Tight Ends

Goodbye, Aaron Hernandez. Goodbye young Antonio Gates. Please get healthy, Rob Gronkowski. And good luck with drafting a tight end this year. Unless you get unquestioned number one Jimmy Graham, Gronk, Gonzalez, or Witten, you have little to no idea what you're getting. But that's why I'm here, folks.

The top tight end last year, Jimmy Graham, scored in double digits just SIX times. And Gronkowski scored in double digits just seven times: a far cry from what was supposed to be the deepest and best tight end class we've seen in a while. But instead we ended with tight ends who scored on average worse than kickers. And you all know how I feel about kickers. So let's take a look at some interesting stats.

Gronkowski missed five games yet scored just five points less than number one tight end Jimmy Graham. When healthy, Gronkowski is clearly the best the position has to offer.

Tony Gonzalez, now 36, had just a 2.8 yards-after-catch average, evidence of him slowing down. Yet he did manage the third most points for a tight end.

Kyle Rudolph had five double digit games last season. He also had seven games with two or less points. He finished ninth overall.

From week five through week twelve, Jermichael Finley never caught more than four passes. But in his first four games and last three he averaged 5.3 catches per game. Not half bad in other words. And now Greg Jennings is gone.

After Colin Kaepernick's first start where Vernon Davis put up 83 yards and one touchdown, Davis caught SIX passes in the next SIX games.

Jason Witten accumulated 110 catches but just three touchdowns to show for it.

And here's the kicker (pun intended):
  • The top 10 tight ends averaged a total of 116.4 points for the season. The top 10 kickers meanwhile averaged a total of 148.7 points for the season.
  • The difference between the 1st and 10th kicker was, as expected, a very low 30 points. The difference between the 1st and 10th tight end is just 47 points. In comparison, the 1st QB and 10th QB was 74, the 1st RB and 20th RB was 158, the 1st WR and 20th WR was 79, and the 1st DST and 10th DST was 81..
So what this means is that at least last year, having the best tight end was not nearly as beneficial in comparison to the field as was the top QB, RB, WR, or even the top DST! The tight ends last year were simply mediocre and essentially almost as useless and unpredictable as kickers. The big question is if that will remain true this year. 

With tiers, you will be helped in deciding if you think Jimmy Graham is worth a third or fourth round pick. And it should help you figure out just how much value the tight end has this year. For me, if I can get Witten or Gonzalez in the fifth to seventh round, maybe I'll bite. At least I know I should get around 60 yards per week from them. As for anyone else, I admit, I have no freaking clue. It's that bad. Like the sweater you got for Christmas bad. Or Tim Tebow completion percentage bad. Or even worse, the Aaron Hernandez jersey you just got bad. So with all that badness, here are your 2013 tight end tiers.

Tier 1: The Elite
1. Rob Gronkowski (ADP 40.8)
2. Jimmy Graham (ADP 26.1)

Despite missing five games, Gronkowski scored 11 touchdowns and finished second in points for a tight end. Had he played the whole season at his rate, he would have had 80 catches, 1150 yards, and 16 touchdowns. But the fact is that Gronk has officially become injury prone. He got hurt in the Super Bowl against the Giants and this past season and now multiple surgeries later, Gronk is hoping to retain his elite form. And Graham, who was snubbed in the NFL's top 100 players, is the closest thing to Gronk. If he hadn't dropped a league leading 14 passes, Graham would have been even more spectacular. But assuming he can cut down on drops and with the return of Sean Payton, I expect another solid year from Graham. 

Who I want the most: It has to be Gronk despite his injury concerns. Because right now at his average draft position he brings tremendous draft day value. If he was not hurt, he certainly would be ahead of Graham and in the second to third round range as well. Even if he misses a few games, pick up Jermichael Finley and hope for the best. Or take any other option and hope for the best. But when he is healthy, you've got the biggest positional advantage in the game. And the lack of weapons should only help out Gronkowski. There's just enough there in New England to keep Gronk from being constantly double teamed and he should be just fine. Just look at Calvin Johnson without any help. 

Tier 2: The Elderly Elite:
3. Jason Witten (ADP 56.3)
4. Tony Gonzalez (ADP 52.3)
5. Vernon Davis (ADP 59.2)

Davis is not nearly as old as Witten or Gonzlez, but he sure looked it last year. He had a miserable year with Kaepernick but fortunately made a connection with his QB in the playoffs. And Michael Crabtree's injury could pave way to many more targets in San Francisco. Witten is coming off a monstrous 110 catch season and Gonzalez continues to withstand Father Time. Witten did score just three touchdowns but was a constant and reliable option and will continue to be this season. Gonzalez will still see plenty of red zone targets but will be hurt a bit by incoming Steven Jackson who will add his pass-catching ability to the mix.

Who I want the most: I'll take Witten and his reliability. Gonzalez at age 37 has limited upside and Davis is simply too inconsistent. Witten can still put up large numbers and if his touchdowns returns to a more typical 5-7, he could even surpass Jimmy Graham this year. But if you want an elite tight end this year, make sure you take one of these five in the first 60 picks otherwise you will miss out. 

Tier 3: The Next Five
6*. Dennis Pitta (had he not just dislocated his hip. Likely out for much of season)
7*. Heath Miller (had he not torn his ACL, MCL, and PCL. Likely out much of season)
6. Owen Daniels (ADP 92.1)
7. Antonio Gates (ADP 96.0)
8. Kyle Rudolph (ADP 85.9)
9. Greg Olsen (ADP 96.7)
10. Brandon Myers (ADP 117.8)

Here's a great mixture of mediocre tight ends. Daniels has been okay but nothing special the past several seasons. And on a run-heavy Texans team, he just never racks up too many catches or yards. Rudolph scored nine touchdowns on just 53 catches. Touchdowns are year in and year out very inconsistent and hard to predict (Calvin Johnson has scored 4, 12, 5, 12, 16, and 5 TD's over the years). So one simply cannot count on another year like this from Rudolph. It is much more likely that he replicates his mediocre catches and yardage than his elite touchdown output. Olsen and Myers would both be suited better as a number two option but have found themselves in the top ten. And Gates has fallen off the map the last several years.

Who I want the most: None of them really... But I'll take my chances on Gates. He's old. And partially washed up. But I'm anticipating that Philip Rivers will rebound with the Mike McCoy led offense. A hopefully improved offensive line and gloves should benefit Rivers. Gloves you say? Without gloves last season, Rivers threw 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. With gloves for four games, Rivers posted eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. And I expect these new changes to benefit not only Rivers but also Gates.

Tier 4: Who Knows?
11. Jermichael Finley (ADP 126.2)
12. Martellus Bennett (ADP 130.9)
13. Jared Cook (ADP 121.2)
14. Tyler Eifert (ADP 145.0)
15. Brandon Pettigrew (ADP 137.0)
16. Fred Davis (ADP 141.6)
17. Dustin Keller (ADP 145.5)

Besides Eifert, most of the guys here have been disappointments at some time. Finley is a perennial bust, Pettigrew is a drop and fumble machine, Davis is an injury machine, the once solid Keller is now an undersized and under-performing tight end, and Cook, like Finley, does not live up to his potential. Eifert clearly has the highest upside here but will also play alongside Jermaine Gresham who will get his fair share of catches.

Who I want the most: Sadly, it is Jermichael Finley. And believe me, it is not because I am a Packers fan. Of all the Packers players, Finley represents the organization the worst and is probably the most yelled-at player on the team. But with Greg Jennings out of the picture, Finley might finally put something together. And believe it or not, Finley has some of the best hands on the team. Now I know that is hard to believe. His issues have actually been more about his lack of mental focus and inability to catch in traffic than his actual catching ability. But with more targets presumably and a newly-found focus, Finley might finally make a splash.

Tier 5: Sleeper Zone
18. Jake Ballard (ADP 170.0)
19. Coby Fleener (ADP 144.2)
20. Jermaine Gresham (ADP 142.6)
21. Jordan Cameron (ADP 170.0)
22. Tim Tebow (ADP N/A)

After putting Tebow in the running back tiers as a joke, this is a joke that could possibly become true (although still unlikely he would actually gain tight end eligibility). Ballard has the most potential here as he should take over for Aaron Hernandez. Fleener and Cameron both have great potential for their air attacks. And Greshman is in fantasy limbo as he went from a borderline top ten option to a fantasy outcast.

Who I want the most: I'll take Ballard. Before he tore up his knee last season, he put together a very solid rookie year in New York. He's got great size, okay hands and okay speed. With limited options in New England, it would be a bargain if he can put up numbers anything close to Hernandez's numbers. But keep an eye on former basketball player Jordan Cameron who has all the athleticism that would scream NFL tight end. He's got a long way to go to become a complete NFL player but could surprise.

And here is your consistency chart. As you can see, not too many scored in the double digits. And I chose 6+ games as a benchmark because the top ten tight ends all averaged at least six points per game.

NameDouble Digit Games6+ games
Rob Gronkowski7/11 (5 injured)9
Jimmy Graham611
Jason Witten59
Tony Gonzalez79
Vernon Davis55
Owen Daniels47
Antonio Gates46
Kyle Rudolph59
Greg Olsen45
Brandon Myers36
Jermichael Finley27
Martellus Bennett46
Jared Cook15
Tyler EifertN/AN/A
Brandon Pettigrew16
Fred Davis0 (played 7 games)2
Dustin Keller2 (played 8 games)3
Jake Ballard (2011)3 (played 14 games)5
Coby Fleener03
Jermaine Gresham49
Jordan Cameron01
Tim Tebow00
Nate Amodio00


2012 Fantasy TE Tiers

Tier 1: Gronk
1. Rob Gronkowski

Who I want the most: Brandon Manumaleuna. Not quite. Last year, Gronkowski may have been the biggest difference maker of ANY fantasy player. Take away all his touchdowns and he is still the number TWO tight end! He ranked right behind Calvin Johnson for all WR/TE and would give you the biggest positional advantage in fantasy football. He is worth a first round pick (although I still have reservations in taking a tight end in the first) and he, barring injury, will without a doubt be a top five tight end. 

Tier 2: The Elite
2. Jimmy Graham
3. Antonio Gates

Who I want the most: Jimmy Graham. Graham was sixth among all receivers in targets last year and has freak Antonio Gates-like potential. And speaking of Gates, injury concerns and Philip Rivers throwing to the other team concerns make him a moderate risk this year. For those who do not want to use a first rounder on Gronk, Graham is a great option in the late second or early third round.

Tier 3: The Near Elite
4. Jason Witten
5. Jermichael Finley
6. Vernon Davis

Who I want the most: Jermichael Finley. None of these options are nearly as appealing as last year but they round out the cream of the crop. Finley has all the potential in the world, but has been a disappointment. His drops are as aggravating as ever and he was a mark of inconsistency. He had only four double digit games but still ranked as the number five tight end. He has the highest ceiling of this group and hopefully he does not actually "freestyle" too much this year.

Tier 4: The Solid
7. Aaron Hernandez
8. Jacob Tamme
9. Tony Gonzalez
10. Brandon Pettigrew

Who I want the most: Jacob Tamme. I'm much higher on Tamme than others but I think he will have a fantastic year with as Manning's top tight end. Remember when Dallas Clark went down and Tamme stepped up? Well, now Tamme has a chance to really gel with Manning, and he will be one of Manning's top options. Take a chance on him as you can get him much later than other tight ends. And as we have seen in many of the past years, once we get out of the top five, most tight ends will produce almost the same.

Tier 5: The Rest
11. Fred Davis
12. Jared Cook
13. Owen Daniels
14. Dustin Keller
15. Jermaine Gresham
16. Kellen Winslow
17. Lance Kendricks
18. Brent Celek
19. Coby Fleener
20. Greg Olsen

Who I want the most: Owen Daniels. Even though the Texans have gravitated towards a run-heavy offense, Daniels is the proven and still has great potential.  

Sleeper: Jermaine Gresham. Gresham was very solid last year and can blossom as Andy Dalton continues to improve. Take a chance on him late if you are not very confident in your number one tight end.

Deep Sleeper: Lance Kendricks. He has flashed potential but never really had a chance to prove himself. On a team that lacks superstar receivers, this could finally be Kendricks' year. If Sam Bradford bounces back, Kendricks should produce like a top 12 tight end.


2011 Fantasy TE Tiers

Ranking   Player                  Bye Week                    
1             Antonio Gates       6
2             Jason Witten         5
3             Dallas Clark          11
4             Jermichael Finley   8
5             Vernon Davis         7
6             Zach Miller (FA)     ?
7             Owen Daniels        11
8             Mercedes Lewis     9
9             Kellen Winslow      8
10           Greg Olsen            9
11           Chris Cooley          5
12           Rob Gronkowski     7
13           Tony Gonzalez       8
14           Jimmy Graham       11
15           Tony Moeaki          6

       A key thing to note is that once the top 5 tight ends are gone, the rest of the tight ends basically become KICKERS.  There was hardly a difference between the 6th and 15th tight ends last year. In fact, there was just a 14 point difference! This is less than the difference between the 1st and 10th kickers and I expect this year to behave just about the same.   
        As a result, if you miss out on the elite tight ends, do not panic.  You can wait patiently for a remaining tight end that you may like and take him late in the draft. You will be no worse off with the 12th tight end compared to the 7th.

1. Best of the best: Antonio Gates
       For the usual weak tight end class, Antonio Gates is by far the most proven and in a class of his own.  He is on a high scoring offense and a consistent red zone threat who has 7 stellar seasons under his belt.
       According to ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry, this is shown in the points per game difference between top scorer and next 10 at respective position.  Last year, Gates averaged 13.4 points a game while the 2-11 TE's averaged just 7.1 points per game. This equates for a 6.3 point difference, which is the highest at any respective position (other than QB and Vick).
       So what this means is that Gates was much better than the next 10 guys at his position.  Hypothetically, having Gates should give you the biggest advantage over an opponent. Therefore, one should really target Gates.  He tends to go in the early 4th round and should go no later than the 5th. If you do miss on Gates, there are still 4 other elite options who are just below him, but still have the ability to match him.

2-5: Elite: Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis
       Player I want most: Jermichael Finley. Finley is going much later than Gates and has sky high potential. In a potent Green Bay offense, he will be a top option of Rodgers who missed his TE last season due to an injury.  We only have seen glimpses of Finley due to these injury concerns and is no doubt a risk, but he has big number capabilities.
       These are the only 5 elite options at tight end.  If you want one of them, you will have to jump a little early on them. But it is worth the risk as after here, there is virtually no potential for an elite tight end.

6-15: All of the others:
       Player I want the most: Owen Daniels. He is looking for a comeback year with the Texans and should be utilized in their potent offense. He and Zach Miller, who is currently unsigned, are the closest to elite you can get here. But they are still far from it.
       In terms of potential, Jimmy Graham of New Orleans has the most Gates like talent as he is a former college basketball player. Despite his raw athleticism and good hands, he is on the team that spreads the ball the most. Thus, it will be tough for him to find consistent success (much like all other New Orleans receivers).
       Of the others, I do like Rob Gronkowski after his success from last year and the fact that he has Tom Brady throwing him the ball. Still, there are plenty of options for Brady to throw and it will make consistency tough for him.