Ranking the tight ends

This is the fourth in our series of position-by-position rankings. It is a little different this season because we’re ranking the players before free agency starts and before rosters are set. We will adjust accordingly as we go along. Onto to a mostly strong group of tight ends:

1. Antonio Gates, San Diego: Gates, in my mind, is the premier tight end in the NFL. He was having a stunning season in 2010, before injuries derailed it. He is still in his prime and he is a major weapon.

2. Zach Miller, Oakland: Miller made his first Pro Bowl in 2010. I don’t expect it to be his last. Miller is among a strong group of young tight ends in the NFL. He is a quarterback’s dream, who is always open. He is the complete package. He has great hands. He can stretch the field and he’s an underrated blocker.

3. Tony Moeaki, Kansas City: Watch out for this kid. He looks like he can be special. Moeaki had 47 catches and was a force as a rookie. The 2010 third-round pick is big, fast and very agile. There are going to be many pretty catches in his future. He can really block, too. I think he’s a future Pro Bowler.

4. Richard Quinn, Denver: After three gems, there is a major drop-off here. Quinn is simply a blocking tight end. But Denver doesn’t have any other tight ends with real NFL experience now that they cut Daniel Graham. Denver could get a tight end in free agency and it drafted tight ends Julius Thomas (fourth round) and Virgil Green (seventh round). I could see both of those players getting playing time as rookies.