Are fantasy tight ends the new kickers?
It's hard to quantify exactly how much week-to-week statistical randomness tight ends produced in 2010, but I'll give one method a try. If we consider scoring three fantasy points or fewer in a given week to be "disappointing," how many "disappointing" weeks did the best fantasy tight ends drop into our laps last year?
The top 10 fantasy-scoring tight ends of 2010 played in a combined 153 games (Antonio Gates missed six contests and the Raiders' Zach Miller missed one; everyone else played the full 16). In 52 of those 153 games, this cream of the crop scored three fantasy points or fewer. That's 34 percent of the time! Granted, in 49 of those 153 games, the top 10 TEs scored double-digit fantasy points (which works out to 32 percent of the time), so you'd have to say the best tight ends have more weekly upside than whatever kicker you care to mention. But the fact that you were slightly more likely to get three points or fewer than you were to get double-digits even from an a priori hand-picked group of the best-scoring tight ends from last year is damning, indeed.
Now, let me counterbalance that a little bit. In 12 of 17 regular-season weeks, the highest weekly tight end point total came from a man who eventually would finish among the top-10 scoring TEs for the entire season. And in four of the five remaining weeks, that highest weekly tight end output came from a man who finished in the top 20. (Only the immortal Billy Bajema broke this string, scoring 15 fantasy points in Week 12 last year but finishing with only 23 fantasy points overall.) What does this mean? Well, while we might have a difficult time picking out which TE will be a week-to-week fantasy star, it's not difficult to improve your TE position as the season progresses, and thus at least be sure that you're giving yourself the best chance for a big week by dumping a perpetually disappointing player.
What does all this mean for your tight end draft strategy? Let's look at the 2011 tight end landscape, and then reconvene to discuss where you should think about drafting players at this vexing position.
Antonio Gates was on pace for 1,326 receiving yards and 18 TDs when he got hurt in Week 8, tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot. He tried to play for a couple more games but couldn't, and left his owners high and dry for the fantasy season's most important weeks. Of course, you can't claim Gates isn't tough; despite suffering all sorts of foot and toe injuries during the past several years, he played 16 games in every season from '06-'09. Now at age 31, it's fair to wonder whether those lower-body injuries will add up to limit him eventually, but he gets so many more high-value looks than just about everyone else at the position. His right foot was still reportedly bothering him in training camp, but I'm convinced he still needs to be the first TE off the board this summer. Dallas Clark suffered a displaced tendon in his right wrist six games into '10, reminding us all of a time when he was considered a pretty big injury risk. But he'll be back to full health to start '11, and he and Gates are head and shoulders above the rest of the field. You're grabbing either of these first two guys in the fourth or fifth round, or else waiting until much later to get your TE. Thanks to all the injuries among the elite TEs last season, Jason Witten won the fantasy points title at his position, and he did it with a ridiculous end to his season that saw him reach double-digits in each of the Cowboys' final five games. For sure, it was heartening to see Witten score nine times in '10 after he'd managed only six scores in the two previous seasons combined. Why should you still be a wee bit skeptical of the steady Witten? Six of those nine TDs came with Jon Kitna throwing him the ball. Will Tony Romo keep up the flow? Also, Witten's fantasy value is occasionally hurt by the fact that he's such a good blocker, and stays in to block near an opponent's end zone. Jermichael Finley tore the meniscus in his right knee in Week 5 and didn't play again last year, missing the Packers' Super Bowl march. He's still mostly potential at this point, but what potential: He's a huge kid who can run, a prototype for the catch-first "move" tight end that's so prevalent in the league right now. You know Green Bay loves to fling it, and if Finley stays healthy, he absolutely has the upside to lead all TEs in fantasy scoring. Vernon Davis followed up his breakout '09 season with another strong one in '10, and did so despite a complete mess at the QB position. Davis led all TEs in 25-plus-yard gains and posted the best yards-after-catch average of any TE with at least 20 receptions. Alex Smith and/or rookie Colin Kaepernick will fling it to Davis this year, which isn't enticing, but he should continue to be the 49ers' best receiving weapon.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
As TD-heavy as he was last year, I'm OK with Marcedes Lewis as a low-level starting tight end in all fantasy leagues. Lewis converted 14 red-zone targets for seven of his 10 TDs, so although his total of 700 yards receiving wasn't elite, I'm guessing the Jaguars will lean just as heavily on Lewis in scoring-rich situations. Of course, Lewis is pretty typical of this unpredictable position: Five times last season, he scored double-digit fantasy points, and five times he scored three or fewer. He's a great blocker, too, so he isn't used as a receiver on every down, but I'm all aboard with him consolidating his breakout 2010 campaign. Kellen Winslow has finished in the top seven in catches and receiving yards by a TE in four of the past five seasons, and there's little reason to imagine that'll change in '11. Alas, he's never scored more than five TDs in a single year, so anticipating that he's going to be among the top two or three point-getters this year is probably folly. And speaking of guys who have a hard time finding the end zone, there's Chris Cooley. Cooley had great chemistry with Donovan McNabb, and has produced good catch and yardage totals no matter who his QB has been over the years. But he doesn't score enough; he has six TDs the past three seasons combined. Plus it looks like in '11 he'll be grabbing passes from John Beck and/or Rex Grossman. That caps his upside right there.
Tony Gonzalez may have finished eighth in fantasy points among TEs last year, but the tape doesn't lie: His legs are slowing down. He posted the lowest yards-per-catch mark of his 14-year career, and he's got one 100-yard receiving game the past two years combined. Yes, he was still a super-elite red-zone target last year, leading all TEs in looks inside an opponent's 20 and 10. For that reason, he's ownable. But I fear Father Time is knocking. Brent Celek struggled with a bad wrist throughout last season, but it was Michael Vick's ascension to the starting job that seemed to limit him most of all. Celek had only 79 targets in 16 games in '10, compared to 112 in '09, and his yards per target dropped appreciably, from 8.6 to 6.4. He went into last year as our group's No. 4 TE (I had him No. 7), and he finished the year 18th at his position. Until he proves last season was a fluke, that's closer to where he belongs on your draft list this summer. The Panthers signed Jeremy Shockey to a one-year deal this winter, but then in July traded for Greg Olsen. That should tell you all you need to know about Shockey's future as a pass catcher. Olsen is the guy who becomes a borderline fantasy starter despite the possibility of Cam Newton, Jimmy Clausen and/or Derek Anderson throwing him the rock, while Shockey looks like a glorified offensive lineman. He's still a tremendous blocker, but his legs just aren't there any longer for him to be a consistent route runner. Benjamin Watson finished 12th among an injury-ravaged tight end field last year, but I wouldn't draft him that highly in '11. Listen, he's going to get looks. The Browns figure to feature one of the league's most conservative passing attacks, and Watson will be a low-risk target therein. And the wideouts are, to be charitable, unproven. But Watson isn't a dynamic athlete any longer, not like many of the men ahead of him on our TE list. He can be your No. 2 tight end, but he's got almost no chance of bursting into the elite class.
Zach Miller is one of the scariest TEs in the league to defend, because he runs good patterns and runs them very fast. He's a downfield player who can break out in any given week. With the Seahawks, however, he'll have Tarvaris Jackson and maybe Charlie Whitehurst throwing him the ball, which may make him long for the days of Jason Campbell in Oakland. Miller should be able to hold off John Carlson and make a name for himself in the Pacific Northwest. But realize that like perhaps 10 other "non-elite" TEs, Miller can absolutely go crazy in any given game, and then go utterly silent the next, plus he battled a foot injury last year. I like him, but he's not a guy I'd reach for. Shockey is already gone from the Big Easy and David Thomas is purely a backup, all because the Saints love Jimmy Graham so much. Graham played only one season of college football and came into the NFL last year as a raw physical specimen, but by year's end he'd become one of New Orleans' go-to guys. He's a highlight-reel catch waiting to happen, and as a former University of Miami basketball player, he's got the box-out skills to dominate in the end zone. His blocking isn't great, but it doesn't need to be for fantasy purposes. Brandon Pettigrew is a more complete player than Graham, which paradoxically makes him slightly less enticing for fantasy, because he'll do good work as a blocker. Still, Pettigrew fought back from a torn ACL he suffered late in '09 and finished 12th in TE fantasy points for '10. He's not one of these prototypical "wideouts-in-a-tight-end's-body" I've talked so much about here; he doesn't do much work down the seam, but he finished third in both TE targets and catches last year. With Matthew Stafford hopefully back for a longer term of health, Pettigrew has a chance to be part of a high-scoring offense. Jared Cook finally made Bo Scaife expendable at the end of 2010, and should enter this year as the unquestioned starter in Tennessee. He's a 6-foot-5, 247-pound goliath who runs a mid-4.4s 40, fitting him squarely in that "glorified-wide-receiver-on-protein-shakes" kind of player that every team seems to be looking for these days. Yes, the Titans have big questions at QB, and no, Cook hasn't proven much in his two-year career. But he's a high-upside sleeper type, especially in deeper leagues.
The Vikings already have Visanthe Shiancoe in the fold, but drafted the best rookie tight end in the second round of April's draft, Kyle Rudolph. That probably renders each man fairly irrelevant in standard fantasy leagues, because Bill Musgrave's offense is likely to use a lot of two-tight-end sets that will essentially split the receiving work down the middle. Eventually, Shiancoe will move on and Rudolph will be an intriguing fantasy factor. For now, he's in a platoon. The Rams hope Lance Kendricks can follow in the footsteps of young, big, fast TEs like Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley, guys who aren't asked to block that much but create mismatches in the middle of the field. Josh McDaniels has never really featured TEs in his offenses, but Kendricks and Michael Hoomanawanui are solid young weapons on a Rams offense with an incredible number of question marks at wideout. I wouldn't bet on either St. Louis tight end outside a deep league, though. The Buccaneers grabbed what they hope will be their tight end of the future when they took Luke Stocker in the fourth round this April, and dynasty leaguers should note that Stocker might've been the most complete tight end in the draft. But with Kellen Winslow already around, Stocker is probably going to get most of his rookie time as a blocker. Tight end has been a wasteland position for the Cardinals offense for an awfully long time, so forgive me for not turning cartwheels when Arizona took Rob Housler in the third round this April, especially when they also signed Todd Heap this summer. Like Stocker, Housler is significantly more interesting in a dynasty league than in a redraft league.
The mother of all "unsettled situations" just might be what the Patriots will do with their impressive young tight ends. For about half of last year, Aaron Hernandez looked like the obvious choice as the New England tight end you wanted to own, as Rob Gronkowski was mostly an afterthought in the passing game. That changed later in the year, as Gronk proved himself in passing situations and Hernandez struggled with a hip injury. In particular, Gronkowski became an elite red-zone weapon, posting seven TDs in the final eight regular-season games. That kind of production isn't likely to repeat itself, especially when there's another budding young star at the same position on the same roster, so expect to see Gronk regress from his impressive No. 5 finish in fantasy points among TEs. I think Gronkowski is still the most draftable player here, though many folks have gone broke assuming what the Pats do one season (or week!) will repeat itself. Todd Heap is gone from Baltimore leaving Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, both second-year players, to fight it out for a pretty valuable receiving job with the Ravens. Pitta was limited by concussions throughout '10 and Dickson took the No. 2 job behind Heap, so he's probably the favorite this season. But these guys might not only battle in training camp. They could also wind up flip-flopping with one another throughout the season.
The biggest injury concern at tight end is simply that it seems like everyone suffered a serious injury last year. Of our top five TEs, three had season-enders: Antonio Gates with his bad foot, Dallas Clark with his injured wrist and Jermichael Finley with his torn-up knee. None of those specific injuries should linger, but those three dudes all have a backlog of missed or hobbled games. I'm not calling them injury-prone. But their 2010 seasons represent a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when you reach for tight ends early in your draft. Owen Daniels was still basically recovering from his torn ACL for the first seven games of '10, when he averaged two catches for 29 yards and earned the ire of fantasy nation. Then he missed five games with a bad hamstring. Finally, when he returned in December, Daniels looked like the guy who showed so much promise through all of '08 and half of '09. We all still have a taste of him as an injury-related bust from last season, but he could wind up being a steal.
To be honest, the TE position isn't a place to go sleeper-happy, especially not in a 10-team league. Grab one of the top 10 to 12 guys, see how he pans out, and replace him later with a "sleeper" only if you have to. Rookies rarely contribute much at this position, and most of the established stars at TE are established for a reason. That said, if you're in a deeper league or a league that requires you to start two tight ends, don't forget about Brent Celek and Benjamin Watson. Yes, I put them each in the "Falling Down" section above, but at a certain point, a veteran who's not over the hill, has a full-time starting job to himself, and has produced well in the past becomes a not-terrible investment in a late enough round. Of the young guys who've lately come into the league with lots of athletic ability but haven't shown much yet, I'd give Jermaine Gresham a look. He was a first-rounder last year, and became a growing part of the Bengals offense as the season wore on. Surely, the potential mess at QB could constrain him, and the Bengals must prove they're ready to go TE-heavy with new coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast offense. But Gresham is another one of those catch-and-run, non-blocking types who can contribute to fantasy teams given enough chances.
Antonio Gates was on his way to a difference-making, historic type of season when he got hurt last year, the type of season that would've made him a justifiable early-round pick. If he'd finished with 1,326 receiving yards and 18 TDs, that would've given him about 240 fantasy points; in Value-Based Drafting terms, that would've roughly made him the No. 3 or No. 4 most relatively-valuable player at any position, because he would've had so many more fantasy points than the "baseline" tight end. And retrospectively, you'd have been justified in making him a first-round pick.
Of course, there are two problems with this: Gates didn't stay healthy, and unfortunately we can't know what kind of tear he or anyone else is going to go on before we have to draft our fantasy teams. But it's instructive to note that a stud of Gates' stature is capable of elbowing his way into very early-round consideration.
Does that mean I'd actually take Gates or Dallas Clark in, say, the second round of a fantasy draft? It does not. If it was commonplace for a superstar tight end to far outstrip the baseline tight end by a huge amount, I'd say go for it. You're trying to maximize the value of your team, and the way to do that is to acquire the most well-above-average players possible. But the season Gates might have produced in 2010 was borderline unprecedented, at least since '02. In that span, only once has a fantasy TE actually produced a top-10 VBD fantasy season: Gates himself did it in '05. Several other players have produced top-20 VBD seasons, but unfortunately from year to year, it's rarely the same guy. If you could convince yourself you're certain which TEs will shine above all others in '11, you'd be justified in thinking about taking him late in the second or early in the third round. But when you factor in Gates' and Clark's injuries just last season, I still think that's too early.
So I'd say Gates and Clark are draftable pretty early, say, late third, fourth, early fifth. And after that? Any of the next three guys (Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis, in some order) do stand above the hoi polloi and could be worth reaching for, say, in the sixth or seventh. And if you don't get one of those top-five guys, just wait. There will be so much week-to-week variability among almost everyone at this position that you're probably better off grabbing lottery-ticket RBs and WRs, hoping to strike it big with a sleeper.
In leagues that use $200 budgets, you're probably going to pay between $15 and $20 for the tippity-top tight ends. Is it worth it? I wish I could answer absolutely. The trade-off 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 an Antonio Gates or Dallas Clark 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.