Editor's note: This column has been edited to reflect Aaron Hernandez's arrest and subsequent release by the Patriots on June 26, as well as Dennis Pitta's season-ending injury on July 27.
As was the case with the quarterback position, some folks let one anomalous season rule their judgment last year when it came to tight ends. It's a good lesson that life regularly offers: While past performance may not directly reflect future returns, it's among the best measuring sticks we have.
Rob Gronkowski went nutty in 2011. 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. Most impressively, he trounced the replacement-level TE by an incredible amount. In terms of value-based drafting (VBD), he was nearly off the charts, submitting the 11th-most-valuable fantasy season of any player at any position in the NFL. And that incredible result had my Twitter feed exploding with folks declaring me an idiot for not considering Gronk a first-round pick in '12.
But life has a funny way of just happening. Gronkowski wasn't any less fearsome of a player in '12: He caught 10 TDs in his first 10 games and was on pace for 1,197 receiving yards. But he broke his arm blocking on an extra-point attempt, and though he returned in the New England Patriots' regular-season finale, he re-broke the arm in the playoffs. Similarly, Jimmy Graham battled a wrist injury that hurt his receiving chops and led to an NFL-worst 14 drops last year. Aaron Hernandez also missed time. Suddenly the guys you were "supposed" to feel OK about reaching for were dropping like flies.
Take a look at the chart on the right. It shows the past nine No. 1 fantasy TEs at season's end, and where they finished among all players at all positions in terms of VBD:
On average, the best fantasy TE money could buy has finished 28th overall in VBD rank, and that's including Gronk's anomalous '11 season. This means that on average, even if you could know with certainty which TE would produce the best season this year, he should be drafted around 28th overall. And we don't know with certainly which TE will produce the best season this year. In other words: Never consider taking a tight end in the first or second rounds of your draft.
I'm not saying Gronk, Graham or anyone else has no chance to produce another better-than-expected season, one that smashes records and confounds expectations. I'm saying the odds are that they won't. And you don't want to be the fantasy owner who reaches for these guys at their absolute peak value, and then sees them perform merely "very well."
What other strategies can I offer for the TE position? Well, let's thumbnail the important fantasy TEs for '13, then talk about draft day.
Jimmy Graham is the consensus top TE in ESPN's group ranks and in my ranks, too. Little has changed: The New Orleans Saints still have Drew Brees and a high-octane offense, Graham is still a matchup nightmare and his defenders can proclaim that at least he had his surgery this winter and his wrist shouldn't be a question entering '13. However, remember that Graham also missed a game in '12 because of a sprained ankle. I think it's a mistake not to consider him a bit of an injury risk. … Of course, Gronkowski is the injury risk everyone's most worried about: He has needed four surgeries on his broken arm as well as back surgery this summer, and in some quarters he's considered questionable for Week 1. Personally, I don't believe it, though we're not going to get the straight story out of the Pats until the last possible moment. While I understand how that uncertainty knocks Gronk down several pegs in some owners' minds, I'm willing to wait for firmer word. The biggest thing all of these operations do is bust Gronk into a sane drafting range. … You certainly know with Aaron Hernandez gone, Gronkowski is going to be the focal point of New England's offense when he's finally in there.
Not sexy, but they get the job done
The Atlanta Falcons talked Tony Gonzalez out of retirement, getting the band back together to try to improve on the team's NFC Championship Game appearance from '12. At age 36 last year, Gonzo finished second in receptions among TEs and third in targets, yards, touchdowns and fantasy points. But his 2.8 average yards after the catch ranked 31st among qualified TEs last year, which indicates his legs really are going. Still, Matt Ryan loves Gonzalez in the red zone so much that it's difficult to envision Gonzo not finishing in the top six or seven TEs by season's end. … Jason Witten has only one strike against him: He doesn't score TDs. He was the NFL's only tight end to exceed 1,000 yards receiving last year and set a single-season record for catches by a TE with 110. But he found the end zone just three times, the fourth time in the past five seasons he's been at five TDs or fewer. Tony Romo just doesn't throw it to him much in the end zone; last season, Witten had five end-zone targets, compared to 13 for league-leading end-zone TE Rob Gronkowski. … The truth is that I'm not willing to put anyone else in the "Gets The Job Done" category. Kyle Rudolph, Owen Daniels and Greg Olsen all look like they could be fantasy starters in most leagues, but are part of a flat TE middle class whose members can help you one week and disappear the next. Put it this way: If I don't grab one of the better TEs early, I will not be the fantasy owner who drafts the first TE out of the middle class.
Vernon Davis still comes in sixth in our group TE ranks, but his disastrous '12 campaign clearly dropped him out of the position's top stratus, and in fact even putting him as high as No. 6 requires a leap of faith. Davis caught fewer than two passes per contest in the seven regular-season games after Colin Kaepernick became the 49ers' QB. However, in the playoffs, Davis had two 100-yard efforts, disproving the notion that he and Kap can't coexist. Remember, he had 13 TDs back in '09, is still only 29, and may be the fastest pass-catcher on his team. … Antonio Gates put his plantar fascia woes behind him in '12, and his seven TDs ranked a respectable sixth among TEs. But he's fading along with the rest of the Chargers' offense. He topped 60 yards receiving in a game once all year, and his 538 total yards easily represented his smallest total since his rookie year. He's not useless, but Gates does deserve to be ranked outside the TE top 10 for the first time in memory. … Jermichael Finley never accumulated more than 72 yards receiving in a game last year, plus found the end zone only twice. He also spent some of '12 criticizing Aaron Rodgers for not being a great leader. Awesome. Finley is entering a contract year, so maybe we'll see a recurrence of the red zone monster who caught all eight of his scores in '11 from inside an opponent's 12-yard line. For the moment, though, he seems like merely a fantasy tease. … Jermaine Gresham finished 11th in fantasy points among TEs last year, but he's not a good blocker and finished 31st among qualified TEs in average yards at the catch, belying his reputation as a supposed downfield threat. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Tyler Eifert in the first round of April's draft, so you can forget the idea that Gresham is a fantasy starter. Heck, I don't rule out the possibility that Gresham could find himself released before Week 1.
Brandon Myers finished among the top six TEs in targets, catches and receiving yards for a bad Oakland Raiders offense last year, and now moves to Eli Manning and the New York Giants, who have a definite willingness to use their tight ends down the field. And of TEs with at least 50 targets, Myers caught the highest percentage of passes thrown his way in '12. However, he's not a very good blocker, something Tom Coughlin won't like. … Jared Cook got an unbelievable $19 million guaranteed from the St. Louis Rams this winter, despite never having caught 50 passes in a season. But at that price tag, and with the speed the Rams now have on offense, you have to imagine they have bigger plans for Cook. At 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds with 4.49 40-yard speed, this guy has the raw materials. If he puts it together for Sam Bradford, the results could be spectacular. … The Chicago Bears gave Martellus Bennett a far more reasonable contract (slightly more than $5 million guaranteed), despite the fact that Bennett had a more productive '12 than Cook has ever had. But while Bennett is a terrific athlete, he's not quite at Cook's level of "freakdom," which means his fantasy upside might not quite be as high. However, I believe his floor isn't nearly as low. In my own ranks, I actually have Bennett No. 9; he's a much bigger, more solid player (and a strong blocker) in a system I trust to get him more targets. … Dustin Keller was the No. 10 TE in fantasy as recently as two years ago, but got submerged in the New York Jets' offensive awfulness last year and then suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 13 and missed the remainder of the season. With the Miami Dolphins, Keller has a chance to be a red zone weapon. Last year, the less talented Anthony Fasano had 12 red zone targets with Miami, and nine catches on those targets resulting in five TDs. Of course, it's hard to trust Ryan Tannehill to bring fantasy glory to any of his receiving weapons just yet. … Ed Dickson also belongs in this category now that Dennis Pitta is out for the season. While Dickson isn't the threat Pitta is, he could wind up as a sleeper, as long as he can stay clear of injury himself.
I already mentioned that the Bengals drafted Eifert in the first round of April's draft, creating some duplication with incumbent Gresham. For as long as each man is on Cincy's roster, I can't project either as a fantasy starter. Neither Eifert nor Gresham is a good blocker, so it's hard to see them playing a ton of snaps at the same time. But if Gresham were to be released before Week 1, Eifert would become an intriguing fantasy sleeper who's ownable in all leagues. He's got good speed and crazy leaping ability. … The Philadelphia Eagles also created some duplication by drafting Zach Ertz to go along with Brent Celek. Once again, neither player is a particularly good blocker, and while Chip Kelly may have the Eagles spreading way out at times, someone needs to block occasionally, right? Ertz has fine downfield skills as a receiver and would be worth consideration should Celek get released. But while they're on the same NFL squad, they're unrosterable in redraft leagues. … Travis Kelce is a raw, athletic player who also landed in a veteran-laden situation. The Kansas City Chiefs have Tony Moeaki and Anthony Fasano on their roster, which probably means Kelce will use this season to refine his game. But Moeaki is a knee injury waiting to happen, and Fasano is best cast as a blocker and red zone threat, so it's not impossible that Kelce could face a steep learning curve. Maybe Moeaki gets released. … The Dallas Cowboys selected Gavin Escobar in the second round of April's draft, but of course they've got Witten plugging away as their starter, meaning the best Escobar will do as a rookie is annoy fantasy owners. … The Oakland Raiders lost Brandon Myers this winter and haven't really replaced him, meaning rookie Mychal Rivera has a chance at winning the starting TE gig. However, fellow rookie Nick Kasa could also get in the mix during training camp, as could veteran David Ausberry. It's a situation to avoid.
Coby Fleener looked like the only '12 rookie TE with a chance to contribute in fantasy leagues, but he flamed out while fellow rookie Dwayne Allen at least produced a top-25 fantasy season. I keep hearing Fleener is the Indianapolis Colts TE to own, especially since he and Andrew Luck will reunite with their college offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton. But I'm not so sure. If I were picking one of these guys, I'd take Allen. I know Fleener suffered through a shoulder problem last year, but Allen really impressed me with his all-around game. … In '12, Jacob Tamme was supposed to come to the Denver Broncos and easily earn the No. 1 TE spot because of his past experience with Peyton Manning, but it didn't work out that way. He got only four red zone targets last season compared to 14 for Joel Dreessen, which is an ominous sign that Tamme may not be much of a fantasy asset. Add young players like Virgil Green and maybe even Julius Thomas into the mix, and we may see more confusion from this position for the Broncos. … Heath Miller tore the ACL, MCL and PCL in his right knee in Week 16 last year, and while he claims he's going to be ready Week 1, the savvy fantasy owner has to consider that questionable. It's true that the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't add a viable starter to their TE corps, and would go with some combination of David Paulson, Matt Spaeth and David Johnson if Miller can't go. My assumption is that Miller begins the year on the PUP list, and tries to come back partway through '13. … To date, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't re-signed Dallas Clark, and appear willing to go with Luke Stocker as their starter. But they did also sign heavily tattooed Tom Crabtree from the Green Bay Packers as a backup plan, and those guys will battle one another for the starting gig in training camp. Stocker is my pick to win, but he's amassed only 25 catches in 29 career games, so keep your expectations in check. … Like Heath Miller, Scott Chandler suffered a serious knee injury at the end of the '12 season. And like Miller, Chandler gives himself a good chance to be ready Week 1. Adrian Peterson's amazing ACL recovery has everyone predicting miracles, but I'm not aboard the Chandler Express just yet. Rookie Chris Gragg may wind up in the mix to begin the year. … And who will the New York Jets start at TE? With Dustin Keller out of town, it could be Jeff Cumberland, or it could be converted rugby player Hayden Smith. For fantasy football, you shouldn't care.
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 just 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, Jordan Cameron may be a good selection. The Cleveland Browns let TEs Ben Watson and Alex Smith walk this winter, and signed only blocker Kellen Davis to replace them, which is a pretty good indication that Cameron has an inside track to start in '13. That could go very well. He's a 6-foot-5, 245-pound athlete who runs a 4.59 40. But he's also recorded only 26 career receptions, so let's not mark him down for Canton just yet. Suffice it to say that Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner have long histories of using the TEs down the field. … The Arizona Cardinals have finally lifted the veil from their eyes that proclaimed Todd Heap was still a viable NFL TE, and will go with Rob Housler as their full-time starter. Again, Housler has never produced at the NFL level, so you don't want to go into the season with him as your fantasy starter. But he's 6-5, 250 pounds and can scoot down the field.
I've already detailed why I don't think any right-thinking fantasy owner should consider drafting a TE in the first two rounds of any draft. Am I adamant that you should wait until much later than that? No. Beginning in the third round, I do deem it possible to uncover value. Depending on what positions the teams around me have plundered, I might strongly consider Gronk or Graham in the third.
Generally speaking, however, that's not me. As the chart at the beginning of this column illustrates, the very best TEs simply don't outdistance the merely very good TEs by enough, especially when compared to the very best RBs. And I don't think there are enough "sure things" at TE (heck, I'm not sure there are any "sure things" at TE) to make me feel as though there's a player I simply must have. There are a heck of a lot of big, talented, young athletes at this position, and one or two of them are probably going to break out and have a really nice season. But many more of them will look like world-beaters one week, and then disappear the next. That implies replacement-level talent just isn't that hard to come by, especially in a standard 10-team ESPN league. And that implies that there's no reason to be the first fantasy owner to draft from the vast TE middle class.
So while others are selecting Tony Gonzalez in the sixth round or Jason Witten in the seventh round because they feel an obligation to fill out their starting lineup, I'm likelier to be taking Eddie Lacy or Antonio Brown. While others are grabbing Dennis Pitta in the ninth round, I'm probably selecting Shane Vereen or Josh Gordon. Will these lottery-ticket RBs and WRs all work out? Of course not. That's why they're considered lottery tickets. But assuming one or two of them do work out, and they can either inject themselves into my starting lineup or become valuable trade fodder, they'll be well worth the difference between Kyle Rudolph and Martellus Bennett. If there's really a difference at all.
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you'll pay $25-ish for Graham and Gronkowski (maybe a little less for Gronk, depending on his surgery news), and between $15 and $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 the very top tier, there's no reason to spend at the high end of the next tier. Let Gonzalez and Witten swallow down some higher auction figures, and then sneak in and grab Vernon Davis for $5 less. In an auction, timing can be crucial, and if you can find a moment where 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.