There are two schools of thought about how tight ends performed in 2009.
One school contends that while there were many fine tight end performers, no single player really distinguished himself from the pack. The four top scorers made one cluster. The next six scorers made another. While it certainly benefited fantasy owners to select one member of the top quartet, it wasn't mandatory for victory. Those fantasy owners who waited to take their starter at this position were able to fatten up on scarcer positions and still have a very valuable tight end. (And that's to say nothing of the fact that two of those top four tight ends were players nobody earmarked as "elite" before the season.)
The other school contends that some of those "pretty good" players in the bottom half of the top 10 were a train wreck to actually own from week to week. Greg Olsen had a 25-point game, but he also posted five games with two fantasy points or fewer. John Carlson and Heath Miller offered much the same story. So it was actually quite valuable to reach for one of the top guys, if you could ascertain who they'd be. (If you had Vernon Davis as the No. 1 tight end in fantasy last summer, jump to the front of the line.)
I prefer to wait on tight ends. Yes, for the most part the elites at this position tend to be safer than their counterparts at running back or wide receiver. But I think they don't tend to set themselves apart enough from their position-mates, on the whole, to justify being taken at the expense of higher-upside rushers and receivers.
Yet if the "pretty good" performers are going to invoke acid reflux every week, would I reconsider my stance against taking elite tight ends? I might, rabbit. I might.
Let's look at the top tight end stories for 2010, and then talk some more strategy.
Last year, Dallas Clark became the first tight end since 2004 to catch 100 passes and jumped back into double-digit touchdowns, where the Indianapolis Colts think he belongs. He may not have the immense size some of the other elites at this position have, but Clark is the best route-running tight end in the game, and he has first-step quickness to die for. You can make an argument he might not be the most prolific TD-scoring tight end available, but week-to-week there's nobody more reliable. The best end-zone tight end in the NFL is still probably Antonio Gates. He has six straight seasons with at least eight scores, and things could actually get better for him in 2010. With LaDainian Tomlinson -- that red-zone hog -- gone from San Diego, Gates figures to get more than the 12 red-zone targets he enjoyed in '09 (which was just 14th in the NFL at his position). The San Diego Chargers figure to be more pass-oriented than they've been in recent seasons, and Gates will be a big part of that in a contract year. Where in the world did Vernon Davis come from, anyway? A complete knucklehead his first three seasons in the league, the light went on in a huge way for the former No. 6 overall draft pick, as he scored a whopping 13 touchdowns to tie Gates' single-season NFL record. There's legitimate worry that Davis could sink back into his morass in '10, because the underwhelming Alex Smith is still his quarterback and because defenses will no doubt pay a lot of attention to him. But this kid is as dominating an athlete as there is among tight ends right now. As long as the 49ers continue to look his way downfield, he should produce.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
I've picked up Tony Gonzalez on the cheap in a number of mock drafts this summer, as the "experts" seem to believe Gonzo is coming off a bad season. He's not. In his first year with the Atlanta Falcons, Gonzalez led the NFL in tight end targets despite injuries to Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, plus tied for the lead in red-zone targets. That he converted "only" five of his close-in looks for scores is what makes Gonzo's season look less than excellent, but that could easily turn around this year. He's my No. 4 overall tight end, but I'm betting you won't have to draft him that high. All Jason Witten does every year is grab between 80 and 100 balls for between 950 and 1,150 yards. His problem the past two seasons, though, is a lack of touchdowns: six in '08 and '09 combined. That can be traced to the fact that the Dallas Cowboys don't throw it to him in the red zone; he has just 13 red-zone targets the past two seasons combined. Wade Phillips has made noise this offseason about looking Witten's way more in the end zone, but I'll believe it when I see it. Witten is a terrific blocker, and it's hard to imagine the Cowboys getting away from him as a leader in their diverse ground game. Still, drafting him means you get tons of yardage production, with the upside of more touchdown potential if the Dallas scheme shifts some. Kellen Winslow has a well-earned reputation for being injured all the time, and he underwent yet another knee surgery this winter (his fifth in six years). But for all his physical dust-ups, Winslow has played 16 games in three of the past four seasons, and was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most consistent receiver by far in '09. He has good chemistry with Josh Freeman, and should continue to be a week-to-week fantasy contributor in '10. Visanthe Shiancoe will get dissed in fantasy circles this summer for being a "TD-only" kind of player. But I actually have him rated 10th on my list, and would feel pretty good about waiting on him for a long while in my draft, and then using him as a fantasy starter. It's true Shank finished "only" 14th in the NFL in tight end targets and 17th in tight end yardage last year. But he scored 11 times, something that could continue if and when Brett Favre returns.
I already mentioned that Greg Olsen was a stomach-churner to own in '09 because of his week-to-week inconsistency. Wait until you see him in Mike Martz's offense. Martz has never utilized the tight end as a pass catcher, so while Olsen is probably the most accomplished tight end Martz has had at his disposal, it seems likely that things get ugly for Olsen in '10. Heck, the Bears signed Brandon Manumaleuna to a relatively big contract this winter. You shouldn't be relying on Olsen to be a fantasy starter this year. Even before he suffered "seizure-like symptoms" while working out this spring, Jeremy Shockey was on my do-not-draft list. He's just too injury-prone, and the New Orleans Saints spread the ball around too much, including to a guy like David Thomas, who took a significant chunk out of Shockey's work in '09. Medically, Shockey is expected to be fine to begin training camp, but remember: the Saints took Jimmy Graham in the draft this April, and while Graham probably won't inject himself into the starting conversation right away, he looks like the tight end of the future. Speaking of tight ends who can sense their football mortality, how about Todd Heap, who watched the Ravens draft not one but two tight ends this spring, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Heap is a shadow of his former athletic self, and don't be fooled by those six touchdowns in '09: there's a chance Heap actually gets cut during camp. It's likelier that he sticks around as the starter, but the kids will probably see time, too. Anthony Fasano's first season for the Miami Dolphins produced seven scores, and put him on the fantasy radar screen. Unfortunately, his second season in Miami was a disaster. Fasano wasn't a high-volume pass catcher in '08 -- he grabbed just 34 balls -- so that high touchdown total had the whiff of a fluke about it. In '09, he caught 31 passes, and found the end zone just twice, plus he lost two fumbles. The Dolphins just don't look Fasano's way enough for him to be anything close to a fantasy starter. The Tennessee Titans hope that Jared Cook is ready for prime time, and that Bo Scaife fades into the background a bit. Cook hasn't proven he's got an NFL level of maturity yet, so it's possible Scaife is once again a true starter, but even in that sort of role in '09, he was bad, ranking just 26th among fantasy tight ends.
Things have lined up wondrously for Brent Celek: Just as he emerges as one of the NFL's most dynamic pass-catching tight ends, his roommate on the road, Kevin Kolb, ascends to the starting quarterback job. Certainly Celek had a breakout season with Donovan McNabb last year: 971 yards, plus he was No. 2 among tight ends in targets inside the 10 and inside the 5, which helped lead to eight scores. With the Philadelphia Eagles will likely exploit Kolb's accuracy to become a truer West Coast offense, Celek owners can make a legit claim that their guy could wind up fantasy's No. 1 tight end this year. However, with Cornelius Ingram healthy, there's also a chance Celek has to split targets. Jermichael Finley didn't start for the Green Bay Packers to open the 2009 season and missed three November games with a knee injury, yet still finished as fantasy's No. 13 tight end. He's a freakish specimen: a 6-foot-5, 250-pound man who runs like a deer and whose routes improved quite a bit in '09. He still drops some passes he should catch, but in the high-octane Green Bay offense, it's hard not to view him as a potential superstar. The Oakland Raiders' Zach Miller has been toiling in relative obscurity during his three NFL seasons, limited by bad quarterback play and a lack of other receiving targets in the offense. In '10, however, the Raiders have an improving Jason Campbell under center and a bevy of big-and-fast wideouts who could come into their own. That means Miller, one of the better downfield route-runners at his position, should get singled-up more frequently on safeties, and actually may get passes delivered to him on target.
The Cincinnati Bengals took Jermaine Gresham in the first round of April's draft, which opens up the possibility that they could re-think the way they utilize the position. But don't hold your breath. Gresham is coming off a severe knee injury, and the next time the Bengals throw it regularly to their tight end will be the first in about two decades. That said, he does have the clearest path to the starting lineup of any first-year tight end, and he's got great hands. No rookie figures to be a fantasy starter in '10, but Gresham may come closest. The New England Patriots took Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, of April's draft, meaning those who were expecting Alge Crumpler to reemerge as a fantasy threat now that he's in New England probably need to think again. In minicamp, the Pats reportedly used Gronkowski mostly as an "in-line" player, while Hernandez lined up all over the place, so perhaps Hernandez is the one who'll lead the way as a pass catcher in New England. But we all know the Patriots don't consistently throw to tight ends anyway, and there figures to be cannibalism among the three candidates from week to week. The Ravens followed the Patriots' lead, and took tight ends with their third- and fourth-round picks: Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. As I mentioned, Todd Heap is still in Baltimore, and Ravens beat reporters contended in early June that he still had a line on the starting gig, while the two kids learn how to block. Still, I expect this situation to be no less messy than New England's.
All reports indicate that Chris Cooley's broken ankle has healed, but in his absence, Fred Davis became a viable fantasy option. That leaves the Washington Redskins with a nice problem: two accomplished pass catchers at one position. Reportedly during minicamp, Cooley ran with the first team, and also ran deeper routes more like a wide receiver, which would be good news for his value. But I can't shake the suspicion that we haven't heard the last of Davis. This could wind up an annoying platoon of sorts. Heath Miller is a solid contributor who usually resides on the fringes of "starter-worthy" tight ends. But he's also sometimes a victim of his own blocking excellence; he might be the best blocking tight end in football, and so doesn't run routes as much as many of his counterparts. Yet the main reason his situation qualifies as "unsettled" for 2010 is that his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, will miss at least a month because of his churlish off-field behavior. The Jacksonville Jaguars have been waiting for Marcedes Lewis to put it all together and become a top-level tight end, but we're four seasons into his NFL career, and he's still yet to catch more than 41 passes or two touchdowns in a single year. In '09, a rookie converted quarterback named Zach Miller took training camp by storm, and by the season's second half Miller was vulturing targets from Lewis. Expect that trend to continue in '10.
Owen Daniels was on track to be the No. 1 tight end in fantasy last year, until a torn ACL derailed his season in Week 8. Unfortunately, it was his third ACL injury, and there's never a guarantee that players will be able to return to full strength, especially in the season following such an injury. Add to the mix the fact that Daniels continues to be displeased with his contract, and there are some frightening variables here. But a return to health would almost certainly make Daniels a start-worthy fantasy player. Unfortunately for Brandon Pettigrew and the Detroit Lions, Pettigrew's ACL tear took place a couple months after Daniels', which means Pettigrew is in real danger of missing the beginning parts of the '10 season. Tony Scheffler came over from the Denver Broncos and is a good downfield pass catcher; reading the tea leaves, you'd have to believe the Lions are preparing for life without Pettigrew for at least a while.
Indeed, Tony Scheffler makes for an intriguing fantasy sleeper at this position, especially if Pettigrew can't get back on the field for training camp and/or the beginning of the regular season. A perennial tease in Denver, Scheffler was lost last year in Josh McDaniels' non-tight-end-intensive offense, but if minicamp is any indication, the Lions plan on using him out of the slot on a regular basis in '10. Shawn Nelson runs 4.56 at 240 pounds and has a massive wingspan, physical tools that remind viewers of Vernon Davis. And like Davis, Nelson's rookie year was marred by inconsistency and bad route running. Plus, the Buffalo Bills have a ton of question marks all over their offense. But eventually the light bulb will go on for Nelson much as it did last year for Davis. If and when that happens, the sky's the limit. I mentioned Zach Miller of the Jaguars earlier, but his name bears repeating. The Jags don't like him much as a blocker, but Miller is fast at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, and could be part of the slot rotation in Jacksonville provided a late-season foot injury doesn't limit him. Jared Cook of the Titans falls into a similar category to Nelson of the Bills: he's an amazing physical specimen with unlimited potential who doesn't always know where to be. But like Nelson, Cook has now had a full offseason to start figuring things out, and the Titans will give him a chance to shine in training camp. His hands are the worst thing about him, but if he clears up the drops, he could challenge Bo Scaife.
So the question is: Do the elites at the tight end position provide enough stability and upside to make them worth grabbing in, for example, the fourth or fifth rounds of your draft? As always, there's no absolute answer here: it depends on what else is available, i.e., what other players have been passed on in previous rounds. Personally, I still have a hard time reaching for a Dallas Clark or Antonio Gates while there are super-high-upside wideouts and/or running backs on the board, and usually someone in your draft is going to grab one of those elite tight ends in the middle of the fourth round at the latest. But I can't promise that waiting on the elites and focusing on value tight ends is the soundest strategy. Because the simple fact is: Gates, Clark and Vernon Davis all delivered fourth-round-level fantasy value last year, while any number of heralded guys at other positions crashed and burned. For instance, Jason Witten, a candidate for the No. 1 tight end entering the '09 season, was really nothing more than average, fantasy-wise, in a 10-team league. So if you drafted him in the fourth round, you felt snake bitten.
Listen, I admit there's good value in grabbing one of those guys like Clark or Gates on whom you can count for consistent week-to-week production almost no matter what. I don't think you have to have one of those guys to be a fantasy title-winner, but it doesn't hurt. But I also think there are a lot of really talented tight ends in the NFL right now, and you won't be overly punished for waiting on the position in a 10-team league. Heck, Vernon Davis was the No. 17 tight end in terms of average draft position last year, and look what happened to him. And the good news in shallower leagues is that even if you do wind up picking a tight end who frustrates you with his inconsistency, there are almost always viable fantasy starters to choose from on your waiver wire. (By the way: In 10-team leagues, there's really very little reason to take a backup at tight end; you'll be able to find a bye-week replacement on the fly.)
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you're probably going to pay between $15 and $20 for the tippety-top tight ends. Is it worth it? I wish I could answer absolutely. The tradeoff is obvious: If you're spending that much for your tight end (as opposed to spending a buck or two on a tight end who's lower on our list), you're not spending that money on another potential star at running back or wide receiver. Myself, I tend to believe I can make do with a $2 tight end better than I can with a $2 receiver. But if I swing and miss on the $17 wideout I take instead of the $17 tight end? Well, then I'm right back where I started.
So again, it probably comes down to philosophy, and your faith in your ability to patch at another position as you lock down a Dallas Clark or Antonio Gates at tight end. Maybe I just don't trust myself very much. All things being equal, I tend to think that, say, the No. 9 tight end (Kellen Winslow) will do me just fine, and I'd rather spend more dough on a wideout with breakout potential. Either way, remember: don't bother buying a backup tight end in your 10-team auction.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.