So, it turns out that the 2011 NFL season was a pretty good one for tight ends. You may have heard about it. Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham became the first tight ends in NFL history to reach 1,300 receiving yards, and Gronk also set an all-time record with 17 receiving touchdowns.
The big question entering 2012 fantasy drafts – both dynasty and redraft – is not about who leads this position but about how high Gronk and Graham should be drafted. They were picked with the 11th and 12th overall picks in the mid-July LeagueSafe draft. Should it be the same in dynasty leagues?
Typically, given how much I enjoy arguing about fantasy football, this is where I would pull out some stats to tell you why Gronk and Graham are bad investments. Stuff like: There have only been 30 instances in NFL history of a tight end finishing with 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. And only 10 of those tight ends also caught 10 or more touchdowns. So, given that sparse history of success, why would anyone count on Gronkowski and Graham hitting those totals again in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 and beyond?
But, really, bringing up historical stats is irrelevant for Gronk and Graham. They already tossed out any preconceived notions about tight end production last year, and they are clearly poised to build on the successful foundation laid by predecessors like Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten. So, by all means, feel free to start thinking about drafting a tight end with a top-15 pick in your dynasty league.
Note: These rankings are not for PPR leagues. If your league scores one point (or one-half or two or whatever) per reception, be sure to adjust accordingly.
(Ages listed are as of July 1, 2012.)
1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots (23)
2. Jimmy Graham, Saints (25)
Gronk or Graham? Jimmy or Rob? Most experts across the fantasy landscape appear to prefer the Patriots, but it’s by no means a consensus. The purpose of this article is not to settle that 1A vs. 1B debate. The bottom line: You’re set either way.
3. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots (22)
4. Jermichael Finley, Packers (25)
As with Gronk and Graham at 1-2, placing Hernandez and Finley in these slots shouldn’t cause much debate. But people may be wondering if they really deserve to be in a tier of their own. Admittedly, I wouldn’t expect a huge gap in draft positions or in auction dollars amounts between Hernandez, Finley, and Vernon Davis, but I believe the gap is warranted due to age and upside of the offenses.
5. Vernon Davis, 49ers (28)
6. Fred Davis, Redskins (26)
7. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (27)
8. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (24)
9. Antonio Gates, Chargers (32)
10. Jason Witten, Cowboys (30)
Welcome to the “tight end run” tier. Fantasy owners in any type of league should be content with any of these six guys as their starting tight end, and after the Hernandez-Finley dominoes fall, you’ll see these names called fairly quickly as owners grow fearful of missing out on a decent starter.
I’m confident in Davis, Pettigrew, and Gresham becoming low-end, top-10 fixtures for the foreseeable future, and the tricky part here was figuring out where to slot Gates and Witten. I would have no problem if a fantasy owner chose Gates or Witten before Fred Davis and then grabbed a young talent like Kyle Rudolph a few rounds later. That makes total sense. But in the vacuum of a rankings article, the older guys were pushed down a bit for obvious reasons.
11. Jared Cook, Titans (25)
12. Coby Fleener, Colts (23)
13. Brent Celek, Eagles (27)
14. Jacob Tamme, Broncos (27)
15. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (22)
I’ve seen Fleener ranked nearly this high in redraft leagues – which is a little ridiculous considering the track record of rookie tight ends – and I suspect he’ll be a hot commodity in dynasty leagues. His situation looks great on paper, but I’d like to see him play in an actual NFL game before I consider him a cornerstone for my team.
Since 1990, there have been seven individual seasons where a tight end caught at least 45 passes while averaging more than 15 yards per reception. One of those seven is Jared Cook, and other names on the list include Gates, Vernon Davis, and Shannon Sharpe. Displaying that type of athleticism and potent as a tight end doesn’t necessarily mean greatness is forthcoming (I’m looking at you, Rickey Dudley), but Cook’s potential justifies my ranking.
16. Dustin Keller, Jets (27)
17. Owen Daniels, Texans (29)
18. Greg Olsen, Panthers (27)
19. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons (36)
20. Ed Dickson, Ravens (24)
Dustin Keller had a very solid 2011, but as you can tell by the rankings, I’m not a huge fan. And judging by the contract negotiations (or lack thereof), the Jets don’t appear to be sold on Keller either. I still like him as a low-end starter in 2012, but the long-term outlook is hazy.
I couldn’t leave Gonzalez off the top-20, even though he obviously is at the end of his career. He is the perfect later-round pick for an owner who gambles on a youngster like Fleener or Rudolph.
The 20th and final spot ended up being one of my toughest decisions, as there are a number of 25-and-under tight ends with the athleticism and potential to be pretty good fantasy commodities if all breaks well for them. But I like Dickson’s moxie and couldn’t argue with a guy who has his sights set on Gronk’s touchdown record.
Missing the cut: Kellen Davis, Bears (26), Lance Kendricks, Rams (24), Tony Moeaki, Chiefs (25), Martellus Bennett, Giants (25), Kellen Winslow, Seahawks (28), Dwayne Allen, Colts (22), Ladarius Green, Chargers (22)