As ludicrous as it sounds now, it's possible that one of these other tight ends could finish as the top scoring tight end in fantasy football.
This would work out all the better for you as you get to tool up on other positions prior to getting your tight end later in the draft. So if you don't have your heart set on one of the top two, here are the guys you should be targeting.
Vernon Davis, SF
It feels weird to be recommending any player in San Francisco's pass offense. For so long they've been known for a ground-and-pound approach, mostly utilizing Frank Gore as the workhorse of the offense.
But times are changing and the 49ers offense has a new look in 2012. Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins provide significant improvement for the team's wide receivers. And for as much flack as he takes, Alex Smith could be improved in 2012 as this will be only the second year in his eight-year career where he does not have to learn a new offensive system.
Because of this, Vernon Davis's value is at an all-time high. A few seasons ago, Davis was San Francisco's only dangerous weapon in the passing game, and for the most part he excelled in that role. In both 2009 and 2010, Davis had over 900 receiving yards with 13 and seven touchdowns, respectively.
With Moss, Manningham and possibly Michael Crabtree being threats in the passing game, Davis could become more dangerous. He's developed a nice rapport with Smith, as demonstrated by Davis's four touchdowns in the playoffs last year. It was a big ending to what was admittedly a disappointing fantasy season in 2011 where Davis had eight games where he scored less than five points.
If Davis continues to play like he did in the playoffs, he could rise to the same level as Gronkowski and Graham. Even if he doesn't have monster games every week but improves his consistency, Davis has top-five tight end potential this season.
Antonio Gates, SD.
Long ago it was general consensus among fantasy owners that Antonio Gates was the best tight end in the NFL. Well, maybe not that long ago, as he finished second among all tight ends in fantasy points during the 2010 season. And even going into 2011, many fantasy experts considered Gates the best.
I doubt that Gates will ever return to the ridiculous level he was at in 2009 and 2010. He'll be 32 years old this season, and he's had some serious foot injuries that will scare potential fantasy owners away.
But if Gates can stay healthy in 2012, I have confidence that he will deliver a successful season. The former basketball player is still difficult to cover and he excels as a red zone target.
Consider that, not counting his rookie season in 2003, the fewest touchdowns Gates has had in a season was seven last year. Those are still very good numbers for a tight end, and that's the kind of consistency fantasy owners want to see.
Also Vincent Jackson is gone this season, which arguably makes Gates Philip Rivers's No. 1 target. We don't know yet how free agent acquisition Robert Meachem will adjust to being a Charger, and Malcolm Floyd seems to be a perennial disappointment. Therefore, even in the latter days of his career, Gates has got the upside to be one of fantasy's top tight ends.
Jermichael Finley, GB.
In 2011, Jermichael Finley was ranked as one of the elite tight end prospects in the league, with many experts agreeing he was one of the five best tight ends in the game. While his numbers that year were good, they did not reflect a top-five ranking.
With 767 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011, Finley did have several big games. But he also had way too many games with very disappointing stat totals. For Finley to reach his promise as an elite tight end, that needs to change in 2012.
Being a part of Green Bay's elite passing game can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because there is no one go-to option in the receiving game and defenses have to be prepared for three or four people that could catch the ball on any one play. At the same time, though, this can be bad since Aaron Rodgers seems to like to spread the ball out, which hurts certain players receiving numbers.
What mainly hurt Finley in 2011 was his propensity to drop the ball. Finley had 11 drops last season, which ranked in the top five in the NFL. If he can catch the ball and improve his chemistry with Rodgers, Finley can take the next step and rank among the best at his position.