The Tight End position has really taken off in recent years in terms of production. A decade ago, if you didn’t get Tony Gonzalez or Shannon Sharpe, you waited for one of several other options. Now, it seems like there are way more opportunities and the baseline has been raised. Well, in fact, from 1998-2002, there were 21 tight ends (4 per year) at 90 fantasy points or more in a non-PPR league (1 pt for 10 yards, 6 for TDs). Last year, there were 14, and a couple of other situations–Clark and Tamme in Indianapolis and Finley in Green Bay–where star tight ends would have easily hit those marks but for injuries.
In May, I started my preliminary rankings by looking at the running back position. Just like in that case, I developed these rankings without consulting any others yet, so I would not succumb to group think. Later, of course, I will look at others to see where I might be off (or stick to my guns as the case may be) as well as adjust based on roster moves, free agency, and how guys are coming back from injury. Just like with the running backs, I developed these by looking at things such as recent performance, team performance at the position, aging trends and the like.
- Jason Witten, Dallas, age 29. Given his age, recent injury history of other top tight ends, and how good he has been, he’s the easy safe choice at the top. Witten has had up and down touchdown years that dictate whether he usually finishes at the top or not, but he is consistent in yardage and Romo comes back.
- Vernon Davis, San Francisco, age 27. I think Davis is the second safest elite tight end, proving he can do it with questionable offense around him, and I think there is upside going from the mess of last season to Jim Harbaugh running the offense.
- Antonio Gates, San Diego, age 31. Gates has been plagued by injuries. He is 31, a time when many star tight ends not named Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe slow down. Still, he has been so productive when he has played I can’t put him any lower, and the Chargers offense should be just as explosive.
- Jimmy Graham, New Orleans, age 26. He wasn’t as young as I thought before checking this out, but he came on strong as a rookie last year. If you project his second half numbers, when he started playing regularly, for a full season, he’s top 5. If you combine Shockey’s first half with Graham’s second, he’s top 5. Basically, he’s in a great offense that will utilize the tight end, so don’t worry that he’s never finished top 5 before.
- Jermichael Finley, Green Bay, age 24. Last of my top tier, and down here only because I want to see how he is playing coming back from the knee injury that shortened his breakout year in 2010. A physical freak who has #1 overall upside when healthy.
- Kellen Winslow III, Tampa Bay, age 28. Excellent young quarterback, other targets like Mike Williams to draw attention, and I don’t see much reason to project Winslow to be all that different than what he has provided. Not top 5, but just outside.
- Rob Gronkowski, New England, age 22. I’ve got this a tier below. I know it’s tempting to just project young guys to do better, but his value was touchdown driven, and I’ll give you the under on 10 TD’s in 2011. Still a pretty safe pick for targets in an efficient New England offense.
- Dallas Clark, Indianapolis, age 32. I’ve got Clark down here because he’s 32, coming off injuries, and I’ve got concerns about how productive he will remain. For me, he’s not as elite as Gates or guys like Gonzalez. When I look at similar historical players, I get Todd Christensen, Doug Cosbie, Brent Jones and Mickey Shuler. Christensen and Cosbie declined at age 32 and retired, while Jones and Shuler had reasonably decent seasons. He’s still got Manning throwing to him though, so can’t drop him more.
- Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville, age 27. Another guy who I think you have to regress his touchdown totals when ranking. He was steadily improving in yards, but had 10 of his 17 career TD’s last year. Add in the uncertainty of whether Garrard will still be starting, and I think there is enough downside concern here.
- Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati, age 23. I’m guessing I will have Gresham higher than most. Highly drafted guys entering their 2nd year at age 23 or 24 are pretty good candidates for breakouts, and we know the situation is [minus TO and Ocho + rookie star receiver, and maybe minus Palmer]. Gresham will go from 4th or 5th option as a rookie (when he was reasonably productive for a rookie tight end) to 1st or 2nd option in his sophomore campaign. I’ll probably be targeting a Gresham + veteran safe play at tight end in 2011.
- Zach Miller, Oakland, age 26. Miller has been consistent, despite being plagued by inconsistent quarterback play and opportunities in the red zone because of lack of offense. His TD numbers rose a little in 2010, and I think he’s still got more upside than downside and would be comfortable in a TE platoon featuring Miller.
- Aaron Hernandez, New England, age 22. You can never go wrong with a receiver who qualifies as a tight end in a passing offense, though his TD numbers will be limited.
- Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit, age 26. Another guy who is older than I thought, Pettigrew has upside for more touchdowns if the Lions’ offense improves, though I would look for his receptions to drop slightly.
- Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta, age 35. Tony G keeps on plugging along, and there really is no one to compare him to. He did slow down and doesn’t have the separation, and I don’t think you can draft him as a TE1 anymore, but he can be part of a fantasy platoon.
- Dustin Keller, NY Jets, age 27. Keller’s ultimate rank will likely depend on what the Jets do at wide receiver once free agency begins. I could see him sliding up or down depending on who comes and goes.
- Tony Moeaki, Kansas City, age 24. Knock has always been staying healthy, and he is a skilled receiver. With a year under his belt, and a rookie receiver starting opposite Bowe, I expect his targets to take a slight uptick.
- Brent Celek, Philadelphia, age 26. His breakout year in 2009 was followed by a disappointing 2010 as Vick was quarterback and Maclin emerged. I think you have to shade him more toward 2010 and listen to reports on how he is being used once camp resumes.
- Chris Cooley, Washington, age 29. Cooley had a bounce back year last year to finish in the top 10, but the uncertain QB situation of a potential Grossman or Beck pairing has me knocking him down a few in 2011.
- Owen Daniels, Houston, age 29. He’ll be 2 years from the knee injury, but 29. The offense provides opportunities, but Daniels is never going to be a huge TD guy.
- Ben Watson, Cleveland, age 31. He had a bit of a breakout at age 30, but Cleveland had no weapons last year and he got looks by default. I expect the situation to improve in 2011 and for Watson’s numbers to decline toward his previous production.
[photo via Getty]