Fantasy Football Draft Strategy 2012: 10 TEs Worth an Early-Round Pick in 2012
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
The evolution of the NFL game has resulted in a weekly air show that is waging an assault on the record books while redefining the expectations of the tight end position. The best players are now routinely putting up numbers once reserved for elite wide receivers, a change that has had a significant impact on fantasy football draft strategy.
Three or four years ago, it was rare to see anyone other than Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez or San Diego Chargers stud Antonio Gates taken inside the first five rounds of a fantasy football draft. Now, there are as many as 10 tight ends that you seriously have to consider selecting in the top third of your draft, especially if you participate in a league that awards points-per-reception (PPR).
The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants will kick off the NFL season on Wednesday, September 5, so fantasy football drafts are in full swing in preparation for the start of the new year. Based on a 12-team league with one TE slot and two flex positions (available to start a WR, RB or TE), here are 10 tight ends that you should consider drafting in the first six rounds.
This list assumes that your league awards at least .25 PPR, as many more sophisticated leagues have begun to do. If you participate in a standard league where PPR are not awarded, don't feel compelled to reach for some of the lower-ranked players on this list.
10. Fred Davis, Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis is finally Head of State in the nation's capital.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Washington Redskins tight end Fred David is poised for a breakout season in 2012.
Injuries to former No. 1 tight end Chris Cooley opened the door for Davis to start the first 12 games in 2011, following four seasons as a backup. Cooley's recent release from the Redskins leaves no doubt that Davis will be the main man starting this year.
The Redskins have a run-oriented offense and two established wide receivers (Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon) that could limit Davis' pass-catching opportunities. But with sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III replacing the less-than-dynamic duo of Rex Grossman and John Beck, Davis might also emerge as a security blanket for the first-year signal-caller.
9. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew hits pay dirt against the Green Bay Packers.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew has emerged as a solid yet unspectacular pass-catching threat over the past two seasons. He's averaged 77 catches and 750 receiving yards while starting all 32 games for the Lions during that time.
While his nine total touchdowns leave fantasy owners yawning, that total could increase as opponents concentrate on reducing All-World wide receiver Calvin Johnson's 17 touchdown receptions from last year.
Detroit is also dealing with a backfield ravaged with injuries (Jahvid Best) and suspensions (Mikel Leshoure), so Pettigrew should see more targets in the red zone as a result.
8. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez proved that he still has plenty left in the tank during a stellar 2011 season.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez shook off questions about his age as easily as he shed would-be tacklers in 2011. The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer hauled in 80 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
The latter two numbers represented his highest totals since 2008, his final season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Another year of NFL wear and tear, and the emergence of second-year wide receiver Julio Jones could reduce Gonzalez's receiving numbers across the board. But the added outside threat—plus the continued presence of Michael Turner in the running game—could open up more scoring opportunities for Tony G in the middle of the field.
Expect at least one more standout season from the NFL's all-time leading receiver at the tight end position.
7. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots
New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is happy to be a part of the team's long-term future after recently agreeing to a five-year, $40 million contract extension.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The New England Patriots recently gave tight end Aaron Hernandez a five-year, $40 million contract extension that perfectly represents his value to the organization despite being overshadowed by teammate, and fellow tight end, Rob Gronkowski.
While I wouldn't draft him ahead of Gronkowski this year, there are plenty of reasons to think that Hernandez might have the better season.
First, there's the ankle injury that Gronkowski suffered during last year's AFC Championship Game and aggravated during Super Bowl XLVI. He's expected to be fully recovered from offseason surgery in time for New England's regular season opener. But it's just the latest in a history of serious injuries dating back to Gronkowski's college days at the University of Arizona.
Gronkowski will also receive extra attention from defenses this following a spectacular 2011 season. That will undoubtedly result in more targets for Hernandez, especially in the red zone, as it is unrealistic to expect Gronkowski to notch another 17 receiving touchdowns.
The addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and the continued presence of Wes Welker may limit Hernandez's upside. But with the Patriots offense so heavily reliant on throwing to the tight ends, don't be surprised to see him crack double-digit touchdown receptions in 2012.
6. JerMichael Finley, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers tight end JerMichael Finley is ready to take the NFL by storm in his second full season back after surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley finally managed to play a full 16-game season after a torn ACL limited him to just five games in 2010. It often takes an athlete two years to fully recover from such an injury, so Finley could finally be ready to deliver on his considerable promise entering his fifth NFL season.
Led by 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, the Packers possess one of the league's most prolific passing attacks. Still just 25 years old, and with the ACL now a non-issue, Finley should emerge as the pass-catching threat that fantasy owners have long hoped he'd become.
Expect across-the-board improvement on the 55 catches, 767 receiving yards and eight touchdowns that Finley delivered in 2011.
5. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten received good news when it was discovered that his injured spleen will not require surgery.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten would be ranked a spot or two higher if it weren't for the injured spleen that will likely keep him out of the regular season opener against the New York Giants next Wednesday.
But Witten, the Cowboys and fantasy football owners received some great news when it was revealed that the injury would not require surgery, which could have jeopardized most, if not all, of his 2012 season.
Although Witten, 30, is the third-oldest player on this list behind Gonzalez and Gates, he's only missed one NFL game since his rookie year in 2003.
In 2011, he fell just short of 80 catches (79) and missed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the first time in three seasons. But he posted his fifth consecutive 900-yard season and remains the favorite target of quarterback Tony Romo.
If Dallas' electrifying wide receiver tandem of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant can stay healthy, Witten probably won't reach the 80-catch or 1,000-yard plateaus this season. But the Cowboys don't have a reliable running game with injury-prone tailbacks DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones, so Witten remains a prime scoring target in the red zone and the team's most reliable third-down option.
4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis hopes to lead the team back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, and return to his double-digit touchdown days of 2009.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis seemed poised to become the rightful heir to the king-of-the-fantasy-tight-ends throne when he broke out for 78 catches, 965 yards and 13 touchdowns during the 2009 season. He's still one of the top performers at his position, but it's taken him the last two years combined to match his 2009 touchdown total.
The 49ers added more weapons in the passing game this past offseason by bringing in future Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss and Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham. While those additions may limit Davis' overall production, they could also open up the middle of the field for him, much like Roddy White and Julio Jones should do for Tony Gonzalez in Atlanta.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh's run-first philosophy is one that is kind to tight ends when San Francisco does decide to throw. Quarterback Alex Smith's confidence is high after a year of NFL success, which should lead to more consistent production for Davis.
3. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers
San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is finally healthy after being limited by foot injuries the past two seasons.
Harry How/Getty Images
The San Diego Chargers are expecting big things from tight end Antonio Gates in 2012 after a chronic foot problem limited him to just 23 games over the past two seasons. Gates remained productive while on the field, however, scoring 17 total touchdowns in 2010 and 2011.
With former Chargers No. 1 wide receiver Vincent Jackson now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gates should return to being quarterback Philip Rivers' favorite, and most dependable, target, especially in the red-zone. That means that the days of 10-plus touchdowns could be back for the San Diego tight end.
2. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is out to prove that his surgically-repaired ankle is fully healed, and his 2011 breakout campaign was no fluke.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Rob Gronkowski rewarded the 2011 New England Patriots with the best season ever by an NFL tight end. In just his second year in the league, Gronkowski caught 90 passes on his way to setting NFL single-season records for receiving yards (1,327), receiving touchdowns (17) and total touchdowns (18) for a player at his position.
If that weren't enough, he also became the first tight end to lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns in a season.
Those numbers should make Gronkowski the consensus No. 1 pick among tight ends in fantasy football leagues. But there are reasons to believe that the 23-year-old wunderkind will see a dramatic dropoff in his performance.
First, there's the obvious fact that players who set multiple NFL records during one season almost never outperform any of those numbers the following year. Even a player with Gronkowski's physical gifts and relative youth is unlikely to defy history.
The touchdowns in particular are an area where a substantial regression should be expected. Jerry Rice is the only player in NFL history to score at least 15 receiving touchdowns in back-to-back seasons. Needless to say, it's a pretty difficult feat to achieve.
History aside, Gronkowski is also likely to become a victim of New England's offensive balance.
Tom Brady finished third in the NFL last year with 611 pass attempts. That number will remain high, but the offseason addition of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd adds one more weapon to an incredibly diverse passing attack that already included Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez.
Gronkowski could still realistically catch 85 passes, eclipse 1,200 receiving yards and score 10 to 12 touchdowns. But even 12 TDs would represent more than a 29 percent decline from his 2011 total.
And none of this accounts for Gronkowski's checkered injury history. As mentioned before, he's coming off offseason ankle surgery and has a history of serious injuries dating back to his college days.
You wouldn't necessarily be foolish to make Gronkowski the first tight end taken in your upcoming draft, but there's enough evidence to suggest that this guy might be the better pick...
1. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will ascend to the top of the fantasy football mountain in 2012.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Perhaps no player in the NFL made a greater leap from anonymity to stardom in 2012 than New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The former basketball player came almost out of nowhere to become the favorite target of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The evidence can be found in Graham's 99 catches, 1,310 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns.
So why is Graham, despite accounting for less yards, scoring fewer touchdowns and being more than two-and-a-half years older than Gronkowski my choice as the top tight end in fantasy football?
In a word, upside.
Graham, like Gronkowski, is entering his third season in the NFL. But unlike his counterpart in New England, Graham is still learning how to be a football player after spending most of his athletic career as a standout basketball player, even while at the University of Miami. There's every reason to believe that Graham can become a more polished receiver.
Fantasy football success is as deeply rooted in accurately predicting future performance as it is in carefully studying the recent past. Both Graham and Gronkowski had incredible 2011 seasons, but Graham's numbers look a lot more sustainable.
While his receptions, yardage and touchdown totals were all unexpected numbers for Graham, none of them stand out as being exceptionally notable when viewed in the historical context of other receivers.
Graham has also emerged as the No. 1 receiving option for the NFL's most prolific passing attack. Don't believe for one second that the absence of New Orleans head coach Sean Payton will change the Saints' offensive philosophy.
Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver Marques Colston, downfield threat Devery Henderson and the elusive Darren Sproles all provide enough protection that teams will find it hard to double-team Graham.
Factor in the loss of wide receiver Robert Meachem—who left the Saints to join the Chargers as a free agent this past offseason—and there will still be plenty of balls to go around in New Orleans.
Gronkowski had 17 more receiving yards and six more touchdowns than Graham in 2011, while Graham had nine more receptions-a marginally significant factor in PPR leagues.
But when you consider that New England added a big-time receiving threat in Brandon Lloyd, while the Saints lost Meachem, and then factor in the expected drop in touchdown receptions for Gronkowski, it's really a no-brainer to identify Graham as the better fantasy option for the 2012 season.