Is there a Gronk or Graham in AFC South?

Andrew Gabriel’s Insider pieceInsider on how tight ends are influencing the game is a great read and is a great starting point for a conversation about the position in the AFC South.

Writes Gabriel:

Tight end production has been rapidly increasing across the NFL over the past dozen years, and that ever-improving performance appears to be fueling a golden era for quarterbacks. That's right -- there is significant evidence that it's not merely quarterbacks making the tight ends, but tight ends partially fueling the passing explosion. The kind of tight end matters.

In this day and age, having a playmaking TE is a must in the league for QBs, as record point and yardage totals are being posted. Starting with the appearances of converted basketball players Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, continuing through Kellen Winslow and Vernon Davis and now culminating with the monster seasons from Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, the data is in and the conclusion for NFL GMs should be clear: Go get your QB a tight end who can run and catch or you will be left behind.

Measure the 2000-03 seasons versus the 2008-11 seasons, and tight end production was up 600 catches, 7,808 yards and 123 touchdowns.

That is monumental production.

Where does the AFC South fit into this?

Dallas Clark was a huge producer for Peyton Manning, but broke down over the past few years and is now in Tampa Bay. Owen Daniels is a key piece of Houston’s offense. Marcedes Lewis was a huge scorer two years ago, but disappeared last season. Jared Cook is still more about potential than production.

There is no Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham to be seen here.

What’s the potential for big production from the tight end in our four cities?

Let’s forecast. I think some of these guys are closely bunched, but this is in order of our expectations.

Indianapolis Colts

Coby Fleener was the team’s second-round pick, and has a great relationship with Andrew Luck already from their time as Stanford teammates.

Writes Gabriel: “Andrew Luck should be one of the happiest rookie quarterbacks to come into the league in many seasons. Having a target like Fleener to throw to should make his transition from college to the NFL substantially easier if the demonstrated "Trend to the Tight End" is any indication. And perhaps [cognizant] of the shift across the league, Indy didn't stop there. They took Clemson star Dwayne Allen, also a tight end, with their next pick.”

I won’t be surprised if Fleener is right there with Reggie Wayne as the leading receiver on the 2012 Colts. He’s more smooth than explosive, but look for consistent production and expect him to quickly rank as the best pass-catching tight end in the division.

Houston Texans

Daniels runs and runs routes like a receiver. He’s been hurt and dinged more than you’d like the past two seasons, so there is some fear about him potentially following a path like Clark did. But in the Texans offense, he’s a dangerous player who will get a lot of chances and should be among the top three pass catchers with receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Lewis was just about AWOL last season. He vowed that off-field issues that affected him would be resolved and a non-issue once camp starts. He should benefit from the Jaguars additions to the receiving corps. Covering Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon outside should create room for Lewis in the middle.

Tennessee Titans

Cook can be phenomenal. The Titans would love to give him a lot of chances to run with the ball in his hands. But his inconsistencies to this point are a cause for concern. In an offense expected to be loaded with weapons -- Kenny Britt, Chris Johnson, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington -- will there be enough passes for Cook if his play does not demand them?