Heading into last season, the TE position was arguably as strong as it had ever been for fantasy football owners. Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski were coming off record-breaking years, and veterans Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis were still seen as stars. Young guns like Jermichael Finley, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Pettigrew and Jermaine Gresham seemed on the verge of breakout campaigns, and steady producers like Owen Daniels, Greg Olsen and Heath Miller were available late and more than capable of functioning as TE1s.
Heading into this year's draft, the TE landscape is completely different. The injury-prone Gronkowski might not be ready for the start of the season; Hernandez is behind bars; Gates and Finley both took steps back last season; Davis is a question mark because of his role in San Francisco's revamped offense; Dennis Pitta is out for the year because of a hip injury; and Miller will likely miss time after tearing his ACL last season.
Suddenly, TE is the thinnest position in fantasy, with virtually every player not named Jimmy Graham coming with some sort of risk. This makes navigating the draft difficult, but you can make it work if you assess the type of team you have and figure out what type of TE is best for you. Let's break it down.
The big debate last year was whether Graham and Gronkowski were worthy of first-round picks. Few are debating that this year after Graham saw his yards drop from 1,310 in '11 to 982 (with one fewer game) and Gronkowski underwent several offseason procedures on his forearm and back. Still, Graham and Gronk are clearly the class of this position.
Graham has distanced himself from Gronk because of the injury concerns. Even if the Patriots star is ready for Week 1, the likelihood of another injury is higher. But with 39 TDs the past three years (tied for second overall with Adrian Peterson), no one's better when they're on the field.
Draft tip: Assuming Gronk has a clean bill of health for Week 1, both him and Graham should be gone by the end of the second round. But fantasy owners seem a little skittish on both this year -- likely because neither lived up to the hype last season. Also, fantasy owners tend to get hung up on names, and when you draft a TE that early, your WR2 or WR3 might not look great on paper. But, production wise, you have to look at Graham or Gronk as your WR2, then look at your WR3 as your TE. If, say, Miles Austin was your “tight end,” you'd be fine with that, so don't worry about taking Graham or Gronkowski early.
THE ALMOST ELITE
Assuming Gronkowski is ready for Week 1 and goes in Round 2 or 3, it will be a 9while before the next TE is selected. Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis and Greg Olsen (my order) comprise the next tier, and all should provide pretty steady production, with the possible exception of Davis.
Gonzalez, who was the No. 1 TE most of last year before ultimately dropping to No. 3, is still going strong, posting 930 yards and seven TDs last season. Aside from steady production, Gonzalez's best attribute is his durability – he's only missed two games in his 16-year career. Witten can do him one better – he's missed just one game in his 10-year career. Witten's 149 targets last year were easily tops among all TEs (giving him more value in PPR leagues), and he produced his fourth 1,000-yard season in his past six campaigns. In that span, Witten has never had fewer than 942 receiving yards. However, he only managed three TDs, and in three of the past four seasons, he's had fewer than six scores. That's the only thing keeping Witten from being “Elite.”
Olsen (career-high 843 yards last year) is essentially the No. 2 receiver in Carolina's offense, and he thrived in the second half last season, averaging 8.6 fantasy points per game in a system that Carolina is expected to run more under new offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Davis did the opposite once Colin Kaepernick was under center for the 49ers, scoring just 6.1 total points in San Francisco's final six games. But Davis was a monster in three postseason contests, catching 12 passes for 254 yards and a score. With Michael Crabtree (Achilles') out, it seems likely that San Francisco will lean on Davis more than ever, but he might be the riskiest of this group.
Draft tip: These TEs will likely start going off the board at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the seventh round in standard, 12-team leagues. If you feel you have a roster full of “safe” players (read: not injury-prone, generally not boom-or-bust), then getting Davis isn't quite as risky. But if you took some gambles early, getting a steady producer like Witten, Gonzalez or even Olsen is a nice way to stabilize your roster.
THE COULD-BE ALMOST ELITES
There isn't a good way to characterize the next tier of TEs, other than to say there's a good chance at least one finishes as a top-six guy, at least one will be a total bust, and the rest will likely be serviceable starters. Jermaine Gresham, Owen Daniels, Kyle Rudolph, Antonio Gates, Dustin Keller, Jermichael Finley, Fred Davis, Brandon Myers,
Gresham and Daniels are the safest choices. Gresham has steadily improved each of his first three years, and Cincinnati lacks a true No. 2 receiver after A.J. Green. Some are worried about rookie Tyler Eifert stealing targets, but Gresham is clearly the lead man on the depth chart. Daniels is also the de facto No. 2 receiver on his team, but his upside is capped in Houston's run-heavy offense.
Rudolph was a total boom-or-bust guy last year, scoring nine TDs but also posting fewer than 2.3 fantasy points in seven contests. The Vikings love throwing to him in the red zone, which is a plus, but it's tough to count on him from week-to-week. The same is true for Finley, who's also had a problem with drops.
Gates, Keller, Myers, Cook and Bennett are all in new offenses. The chronically injured Gates has looked good in training camp, but his foot problems are always worrisome. Keller might not get as many targets as he did with the Jets, but the Dolphins threw to their TEs 101 times last year, and they especially liked to get them involved around the goal line. That's a good sign for Keller. Similarly, the Giants like to throw to their TEs in the red zone, so even though Myers won't put up as many garbage-time yards as he did with the Raiders last year, his TDs could easily increase.
Bennett is the biggest wild card since he's going to a Bears team that traditionally doesn't utilize a TE. But with offensive guru Marc Trestman calling the shots now, that may change. Likewise, the Rams haven't made great use of their TEs the past several seasons, but Cook is polished and clearly a favorite of coach Jeff Fisher, and he could essentially fill the “security blanket” role vacated by Danny Amendola.
Pettigrew only gets mentioned here because of his high volume of targets (third most of the past three seasons). However, his frequent drops hurt his cause, and he'll always be down on the Lions' food chain in the red zone with Calvin Johnson around. Davis, who's coming back from a torn ACL, might be the biggest sleeper. Two years ago, he was on pace for 1,061 yards before being suspended for the final four games. He never really got going with Robert Griffin III under center last year, but he might be the Redskins best receiver.
Draft tip: Once each owner gets their starting TE, there tends to be a long lull before backups start being selected. That means several of these players will be available late. It's not necessarily a good idea to wait until the 13th round to draft your starting TE, but if you do wait until, say, the 10th round, it's not a bad idea to grab another guy in this group in the 11th or 12th. That way, you get two starting-caliber TEs and give yourself matchup options once the season starts.
Cleveland's Jordan Cameron is a very popular sleeper this year, partially because he's an athletic, former basketball player operating in a Norv Turner offense. Sound familiar? Cameron won't have as good of a quarterback as Antonio Gates had in San Diego with Turner, but the potential is there for a breakout season. The same goes for Rob Housler in Arizona, who saw more targets toward the end of last season and will have a better QB trying to get him the ball this year.
One of the Colts' second-year TEs, be it Coby Fleener or Dwayne Allen, will likely take a step forward this year, but it's unclear who it will be. Last year, Allen had more fantasy points, but Fleener might get a bump because his former offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton, is now the Colts OC.
Ed Dickson should get his chance in Baltimore with Dennis Pitta (hip) expected to be out all year, but we've been down this road before with Dickson and he's yet to produce more than 528 yards and five scores in a season. James Casey is mildly interesting in Philadelphia since they're planning on making Brent Celek more of a blocking TE, but he could have a tough time getting targets. Guys like Zach Miller in Seattle, Delanie Walker in Tennessee, Marcedes Lewis in Jacksonville, Anthony Fasano in Kansas City and Jeff Cumberland with the Jets could be bye-week fill-ins, but they're not worth drafting. Ditto for the rookies -- Eifert, Philadelphia's Zach Ertz and Kansas City's Travis Kelce.
Draft Tip: If you're going to wait until this tier to draft your backup TE, you can grab one of the young lotto tickets listed above, or you can draft-and-stash Heath Miller, who might not be ready until Week 7 after tearing his ACL in Week 16 last year. Miller finished last season as the No. 4 fantasy TE, and Ben Roethlisberger clearly likes throwing to him around the goal line. It's unclear when Miller will be ready -- and how effective he'll be when he's on the field -- but he's a proven producer. Buffalo's Scott Chandler, another player coming back from a torn ACL, also falls into this category.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.