Last season was a great one for Tony Gonzalez but a crummy one for tight ends.
Gonzo may have finished only 51st in fantasy points among all positions in 2008, but he was so much better than every other tight end in the NFL that, in retrospect, you'd have been justified taking him really early in your draft. Gonzalez scored 158 points in ESPN standard leagues, while second-place Jason Witten scored 114, third-place Dallas Clark scored 112, and fourth-place Antonio Gates scored 109. No other fantasy leader at any position had anywhere close to as big a gap between his own fantasy point total and the second-place finisher's.
Tony Gonzalez had an incredible season in 2008, then talked his way out of Kansas City. He's a Falcon now, and he joins what was the NFL's second most run-oriented offense last year. But hey, Gonzalez still scored big-time fantasy points when Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson were doing their thing in KC. He should develop a nice rapport with Matt Ryan. Jason Witten battled ankle, shoulder and rib injures in '08 but was still a solid fantasy threat, finishing second in yards and targets among players at his position. He's not an elite red zone threat, and his production is very much tied to Tony Romo's staying healthy, but he'll get you a 1,000-yard season. Antonio Gates was also dinged up throughout '08, a pattern that repeated itself from the previous season. He still scored eight touchdowns and continued to be one of the best red zone tight ends around, but he also failed to reach 100 targets for the first time in five seasons. Still, when he's in there, he defines the word "elite." In '08, the Colts got another full season out of Dallas Clark, who seems to be putting behind him concerns that he's injury-prone. He set career highs in targets, receptions and receiving yards, so don't be freaked out that his touchdowns dropped from 11 in '07 to six last year.
Some will call Kellen Winslow a sleeper this fall, because as recently as a year ago, he was mentioned as a solid member of the tight end elite. But I've seen enough of this guy's act to know it'll always be something with him. He has injury concerns, and he is, to put it kindly, a complete knucklehead. It seems even the Bucs are hedging their bets after trading for K2 this winter; they're keeping Jerramy Stevens around, just in case. Tony Scheffler had a hard time staying healthy in '08, and he employs the same agent as Jay Cutler. In Denver, that's not a happy coincidence. But the biggest reason to worry about Scheffler is incoming coach Josh McDaniels, whose system prefers big blocking tight ends to downfield receiving ones. A trade from the Rocky Mountains before Week 1 isn't out of the question. Heath Miller is a very good real-life player who does get some looks in the red zone (all four of his scores last year came from inside the 8-yard line), but he's used in Pittsburgh more as a blocker than as a receiver. He doesn't deserve to be a fantasy starter in your league. The Packers are high on Jermichael Finley, which puts the fantasy status of Donald Lee up in the air. Lee does have 11 touchdowns the past two seasons combined, but he was used less as the Aaron Rodgers era began last year.
Greg Olsen has had to split targets with Desmond Clark in his first two NFL seasons, but toward the end of last year, Clark stayed in to block more frequently, while Olsen ran downfield in pass patterns. Expect that to continue in '09 with Jay Cutler around; Olsen will be the safety valve on an awful lot of plays. He has the potential to be a top-5 tight end. It's tough to get too hyped about any player who relies on JaMarcus Russell to get him the ball, but if you're going to pick any pass-catcher in Oakland, it should be Zach Miller. Miller had the highest yards-per-catch average of any tight end with more than 42 receptions last season, meaning he's a true downfield threat. Miller needs Russell to get a clue in his third year, but if he does, they could make sweet music. John Carlson could wind up being Matt Hasselbeck's best friend this year, as all of Hasselbeck's most reliable possession receivers seem to have flown the Seattle coop. Now, there's a chance the Seahawks will go three-wide a lot, and if they do, Carlson might be less of a receiving threat. But I don't trust those wideouts enough to believe they'll squeeze out a young tight end who is this talented. Dustin Keller is a nice threat in Brian Schottenheimer's offense in New York because his system doesn't require Keller to block much. Instead, he gets to run around in pass patterns, something Keller excels at. The Jets must choose a quarterback this summer, but if they get decent play under center, Keller has top-10 potential.
Brandon Pettigrew was the 20th overall pick in April's draft, bringing to mind the recent selections of guys like Greg Olsen and Vernon Davis. But Pettigrew isn't like those guys. He's no repackaged wide receiver; instead, he's a mashing blocker who can also do some nice receiving work in a relatively confined area. In other words, don't expect him to stretch the field much. But eventually, if the Lions get decent quarterback play -- that's a pretty big "if" -- Pettigrew could grow into a red zone threat. Shawn Nelson joins a Bills squad that lost last year's starter, Robert Royal, so he could be a threat to start right away. Nelson isn't big enough to be an effective blocker, but he has good hands and a huge wingspan. He probably isn't a fantasy factor right away, but keep an eye on him. Despite the presence of Kevin Boss on their roster, the Giants drafted Travis Beckum in April. Beckum is in the Dallas Clark mode: all catch, no block. Meanwhile, Boss is one of the best blockers in the league among tight ends. Putting two and two together, there could be something of a split between these guys as soon as '09. The rest of the rookie crop includes Jared Cook (Tennessee), Richard Quinn (Denver), Chase Coffman (Cincinnati), Cornelius Ingram (Philadelphia) and James Casey (Houston). There are some nice athletes here, but it would take some doing for any of them to be startable in fantasy leagues anytime soon.
Anthony Fasano had a terrific year in Miami in '08, grabbing seven touchdown passes. However, David Martin also continues his Dolphinhood, and he had a pretty nice season last year in his own right. Fasano finished just 23rd in targets among tight ends, and you can blame that on the 45 targets that went Martin's way. Each guy pretty much cancels out the other, and we can actually envision Fasano's touchdown total dropping in '09. (Last year those seven scores came on just 11 red zone targets.)
I've already mentioned most of these guys, but let's get back into their injury troubles. Antonio Gates had hip, foot and ankle problems throughout 2008. The nicks never caused him to miss a game, but they definitely limited his ability to stay on the field. That's two straight years in which Gates has played in all of the Chargers' contests but hasn't been fully himself. Especially worrisome is the toe that was supposed to be fixed by surgery after the '07 playoffs. Without his injury concerns, Gates is probably still the No. 1 tight end on our list. With them? I think we might even have him a little high at No. 3. Kellen Winslow has had a knee surgery every offseason since his rookie year. That isn't good. In what figures to be a relatively run-heavy Bucs offense with a whole lot of unproven dudes vying to play quarterback, it's tough for me to endorse the idea that Winslow will recapture the glory from his best Cleveland days. He's another guy I actually think our ESPN Fantasy group might have just a little bit high, even at No. 8. I don't trust those knees. Jeremy Shockey was limited by a severe ankle sprain throughout his first season in New Orleans, so what seemed like a match made in heaven (high-octane offense, meet downfield tight end) was never really consummated. This offseason, Shockey had to be carried out of a Las Vegas pool party because of "dehydration." (Hmm, alcohol is known to be a pretty effective dehydrator.) As with many of the NFL's true divas, it seems like it'll always be something with this guy.
It's very tough to rank the tight ends between, say, No. 12 and No. 21. On a weekly basis, not much separates them. Falling squarely in the middle of that group is new Eagles starter Brent Celek, a handsy, heady player who might be able to convert last year's nice playoff run into some good chemistry with Donovan McNabb. After all, Andy Reid does like the short passing game. I mentioned Jermichael Finley in my assessment of Donald Lee, and with good reason. Finley was extremely raw coming out of the University of Texas last year, but he's a ridiculously fast man, considering he's 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds. The Packers tried to get Finley involved in their offense last year, to little avail, but I have a strong feeling they're going to redouble those efforts in '09. Going a little deeper, I'm intrigued by Martellus Bennett, and not just because of the profanity-laced rap video he unleashed on the Internet this winter. The Cowboys like Bennett a lot, especially in the red zone, where they don't actually look for Witten all that much. Hey, I admit that it would probably take an injury to Witten for Bennett to become full-blown fantasy factor, but if that happens, watch out. With Gonzalez gone from Kansas City, Brad Cottam looks like the starter. He's absolutely huge, so he'll likely be used mostly as a blocker, and new head man Todd Haley doesn't typically make use of pass-catching tight ends in his offense. Still, let's at least file away Cottam's name as Gonzo's inheritor, just in case.
But I'm not going to go so far as to say it makes no difference where you take your tight end. As I indicate in my "tiered" list of guys at this position, I think there's a pretty stern drop-off after No. 4. Sure, Owen Daniels at No. 5 had a nice '08 season and looks to be a real downfield threat in Houston's offense, but he has scored five touchdowns the past two years combined. After Daniels, you get the what-the-heck-happened-to-him mystery of Chris Cooley, the oft-injured Winslow, and a bunch of second- and third-year guys who could be terrific but whom you'll be drafting mostly on potential. So this year, I'm willing to call Gonzalez, Witten, Gates and Clark far more valuable than the rest of the pack.
But are they valuable enough to use an early draft pick on them? It's a close call. I think those four players will be solid, above-average fantasy contributors, but of course, if you take a non-tight end in, say, the fourth round, you'd expect him to be a solid, above-average fantasy contributor, too. My own strategy over the years has been not to grab one of the elites, instead spending my time building up an arsenal of high-ceilinged rushers and receivers, then making to make do with whatever's left over at tight end. But if you've been burned one too many times by good-for-nothing fantasy tight ends, I don't hate the idea of getting one of those top four guys. If you don't get one of 'em, though, then just wait. There's not a ton of difference among the rest of the field. (And in any but the very, very deepest leagues, don't bother drafting a backup tight end. You'll be able to find a bye-week replacement when the time comes.)
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you had to pay just over $20, on average, for the top three guys: Witten, Gates and Winslow. Clearly, in a Gonzalez-dominated year, that didn't work out very well. Gonzo went for $13, a bargain, and no other tight end went for more than $10. So as in a snake draft, you have a stratified choice: either be prepared to drop $20-plus for one of the top guys, or wait and grab whoever's left for less than $5 later in your auction. Me, I'm more apt to go for the latter strategy; if I can draft, say, John Carlson for a few dollars and save as much as $20 that I can put toward some high-upside running backs, then that's the way I'll go. And again, don't bother buying a backup tight end in your auction.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.