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Fantasy Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of the Top TEs

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJune 11, 2014

Fantasy Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of the Top TEs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    This is a golden age of the tight end, the freakish 6'6", 265-pounders who can run 4.5 40s and dunk the football through the goal posts. More and more teams are capitalizing on these basketball-skilled athletes in wide-open passing offenses, making the position more popular than ever in fantasy football.

    Jimmy Graham is even projected to be a top-eight pick by the Fantasypros.com analyst consensus rankings. Unless you are prepared to pull the earliest trigger on a tight end in fantasy history, you are going to miss out on Graham in a potential 27-year-old contract year.

    That makes this slideshow ranking the top 12 fantasy starters at the position a very, very important read. There other monsters to be had if you can assume the injury risk (Rob Gronkowski) or anticipate the breakthroughs (Jordan Reed and Coby Fleener). Those are just appetizers of our early breakdown of the tight end position for fantasy 2014. Enjoy.

12. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33 but turning 34 June 18

    Expert Consensus Rank: 16

    2014 Projections: 55 catches for 575 yard and six touchdowns

     

    You might fear a career collapse of future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates this season. That is fair, considering his years of health woes and advanced age. You shouldn't overlook the fact Gates has averaged around 70 catches for 880 yards and 8.5 touchdowns the past 10 seasons.

    Those are top-five fantasy numbers for the position.

    Sure, Gates' touchdown total slipped to just four last season, but 2013 was one of his best in terms of catches (77) and yards (872)—impressive for a 33-year-old.

    Because Gates is a consistent veteran and a huge red-zone threat, we would be more inclined to slot him as a late-round fantasy starter at tight end over the inconsistent or unproven likes of: Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings; Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles; Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins; Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers; and Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans.

    All of those ends have warts of some kind yet rank ahead of Gates among FantasyPros.com's analyst consensus.

    Trust us here, and trust Gates for one more season. He is still a fantasy starter, albeit the last one on our board.

11. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts

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    Age: 25

    Expert Consensus Rank: 20

    2014 Projections: 65 receptions, 725 yards and six touchdowns

     

    Coby Fleener hasn't quite lived up to the high expectations in his first two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, but it is too easy to forget the tight end position takes time. Also, the Colts had two different offensive coordinators in his two years.

    Continuity, experience and the expected explosion of the Colts offense with ready-to-pop quarterback Andrew Luck combine to make Fleener a starter among fantasy tight ends for us—even if we might be alone in that assessment.

    Sure, Hakeem Nicks, Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and probable in-line starting tight end Dwayne Allen are a lot to contend with for targets, but we see that slew of options as a way Fleener can sneak under the radar and into the end zone. Fleener is a big, athletic target with the potential to smash his career-best four touchdowns a year ago.

    You might be able to get Fleener much later than the No. 11 we rank him here, but here's a huge vote of confidence you won't regret making the third-year breakout candidate your starter at the position out of the latter rounds in drafts.

10. Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Age: 28 but turning 29 June 29

    Expert Consensus Rank: 8

    2014 Projections: 65 receptions, 700 yards and seven touchdowns

     

    Dennis Pitta is coming off an injury-plagued year, but just the fact he saw action in four games last year is remarkable. His training camp hip surgery would have sidelined most players for the entire season.

    Pitta told The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson this winter he is closer to 100 percent now. That should mean a career year in the Baltimore Ravens offense, assuming a full season of health.

    Pitta will have to contend with free-agent acquisition Owen Daniels, but the Ravens promise to be a team that utilizes both tight ends heavily in the passing game. Pitta figures to be No. 1 on the depth chart and a popular target of quarterback Joe Flacco, even if Torrey Smith, Steve Smith and Daniels all remain healthy and productive.

    Pitta is a starter if not a star this season for fantasy owners—a top-10 option for all leagues.

9. Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    Expert Consensus Rank: 11

    2014 Projections: 65 receptions, 800 yards and six touchdowns

     

    There is a lot to love about Martellus Bennett this season. Most important, he is at his physical prime at 27. Then, throw in the facts Marc Trestman runs a pass-friendly system, and Jay Cutler has a big arm and is unafraid to jam the ball through tight windows to Bennett in the end zone.

    Bennett is a dangerous threat in an even more dangerous offense. Brandon Marshall and burgeoning star Alshon Jeffery will get the bulk of the targets, but the overall production of the Chicago Bears offense keeps Bennett among the 10 most productive tight ends in fantasy.

    Bennett hasn't had a huge year yet despite playing a number of them. This one should be a career year. He is a legit weekly starter for all fantasy leagues.

8. Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 23 but turning 24 in July

    Expert Consensus Rank: 9

    2014 Projections: 65 receptions for 800 yards and six touchdowns

     

    If you are looking for the next big thing at tight end, look no further than the Washington Redskins' second-year man, Jordan Reed. He showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie, and Year 3 of Robert Griffin's maturation process should help make Reed one of the most potent threats at the position.

    If Reed wasn't limited to just nine games a year ago, we would have been inclined to rank him higher. There is a limitless ceiling for him, especially in that Redskins offense now being constructed by new head coach Jay Gruden.

    With DeSean Jackson challenging the defense vertically, Pierre Garcon punching it in the midsection and Alfred Morris keeping it honest in the running game, the pieces are in place to make Reed a true game-changer.

    Alas, Reed is one more concussion away from an extended absence...if not worse. That makes Reed merely a top-eight fantasy target in drafts. This is one of the potential stars of the position for the next decade, though.

7. Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers

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    Age: 29

    Expert Consensus Rank: 7

    2014 Projections: 70 receptions, 850 yards and six touchdowns

     

    Greg Olsen is one of the most well-positioned tight ends in football this season. First, he has a superstar quarterback, Cam Newton, flipping him passes. Second, said quarterback doesn't have any other proven targets on the roster. The Carolina Panthers had to overhaul their receiving corps over the winter.

    This makes 2014 a potential career year for Olsen.

    Breakthroughs just don't tend to happen at Olsen's advanced age, though, especially not at such a physically demanding position. We cautiously project Olsen for good but not great numbers that make him a surefire starter in fantasy leagues but more of a middle-round pick.

6. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32

    Expert Consensus Rank: 6

    2014 Projections: 75 receptions, 850 yards and six touchdowns

     

    What Jason Witten has working against him in age and the lack of primary-target status with the Dallas Cowboys, he makes up for with consistency. It is why we feel confident Witten is your first choice in fantasy if you miss out on the top five tight ends in drafts.

    No, Witten won't get the targets he used to get from Tony Romo—not with Dez Bryant becoming a statistical monster—but he will get enough of the important ones to be a weekly starter in all fantasy leagues, even if he is at the age of breakdown at 32. Remarkably, Witten has played every game for the past decade.

    Witten's ceiling might not be as high as some younger tight ends, but his basement is arguably higher than all but a couple. This is still a steady fantasy option at a position that just doesn't have too many of those.

5. Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 25

    Expert Consensus Rank: 5

    2014 Projections: 70 receptions, 800 yards and eight touchdowns

     

    Jordan Cameron looked like arguably the best tight end in football at times during his breakthrough year. If not for some uncertainty at quarterback and having to work with a different offensive system, we might have been inclined to rank him higher and give him projection numbers greater than his 2013: 80-917-7.

    Cameron is so physically gifted, even if Johnny Manziel starts for the Browns and struggles mightily as a rookie, the Browns have a top-five fantasy tight end as their primary target, especially in the red zone and particularly if the appealing Josh Gordon winds up suspended for the entire season.

    Watch incumbent Brian Hoyer (coming off ACL surgery) and Manziel closely in training camp. If either quarterback takes to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense, you can make a case for Cameron to be picked within the first five rounds of fantasy drafts and go 80-1,000-10—the Holy Grail of the position.

4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers

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    Age: 30

    Expert Consensus Rank: 4

    2014 Projections: 65 receptions, 900 yards and 10 touchdowns

     

    Vernon Davis' spot in the tight end rankings is rather tenuous right now, not because of his talent, his advanced age of 30 or even the fact the San Francisco 49ers had the 30th-ranked passing offense last year. He is unhappy with his contract situation, as Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News chronicles.

    It no longer appears as if Davis will hold out, but there are no guarantees. Davis hasn't quite been a model of mental and emotional stability in his 49ers career.

    When healthy and in the right mindset Davis is a beast, though. The 49ers added Stevie Johnson to Colin Kaepernick's arsenal that also includes a healthier Michael Crabtree and the venerable Anquan Boldin.

    The passing game should benefit from one more year of experience from Kaep, not to mention a full offseason and preseason of health from Crabtree, who just isn't the "sorry receiver" Richard Sherman claimed he was after the NFC Championship.

    Davis belongs in the top five among fantasy tight ends, so you will have to queue his name to call in fantasy drafts when the round turns to five.

3. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots

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    Age: 25

    Expert Consensus Rank: 3

    2014 Projections: 60 receptions, 825 yards and 11 touchdowns

     

    If Rob Gronkowski could ever be ruled 100 percent and guaranteed to stay that way, you would have yourself the No. 1 tight end in football and fantasy. The only guarantee with Gronk, though, is he won't be able to play a healthy 16-game season. He has dealt with injury issues for years, dating back to his college days.

    Playing with a reckless abandon and a disregard for his own safety just catches up to Gronk, who holds the single-season record for receiving yards and touchdowns for a tight end in the lone season he played 16 games. You will recall, he didn't finish that season healthy either, dealing with an ankle issue that impacted his play in the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

    The New England Patriots will take their time to make sure Gronk heals from his knee reconstruction, but the huge goofball is looking like he will be able to make his Week 1 target date to get back on the field. I saw and spoke with Gronk at his youth football camp in Boston on June 1. He was moving around the field with the kids very well, even jumping and landing on his surgically repaired knee.

    Don't worry about his current injury when you consider picking him in Round 3. It is the likelihood another injury impacts his 2014 season that should keep you from making him your top target at tight end in drafts.

2. Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos

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    Age: 25 but turning 26 June 27

    Expert Consensus Rank: 2

    2014 Projections: 70 receptions, 900 yards and 12 touchdowns

     

    The Denver Broncos have an embarrassment of riches even with the loss of Eric Decker and 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown back Knowshon Moreno in free agency. With the addition of Emmanuel Sanders and second-round pick Cody Latimer, you can make the case Peyton Manning has an even more dangerous set of targets coming off a record-setting 2013.

    That is scary news for Julius Thomas owners. Orange Julius was only scratching the surface in his breakthrough campaign.

    The former Portland State basketball player has freakish skills, size and speed and is a nightmare to try to defend with a linebacker or safety, particularly in the red zone. If not for the head honcho at the position being just too consistent year to year—not to mention in his prime and a contract year—you could make a case for Thomas to be the No. 1 tight end in fantasy already.

    As it is, once Jimmy Graham flies off the board in drafts, expect Thomas' name soon to follow, perhaps as early as the late second round.

1. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    Expert Consensus Rank: 1

    2014 Projections: 100 receptions, 1,250 yards and 12 touchdowns

     

    Those critics...err loyal readers...who read Bleacher Report's prediction of records that will fall in 2014 will wonder why we said Jimmy Graham will set the single-season marks for receptions, yards and touchdowns for a tight end; yet, we gave him those above projections that merely roughly represent his three-year averages.

    Bold predictions are not how we project. Graham is capable of a monster season at age 27, especially if he is stuck with a franchise-tag tender and playing for a huge, long-term contract next season.

    The New Orleans Saints have one of the most accurate passers in NFL history in Drew Brees, an explosive, pass-friendly offense and Graham is the linchpin. The addition of Brandin Cooks and emergence of Kenny Stills should only stretch the field vertically and horizontally and make Graham more dangerous down the seam.

    Throw in the potential contract year and the fact Graham is in his prime at age 27, and there is no one else you should rather have at the tight end position in any fantasy league.

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.

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