Is Jimmy Graham really a breed apart? That's the main question fantasy owners have about tight ends for 2014.
Graham seems to be a tier unto himself at the TE position, a crazy point producer who is forcing us to question everything we know about early fantasy football draft picks. After all, by scoring 16 TDs last year -- second most in a single season by a TE -- Graham scored 55 more fantasy points than the No. 2 TE. I spent much of last summer proclaiming that in order to justify a first-round fantasy selection, a tight end must submit a truly historic season. Well, Graham did just that.
In terms of value-based drafting (VBD), tight ends tend to get short shrift. That's because in standard leagues, not many TEs are rostered, so scarcity doesn't tend to be a major issue. In addition, historically speaking, there doesn't tend to be a massive difference between the fantasy point totals of the elite TEs. But let's face it, 55 points is a massive difference. Graham lapped the field in '13, much the way Rob Gronkowski did in '11. Here's a list of each season's best fantasy TE over the past 10 years, and where they ranked in VBD terms:
Highest-Scoring TE, Past 10 Seasons
Until three seasons ago, a tight end vying for first-round value (i.e., a top-10 VBD rank) was basically unprecedented. But now, between Gronk and Graham, it's happened twice in three seasons.
After his historic season, Gronk disappointed in '12. Will Graham do the same? If he does, it'll probably be health-related, because these huge, fast players are asked to go over the middle on just about every pass route and take big shots when the ball is delivered. That said, I'd be a fool to proclaim that it's impossible. It happened in '11 and in '13! But I hope I've impressed upon you a key fact: A "merely great" season for Graham or Gronk (or any other TE) won't justify taking that player in the first round of your draft. To be worthy of a top-10 pick, a TE has to tear the history books apart. That's why I won't ever take a TE that early: because I don't want a "merely great" year to be a disappointment.
What other strategies can I offer you for the TE position? Let's thumbnail the important fantasy tight ends for '14, then talk about draft day.
Obviously, I don't need to sell you on Graham, and I don't feel the need to knock him down either. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that in his final eight games last year, Graham topped 73 yards exactly once, mostly because of a plantar fascia injury. He's great, but he is a bit of an injury risk, having dealt with a bad wrist in '12. ... Eight of Julius Thomas' 12 TDs last year came inside the red zone, and as long as the Denver Broncos' offense continues on its merry way, such juicy work should be there for Thomas. It's fair to wonder whether the fourth-year TE will ever rank among the elites in targets because Peyton Manning has so many aerial weapons. (For instance, Graham had 50 more targets than Thomas in '13.) But Thomas should easily threaten double-digit TDs again. ... Gronkowski comes with as much injury risk as any player in the game, having missed 14 contests over the past two seasons. He tore his ACL and MCL in Week 14 last year, and he is no sure bet to be ready for Week 1. If you could guarantee me 16 games from Gronk, I'd still rank him as my No. 1 TE. Alas you can't, so I won't.
The next tier
Vernon Davis bounced back from a horrible '12 season with 13 TDs, nine of which came in the red zone. Those scores helped Big Vern to the No. 2 spot among fantasy TEs, but despite playing in 15 games, he finished 14th in TE targets. And that's always going to be the worry with any San Francisco 49ers receiving weapon: The team is so run-oriented, there will be weeks when pass attempts will be few and far between. ... Last year, Jason Witten posted his fewest catches and lowest yardage total since '06, and he caught three passes or fewer in a whopping seven games. Fortunately, he found the end zone eight times, which helped salvage his season. Scott Linehan's advent as the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator gives me hope that Witten can once again become a high-volume target, but historically he hasn't been a TD producer. ... With Josh Gordon probably out for the entire season, Jordan Cameron takes his place as the Cleveland Browns' top pass-catcher, which is good and bad. While he's a candidate to lead the position in targets, he's assuredly going to receive a ton of defensive attention. Cameron busted out with a huge first half in '13, but in his final eight games he had only 31 catches and one TD. He's a strong downfield and red-zone threat, but with a rookie QB (Johnny Manziel) potentially throwing it to him, you probably can't consider Cameron elite.
Not sexy, but they get the job done
You could legitimately put 10 to 15 players into the TE middle class. For the sake of brevity, I'll nominate six. The first is Greg Olsen, a big man who lacks a downfield gear, and who seems destined to give you around 70 catches for 800 yards and five TDs. That's fine production, and maybe Olsen's ceiling is a bit higher this year because the Carolina Panthers lack an elite wideout. But I'm not counting on superstardom. ... I actually have Dennis Pitta a bit higher in my TE ranks than ESPN.com's group ranks because I think new Baltimore Ravens coordinator Gary Kubiak is a master at getting his tight ends involved. And in his absence for much of '13 with a hip injury, Pitta proved how important he is to the Ravens' offense. But it's fair to worry that the presence of Owen Daniels could hurt a bit. ... Kyle Rudolph has never topped 493 receiving yards in any of his three pro seasons, so when he hasn't grabbed TDs, he really hasn't helped you. The reason to be excited about him this year, then, mostly involves the arrival of Norv Turner as the Minnesota Vikings' new offensive coordinator. Turner has a history of nurturing star TEs, including Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. Rudolph is big and fast, and perhaps with a new system and maybe a new QB (rookie Teddy Bridgewater has a chance to win the job), a breakout could be coming. ... Charles Clay entered '13 as a third-year H-back behind Dustin Keller, but Keller suffered a season-ending injury, and Clay stepped into the big job and didn't miss a beat. He can't really run block and doesn't have deep speed, but Clay is a reliable route runner and safety valve, and wound up finishing in the top 10 among TEs in targets, catches, yards and TDs last year. ... Martellus Bennett's first year with the Chicago Bears looked an awful lot like his previous season with the New York Giants: Five or six targets per game, usually not very far downfield and only occasionally in the red zone. A physical freak with as much raw ability as almost any TE in the NFL, Bennett isn't used that way in an offense that focuses first on Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. ... New Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt just spent a season in San Diego giving big emphasis to his tight ends, which should be good news for Delanie Walker. At 6 feet and 248 pounds, Walker is shorter than most of the elites at his position, but he showed improved hands and consistency in his first year with the Titans.
This is the second straight season I'm putting Antonio Gates in the "Falling down" section, even though he finished a respectable ninth among fantasy tight ends last year and a more-than-respectable third in TE receiving yards and targets. He's just not the same player he used to be. He still has a huge catch radius and the trust of QB Philip Rivers, but his legs aren't there. Ladarius Green is a decade younger and will begin his transition to starter-hood in '14, sapping production from Gates. ... Stop with the Jared Cook. Just stop. By now I think we've all established that Cook has bona fides as an athlete. He's big, he's fast and he will tantalize you. He's just not all that good at football. Cook doesn't get open as frequently as he should, and his hands just haven't really ever improved. He'll give you a strong game or two, but he's not trustworthy as a fantasy starter. ... Brent Celek played twice as many snaps as Zach Ertz last year and ran nearly 100 more routes. But Celek also proved himself as a better-than-expected interior blocker, which in '14 could open the door for Ertz to dominate receptions. He's had strong seasons in the past, but I can't see a justification for owning Celek at all this year.
Jordan Reed has a grand total of 45 NFL catches, which is a pretty sparse track record for a guy we rank 10th among fantasy TEs. But even on a Washington Redskins squad that will have to feed DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, Jay Gruden's offense should offer plenty of targets for a promising player like Reed. His primary question mark centers on the concussion that ended his rookie year. ... I just mentioned Zach Ertz when writing about Brent Celek. In his second season, Ertz has a chance to become a surprise stud, because he's shown fine chemistry with Nick Foles and an ability to get open in the red zone. ... Tyler Eifert also has star potential in the right circumstance, but that would probably require the Cincinnati Bengals to release Jermaine Gresham. Eifert is big, fast and showed incredible leaping skills in college. With a full workload, he could ascend to the top levels of his position, but Gresham's continued presence would simply be too much of a drain. ... The New York Giants seem primed to try Adrien Robinson as their starter, which would be intriguing if he's ready. He's a beast physically, but in two pro seasons he's played in exactly three games, as the mental side of the sport has eluded him. Beat reporters have been impressed with Robinson's improvement in minicamp.
It's easy to be excited about Eric Ebron's career upside: He was the No. 10 overall pick in May's draft, and he has speed and agility that men his size aren't supposed to possess. This year, however, Ebron's fantasy outlook is mixed, because Brandon Pettigrew just got $8 million guaranteed this winter and because last year's red-zone stud Joseph Fauria is still around. As exciting as it would be to watch Ebron link up early and often with Matthew Stafford in '14, my guess is we'll have to wait a season or two for that connection to become reliable. ... When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers added Austin Seferian-Jenkins to go with Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, they clearly envisioned having the biggest receiving corps in the NFL. Seferian-Jenkins will probably never be a superstar, because he's tight-hipped coming out of breaks and may sometimes struggle to get open. But he's 6-foot-5 and can be a red-zone threat right away. ... The New York Jets seem ready to hand their starting gig to Jace Amaro, who set a single-season FBS record for TE receiving yards last year. But my guess is that because he wasn't asked to block much in college, Amaro can't be an every-down player right away; plus, he doesn't have a great QB situation. Still, he could have a handful of strong outings in his rookie campaign, with more to come in the future.
The Indianapolis Colts haven't been able to keep Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen healthy at the same time during their two years in the NFL. Fleener receives more publicity because he went to Stanford with QB Andrew Luck, but I think Allen is underrated. Yes, he's the better blocker and the likelier bet to line up in-line. But he also has more reliable hands and might be a better red-zone weapon than Fleener. His return from season-ending hip surgery probably makes both Colts TEs unstartable. ... New Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien helped build the New England Patriots' two-TE system, so it's fair to suspect he'll use the position a bunch in Houston. But will any single guy emerge? Owen Daniels is gone, leaving veterans Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin and rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz to duke it out for snaps. I think Griffin is the best of the group, but I'm probably not owning any of those guys Week 1. ... Jermichael Finley could still re-sign with the Green Bay Packers, but there's no guarantee his neck will ever allow him to play meaningful NFL snaps again. Catching passes from Aaron Rodgers can be a valuable role, so if either Andrew Quarless or Brandon Bostick gains depth-chart separation (or if Finley makes a great recovery, signs with the Pack and gets his starting gig back), fantasy owners would pay attention. Bostick is coming off foot surgery, but he fits the mold of a deep sleeper thanks to his crazy raw athleticism.
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, so in standard-sized leagues everyone can own just one of the top 10 TEs and feel pretty happy about it. But if you're looking deeper, maybe try Heath Miller. He doesn't get any love as a possible top-10 TE, but maybe that's a mistake. Sure, Miller underperformed in '13, but the fact that he played at all after completely blowing out a knee in Week 16 the previous season is amazing. I acknowledge that Miller probably doesn't have the athletic upside that many of the freaks who play the position do, but Ben Roethlisberger loves him and Todd Haley's offense suited him before his injury two years ago. ... It would take a mighty deep league for me to be able to justify rostering him, but Travis Kelce is intriguing. He needed microfracture surgery on his right knee and missed his entire rookie year, but the Kansas City Chiefs don't really have any other TE options worth loving, and Alex Smith is a checkdown machine. Kelce might actually turn into a Heath Miller clone if he can stay healthy.
Taking a TE in the first or second around of your draft is a philosophical decision. Folks who are tempted by Jimmy Graham say to themselves, "I know what I'm getting from Graham," while they don't feel they can trust lesser options at other positions. Of course, there's an opportunity cost when you take Graham so early: You will be playing catch-up at other positions, particularly running back. If you can look at this decision with clear eyes and understand that Graham must submit another historic season to justify a top-10 or even -20 selection, then I can't begrudge your choice. Personally, I never want to bet on a purely best-case scenario, so I'm not going to be the guy who takes Graham.
Do I believe a good fantasy team must draft one of the "top" options? I absolutely do not. The numbers simply don't back that up as a wise strategy. Here's a look at last year's best tight ends, where they finished in VBD terms and where they were drafted (ADP):
TEs with Highest VBD Rank, 2013 Season
Graham was outstanding and absolutely worth it if you reached for him, and I guess you could also say Vernon Davis would've been worth reaching for in the fourth round. Otherwise, though, the idea that you had to grab one of the elites was wrong. Rob Gronkowski (ADP second among TEs), Kyle Rudolph (sixth) and Owen Daniels (seventh) all cratered because of injury, proving that you were mostly fine just waiting to grab your TE. Julius Thomas (fifth-round value) and Jordan Cameron (seventh-round value) were available for pennies in most drafts, and Charles Clay wound up a serviceable starter as a free-agent acquisition.
I think the lesson here for savvy drafters is if you're not grabbing Graham, don't even think about your TE until Round 6 or beyond. The guys you grab there are likely to provide value at least as solid as most of the TEs who go earlier, and if they don't, you'll be able to find an adequate replacement.
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you'll pay as much as $30 for Graham, and $15 to $20 for the other top-end tight ends. Again, I'm not paying a premium for the top players. I don't think there's value in it, and I'm in the value game. And assuming you do avoid Graham, there's no reason to spend at the high end of the next tier. Let Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas swallow down some higher auction figures, then sneak in and grab Dennis Pitta for less. In an auction, timing can be crucial, and if you can find a moment when the market for TEs grows soft (usually later in the proceedings), you might be able to sneak in 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.