Remember when tight ends were a fantasy afterthought?
As recently as 2009 (Antonio Gates’ last full NFL season), tight ends represented 12 of the league’s top 50 receptions leaders, nine of the top 50 receiving yards leaders and 16 tight ends scored five or more touchdowns.
A tight end (Vernon Davis) led the league in receiving touchdowns, with 13. Another (Dallas Clark) tied his own teammate (Reggie Wayne) for fifth place in receptions with 100. No tight end ranked in the top 10 of receiving yards league wide.
Last season, tight ends made up 14 of the top 50 receptions leaders, 14 of the top 50 receiving yards leaders and 19 tight ends scored five or more touchdowns.
Over just two years, those are increases of 17 percent, 56 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
A tight end (Rob Gronkowski) led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 17. Another (Jimmy Graham) had the league’s third-most receptions with 99. Both of them were in the top seven in receiving yards league wide.
Tight ends saw 3,048 targets (from 14,889 quarterback throws; 20.47 percent) in 2009.
In 2011, tight ends were targeted 3,712 times (from 17,384 quarterback throws; 21.35 percent).
So quarterbacks are throwing 16.8 percent more often, and throwing a higher percentage of their passes to tight ends (21.8 percent increase in tight end targets).
This just in: Antonio Gates is a tight end.
Before getting hurt in 2010, Gates collected 29 receptions for 478 yards and seven touchdowns in five games. Those totals project to 93 catches for 1,530 yards and 22 touchdowns over 16 games.
With San Diego housing largely unproven options at wide receiver, it would be absolutely no surprise if he led his team in targets, a la Jimmy Graham in 2011. Ryan Mathews is hurt, so Gates could be the beneficiary of a further increased number of targets.
But let’s just say Gates sees his 2009 numbers (79 catches, 1,157 yards and eight TDs in 16 games) inflated only by the average tight end statistic changes in the last two years. Keep in mind, that means the trend stops (zero percent inflation) from the 2011 season to the 2012 season.
Do we think that will happen? After the “Year of the Tight End”?
Under those conditions, Gates would be projected to have 96 receptions for 1,402 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s comparable to the numbers Jimmy Graham posted in 2011.
Spoiler Alert: Jimmy Graham is my No. 1-ranked tight end for 2012.
The reason I like Antonio Gates more than Rob Gronkowski this year is the advantage in opportunity that Gates possesses.
Gronkowski has much more competition for his quarterback’s attention than do Gates or Graham. Gates obviously has elite talent, but he is being drafted a full three rounds later than Gronkowski.
When it comes to absolute trailblazers at the fantasy tight end position for 2012, it’s a three-man race. If you want in on one of the elites, take Gates in the fourth or fifth round and watch the numbers pile up.