We still might not have proper perspective on how amazing Rob Gronkowski's 2011 season was. Yes, he set a record for receiving yards and TDs by a tight end and finished tied for second among players at all positions in red zone targets. Yes, his ankle injury -- which required surgery this winter -- was one of the main storylines that altered the Super Bowl. Yes, he had some highlight-reel runs that I still can't believe, including this one, which gives you a sense of how ox-strong this guy is.
But the extent to which he outdistanced the other men who play his position is what's most amazing. While the best TEs usually outdo their more pedestrian counterparts by nice margins, they simply don't produce enough raw points to rank highly in Value-Based Drafting. In '04, when Antonio Gates set the TD record that Gronk busted wide open, Gates was the top TE in fantasy but finished 19th in the VBD rolls. In '09, when Vernon Davis tied Gates for single-season TDs, Davis finished 32nd in VBD. Yet Gronkowski finished 11th last season, which is unprecedented in the past decade. That's what scoring 18 total TDs and racking up 1,327 receiving yards will do.
To be fair, Jimmy Graham and his 1,310 yards and 11 scores weren't far behind: Graham finished second in fantasy points among TEs in '11 and 22nd in VBD. But honestly, 22nd isn't that unheard of for fantasy's annual top man at this position:
Highest-Scoring Fantasy TE, Past 8 Seasons
Did Gronk's season completely change the game? Is he an acceptable first-round draft pick? Will Graham or any of the half-dozen other elite-seeming options join Gronkowski in the fantasy stratosphere and change the way we think about TEs? After all, we seem to be entering a golden age of talent at the position, and in a copycat NFL there's a chance more teams could adopt the two-TE-heavy attack that makes the New England Patriots so tough. Let's look at the important fantasy TEs for '12, then talk some strategy.
There are only two truly elite TEs in fantasy drafts this year, and I've already mentioned them: Gronkowski and Graham. They were basically used as giant WRs in '11 and there's every reason to expect that'll continue this season. The only real difference between them last year was Gronk finding the end zone seven more times, which doesn't seem reasonable to expect again. That's more than a TD per game, which history teaches us is basically unrepeatable; there never has been a pass-catcher (WR or TE) who scored 17-plus TDs in a season score more than 13 the following year. (And no pass-catcher who's scored 18 has eclipsed 11 the following season.) The likeliest outcome here is that Gronk's TDs regress but that he and Graham still score double-digit TDs and rack up insane yardage. Gates has been a fantasy factor for eight consecutive seasons, but he has missed nine games the past two years and has lost more than a step. His running ability after the catch is now below average, and he had one play that went for more than 27 yards in '11. That said, Gates has scored seven-plus TDs in those eight straight years and is a savvy route-runner and a dangerous red zone threat. Davis practically won the San Francisco 49ers' playoff game over the New Orleans Saints by himself last year, with 180 yards and two scores, then turned right around and nearly beat the New York Giants with another 112 yards and two more TDs. But where was that during the regular season? Davis was a fantasy disappointment in '11, finishing with six TDs and 105 fantasy points, tied for eighth among TEs. His 6.7 yards at the catch (Y@C) mark was 21st, and there's the rub: Alex Smith is such a constraining factor. Still, Davis has been a top-10 fantasy TE for three years running, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine he won't make it four. Jason Witten trailed off in a major way in last season's final six games, failing to score a TD or eclipse 50 yards receiving in any single contest. He has been a top-eight TE for five straight seasons, so he's about as safe as they come for fantasy, but I'm not sure he's ready to join this new generation of catch-only TEs, if only because he's such a good blocker. He belongs to the quasi-elite class of guys you can feel good, if not great, about starting every week. In a season in which everything else Aaron Rodgers did was golden, Jermichael Finley was a big disappointment. He had 11 drops and, outside of a three-TD game in Week 3, was merely pedestrian. But this is a big man who can fly, and this winter the Green Bay Packers inked him to a two-year deal, signaling their commitment to him. He has some flakiness, but I think Finley easily stays a fantasy starter in '12. Finally, there's Gronkowski's teammate Aaron Hernandez. It defies logic that the Patriots boasted two of fantasy's top three TEs last season, and perhaps that was a function of a lack of WR talent after Wes Welker. Hernandez might be likelier to lose fantasy value to someone like Brandon Lloyd, since Gronk is basically unguardable in the end zone. Nevertheless, opponents knew the TE-heavy attack was coming in '11 and couldn't stop it, so until I see Hernandez stymied, I guess I have to remain a believer.
Not Sexy But Get The Job Done
I put Tony Gonzalez in the "falling down" category last year, and all he did was finish fourth in fantasy points among TEs. Whoops. Listen, the Hall of Famer we all remember from his days with the Kansas City Chiefs hasn't suddenly returned; Gonzo has the worst yards-after-catch average of any starting tight end over the past two seasons. But even if his speed is almost entirely gone, he's still an amazing specimen running patterns, and his hands are stellar. If you wait on your TE, Gonzalez is an acceptable low-level starter, though personally I prefer the guy that follows Gonzo on this list. Brandon Pettigrew embodies the "unsexy" ethos. He finished last season second in targets among TEs and third in catches, but 11th in receiving yards and fantasy points. Why? Because the Detroit Lions rarely throw it to him beyond 10 yards down the field. Tosses to Pettigrew were glorified handoffs, and that limited his upside. He's one of the best blocking TEs in the business, so if and when the Lions can keep a running back healthy long enough to produce a good ground game, Pettigrew's numbers might suffer, but I believe he's capable of stretching the field at least a little more this season than he did last. Brent Celek was a fantasy playoff superstar in '11: In his final three contests, he racked up 294 receiving yards and a TD catch every week, and he did this needing surgery on his hip and a hernia. But don't confuse him for elite. Those big late-season games came on short passes and long runs, something that's tough to repeat. More than most fantasy starters, Celek is a blocker first in the Philadelphia Eagles' offense. In standard-sized leagues, I think he's draftable as your backup, if you decide you need one. But don't imagine he's destined for the top five at his position. Dustin Keller finished 10th in fantasy points among TEs last season, and I put him 12th in my ranks, but my ESPN brethren are lower on him, putting him 15th in our group ranks. Listen, I know the New York Jets have a mess looming at quarterback, and I know that as a result there will be weeks in which Keller's stats look emaciated. But if I'm a prospective Keller owner in a deeper league, I'm heartened by the Jets' lack of WR depth. Keller has led all his teammates, regardless of position, in receiving targets in back-to-back seasons, and I can see that happening again in '12.
After back-to-back injury-ruined seasons, at least Owen Daniels stayed mostly healthy in '11 (he did break his right hand in the playoffs). Unfortunately, his production didn't recover. He finished 16th among fantasy TEs, averaging 3.6 catches and 45.1 receiving yards per game. Even in his prime, when the Houston Texans were a pass-oriented team, Daniels never scored more than five TDs in a season, and now this is Arian Foster's squad. Don't be fooled by name recognition. Greg Olsen should've been a bigger part of the Cam Newton breakout last season, but he was one spot worse than Daniels among fantasy TEs. True, all Carolina Panthers pass-catchers are somewhat hindered by Newton's accuracy issues (Olsen caught only 45 of his 90 targets), but whereas Steve Smith was able to overcome and become fantasy-relevant again, the Panthers gave 63 targets to a cooked Jeremy Shockey. It's possible Gary Barnidge eats into Olsen's looks this year. The Indianapolis Colts had little interest in bringing back Dallas Clark, who has played in only 17 of a possible 32 games over the past two seasons, so the Tampa Bay Buccaneers swooped in and threw $1 million guaranteed to see if Clark has anything left. I'm guessing he doesn't. Even before his injury last season, Clark looked disinterested as a blocker and plagued by drops. Even if he recaptures his faded glory catching passes from Josh Freeman, you'll likely be able to pick him up off the waiver wire early in the season in shallow leagues. Marcedes Lewis was a massive disappointment in '11. It wasn't so much that he didn't repeat his 10 TDs on just 58 receptions from '10; it was that he regressed to only 39 total grabs. What the heck? A guy many folks were calling the best all-around TE in the NFL was reduced to a fantasy punching bag in a season in which the new QB (Blaine Gabbert) could've used all the short-passing help he could get. Instead, the Jacksonville Jaguars kept Lewis' target total consistent (88 in '10, 85 in '11), and given Gabbert's struggles that wasn't enough. Nothing to see here. The Bucs decided to make an example out of Kellen Winslow by shipping him off to the Seattle Seahawks rather than listen to him complain about new coach Greg Schiano's disciplinarian approach. Now K2 is on the same depth chart as Zach Miller, on a team that threw just 81 passes at their tight ends last season. (Winslow had 121 by himself in 2011.) Considering he's eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a game once in his past 39 starts and has never scored more than five TDs in a season, even when he was the main TE on his squad, Winslow looks like a terrible fantasy bet this year.
Fred Davis was on his way to a 1,000-yard season with the likes of Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing it to him, when he was suspended for the final four games of '11 for violating the NFL's drug policy. Chris Cooley is also still around (for now) with the Washington Redskins, but Davis is the clear starter and Robert Griffin III brings new hope to everyone on the Skins' offense. There's every reason to expect the passing game to become more dynamic (if perhaps also more inconsistent) under Griffin's leadership, and if Davis builds on his '11 work, he could become a key weapon. Jared Cook made the "opportunity knocks" portion of this column last year, but the knocking was ultra-quiet for most of the season. However, Cook had 21 catches for 335 yards in the final three games of '11 and may finally have earned the Tennessee Titans' trust. Entering his fourth season, the massive, gifted Cook looks like a great bet to easily eclipse the 82 targets he saw last season. The last time Jacob Tamme had Peyton Manning throwing it to him things went well. When the duo played for the Indianapolis Colts back in '10, Tamme produced fantasy starter-worthy numbers as Clark's understudy. Now they toil for the Denver Broncos, and Tamme looks like the unquestioned starter, with only Joel Dreessen and possibly second-year pro Julius Thomas standing in his way. That could work out great for Tamme, though his fortunes will certainly rise and fall with Peyton's health. The New York Giants signed Martellus Bennett this winter, and he figures to get a shot at being the team's No. 1 TE with Travis Beckum rehabbing from a torn ACL. Still only 25, Bennett teased the Cowboys for four seasons, but despite his size and speed his pro career has mostly been a series of mental mistakes and ill-timed drops. But if he puts things together in Gotham, he could easily be a fantasy starter catching passes from Eli Manning, who likes to hit his TEs down the field.
Looking ahead to the '12 season, there appears to be one rookie TE worth mentioning for redraft leagues: Coby Fleener of the Colts. Fleener is 6-foot-6, 247 pounds and had 17 TD grabs in his final two years at Stanford, while averaging 17.9 yards per reception. Plus, he'll be catching passes from his collegiate teammate, Andrew Luck. The question for this year is how quickly the Luck/Fleener combo can get comfortable playing for what looks like a pretty bad team. Dwayne Allen was most analysts' No. 2 TE in this April's draft, but his fantasy value was crushed when the Colts drafted him after they took Fleener. Down the road, Indy may envision a Gronkowski/Hernandez style TE duo, but this year Allen doesn't figure to make much of a splash. Michael Egnew went to the Miami Dolphins in the third round of April's draft, and the incumbent in South Beach, Anthony Fasano, isn't exactly a fearsome impediment. But Egnew comes from Missouri's spread offense, which has failed to produce successful NFL tight ends for several seasons. So while he has the size and athleticism to be interesting, in this offense I'm not expecting much in '12. Ladarius Green (Chargers) and Adrien Robinson (Giants) fit the mold of freaky, basketball-style athletes who could be very important fantasy assets in future seasons, but they're both raw and likely need a year or two of seasoning.
When the Minnesota Vikings didn't re-sign Visanthe Shiancoe, it looked like Kyle Rudolph had a chance to be a nice fantasy sleeper. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Rudolph looks the part, and he had a terrific pass-catching career at Notre Dame. Curiously, though, the Vikes went out this winter and signed fellow Golden Domer John Carlson for $9.1 million guaranteed, throwing the position into disarray. Again, Minny may be looking to create a Patriots-style tandem, but I certainly don't trust Christian Ponder to play the Tom Brady role. It's hard to imagine either Vikings TE will emerge as a fantasy asset in standard-sized leagues. The Baltimore Ravens have a similar issue: Two nice young TEs (each of whom was drafted in '10, the same year Gronkowski and Hernandez came out) who may cannibalize one another. Ed Dickson was the starter for most of '11, but Dennis Pitta began to emerge late in the season, and in the playoffs he was the guy Joe Flacco found down the field, while Dickson's few targets were of the screen variety. It's tough to see these guys "pulling a Gronk."
The entire notion of "sleeper tight ends" is pretty goofy, because it's rarely advisable to carry more than one TE on your fantasy roster at a given time (although you can use a TE as a flex in ESPN leagues), so in standard-sized leagues everyone can own one of the top 10 TEs and feel pretty happy about it. But if you're in a deeper league and you wait until very late in your draft to take a tight end, Jermaine Gresham of the Cincinnati Bengals could be interesting. I have no quarrel with Gresham's skills; he's as athletic as they come. But the Bengals simply haven't chosen to use him as a downfield weapon much. If that changes, we could see Gresham launch into the quasi-elites at the position. But I'm not holding my breath. If you're looking for deeper fliers, perhaps you could take a look at Tony Moeaki, who finished among the top 20 fantasy TEs in his rookie season of '10. Unfortunately, Moeaki lost all of '11 to a torn ACL, and the Kansas City Chiefs added Kevin Boss to their roster this winter. In an ideal world, Boss would focus on blocking while Moeaki would become a pass-catching specialist, but I do wonder if Matt Cassel is a good enough QB to support one fantasy TE, let alone two. Here's a ridiculously deep sleeper, only because I feel I need to add another name: Luke Stocker. As you can tell from my write-up of Clark above, I'm not sanguine about Clark's chances for resurgence in Tampa, and with Winslow gone, Stocker is the other name in play at the position. He's a huge kid with good ball skills, and I think we can write off his 12 catches in 14 games last season to playing behind a veteran still close to his prime. Clark isn't that. If Clark completely stumbles (as he did for much of '11), Stocker might become a deep-league asset.
If Gronkowski is destined to score 18 TDs again, he's worth a first-round draft pick. Otherwise, he's not. However, the yardage that Gronk and Graham accumulated in '11 seems substantially more repeatable; they finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in receiving yards among all positions. In Graham's case, that's a result of being one of the scariest downfield threats the position has ever seen. In Gronkowski's case, it's a result of being ridiculously tough to tackle after the catch. Put that kind of yardage together with the potential for low-double-digit TDs, and I can see the argument for taking either guy late in the second round of your standard-sized fantasy draft, or early in the third. And believe me, this is coming from a guy who never thought he'd believe a TE could reasonably be taken so high. I have to admit, I have an aversion to drafting a player at the utter peak of his value, which is why I'm quite sure I won't own either Gronkowski or Graham in any redraft leagues this year. But I don't begrudge the fantasy owner who does.
If you don't take the top two guys, I wouldn't think about taking a tight end until, say, the seventh round of a 10-team draft. Yes, the TE is seeing a renaissance. There are a dozen unbelievable athletes at this position, guys who can win you fantasy weeks. In addition, the best TEs were more reliable than ever in '11. Whereas two seasons ago, the top 10 TEs scored three fantasy points or fewer in 34 percent of their games, last year the 10 TEs who finished with the highest fantasy point totals were held to three or fewer points 27 percent of the time. And whereas in '10 those same 10 TEs scored double-digit fantasy points 32 percent of the time, in '11 they did it 41 percent of the time.
But outside of Gronk and Graham, these guys didn't do enough to distinguish themselves from one another. They were bunched. And that means there shouldn't be a substantial difference between owning the No. 3 TE this year and the No. 8 TE. And that means you can afford to wait.
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you'll pay $25-ish for Gronkowski and Graham, and between $15 and $20 for the other top-end tight ends. Again, I have no quarrel with those who want to pay a premium for those two super-elite guys, though I don't think I'll wind up doing it. And if you do avoid those top two TEs, there's no reason to spend at the high end of the next tier. Let Finley and Davis and Gates swallow down some higher auction figures, then sneak in and grab Witten for $5 or less. In an auction, timing can be crucial, and if you can find a moment at which the market for TEs grows soft (usually later in the proceedings), you might be able to sneak a tier-two guy at some savings to your bottom line. And finally, remember, don't bother buying a backup tight end in your 10-team auction.