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The Tight End Dilemma

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QBs, RBs and WRs are, and should be, the focus in building a legitimate fantasy roster. But games are often won and lost by the role players. Tight ends, kickers and defenses are all positions that must be filled on a weekly basis. In formats where a flex player is not utilized, the TE is your flex player. The position pool has the unique dynamic of sparse elite talent, combined with decent depth and numerous sleeper candidates. The ‘09 tight end list appears to be as deep as ever. Bargain buys can be found in the late rounds, and some legitimate talent is being left undrafted. As with every position, it's about "return on investment" - getting the greatest value at the cheapest price. So when is it appropriate to draft a TE?

The "Tight End Predicament" occurs as the top tier wideouts disappear and a fantasy GM is left with the decision on whether to draft a No. 2 wide receiver or an elite TE. Pinnacle producers at the position are rare. The scarcity of such talent can inflate their value. High-profile names often come at a high-profile price. Fantasy GM's need to be careful not to reach too early on these players. But a stud TE can be the difference maker to your team ... that is if you don't have to break the bank to get him.

An easy way to assist yourself when faced with this predicament is to create a composite list combining your WR and TE ranks. Doing so will allow you to compare stats and more accurately assess player value. Let's take a look at early and late round TE/WR ADP (Average Draft Position) trends:

4th/5th Round                     4th/5th Round

TE Value:                           WR Value:

Jason Witten                       TJ Housh

Antonio Gates                     Vincent Jackson

Tony Gonzalez                     DeSean Jackson

Dallas Clark                         Lee Evans

These selected few TEs are the cream of the crop. They offer consistent week-to-week production. Although these wideouts have decent potential, there are concerns and risk for streaky play.

13th Round                        13th Round

TE Value:                           WR Value:

Dustin Keller                       Earl Bennett

Zach Miller                         Darrius Heyward-Bey

Brent Celek                        Devery Henderson

Kevin Boss                         Brian Robiskie

Visanthe Shiancoe               Plaxico Burress

Point being - no other position has starting talent this late in the draft. All TEs mentioned have the possibility of weekly producton, while the wideouts would be lucky to see starting time on bye weeks. Other TEs lasting late: Vernon Davis and Anthony Fasano.

Although it is helpful to construct a composite list, there are still individual expectations for each position. One thousand receiving yards for a wide receiver is expected, but for a TE it is amazing. Eighty-plus catches is considered impressive for a wideout, where 60-plus catches gets the nod of approval for a TE. As a receiver, eight TDs may earn you the title of a "red-zone threat", where a TE may come about it much easier.

If your league roster starts three WR, the WR drought starts much earlier and a TE may be worth waiting for. But if your league only starts two WR, then an early TE selection can be afforded. Consistent tight end production can make up for streaky wideout play. If selected at the right time, for the right price, legitimate TE1's can provide your team with the weekly edge it needs to assure a playoff spot.

To sum it up: If you're not in a good spot to draft one of the Top 4 - sit back and take a nap with a sleeper. The discrepancy in production from the fifth selected TE and the 12th selected TE could be next to nil. The only difference is that you got yours five to six rounds later. Don't be uptight when drafting a tight end. Other positions will dry out quick - drink from those waters before dipping into the TE pool. WARNING: If you chose to wait it out, plan on selecting a second TE prior to the competition to ensure week-to-week production.

In short: If you can't get Witten, you might as well wait.

Jason Witten: Witten and Tony Romo's "Bromance" was enough to get T.O.'s attention. The committed QB and his partner could not entertain the thought of a love triangle, and Owens was sent packing. With the jealous girlfriend out of the picture, Tony and Jason can focus on expanding their relationship. Owens leaves behind three consecuative 1,000-plus yard, double-digit TD seasons in Dallas. A lot of stats are up for grabs. Roy Williams is not Terrell Owens. Witten will remain the primary target in the Cowboy offense. His versatility as a blocker keeps him on the field regardless of the play call. He appears to be this year’s consensus No. 1 TE pick. You're going to have to pay a pretty penny to get him, as his current ADP is in the early fourth round. Look for him to put in his best statistical season as a pro. Dallas did a good job of nurturing along rookie-project Martellus Bennett. Although he only caught 20 balls on the season, four of them went for scores, tying Witten's TD total for the year.  

Tony Gonzalez: Over the past several years we have all watched and waited for the King to fall off his thrown. Every year we pick out a successor to the crown, and every year we are proven wrong. Tony G is the greatest TE to ever play the game. Last year’s amazing performance added to his already impressive resume: 96 receptions, 1,058 receiving yards, and 10 TDs. His consistency is remarkable and his sportsmanship well respected. When you hear the name "Gonzo" you immediately think "Kansas City Chiefs.” But this year all of that changes as he travels to the ATL in pursuit of a Super Bowl ring. Gonzo produced with mediocre Tyler Thigpen throwing him the ball, but the Chiefs offense was tailor made around him. It will be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Mark Mularkey works him into the Falcons’ gameplan. Gonzalez's presence will assist in the maturation of Matt Ryan and should allow Atlanta to contend for the NFC South title. Ridiculous seasons lead to ridiculous expectations. Don't expect ‘08 numbers, but Gonzo should escape that grips of Father Time for yet another year.   

Antonio Gates: Once thought to be the successor to the throne, Gates has returned to earth from his early career numbers. He still produced as a top fantasy TE despite minor injuries and inconsistencies. Philip Rivers' maturation as a quarterback has hurt Gates' value. Gates is no longer the only target in the San Diego offense. Rivers’ confidence, accuracy and comfort with other playmakers has made him less reliant on the check down. Coach Norv Turner has voiced his confidence in LaDainian Tomlinson's ability to return to his workhorse production of yesteryears. Look for the Chargers to re-establish the ground game. But if L.T.'s ‘08 struggles follow him into ‘09, the air attack should open up once again. Gates has reported to have had an excellent offseason. This season should be a bounce back year, but his name alone carries weight and may force him to be selected ahead of where he should.

Kellen Winslow: After a thorough washing out of coach Gruden and seasoned vets Joey Galloway, Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks, the Buccaneers have made some major off-season moves. The franchise tagging of Antonio Bryant, the acquisition of Derrick Ward and the trading for Winslow has created somewhat of a fantasy buzz in Tampa. When on the battle field, the self-proclaimed "soldier" has given us glimpses of incredible possibilities. Kellen caught his share of shrapnel for his "soldier" comment, but let’s not forget he had fluid drained from his testicle in order to get on the field. Multiple factors contributed to his ‘08 struggles. Winslow should rebound in ’09 and has upside that may outweigh his risks. He is only one year removed from an impressive ‘07 campaign where he tallied up 82 catches for 1,106 yards and five scores. Questions still remain around the quarterback situation in Tampa. With Bryant as the only other legitimate receiving threat, Winslow should get his fair share of targets. He's got "Boom or Bust" written all over him. If you're a gambling man, he may be worth a roll of the dice.

Owen Daniels: Houston should have one of the more fantasy-friendly offenses in the league. Daniels' production takes a hit when Matt Schaub is not under center. If Schaub can stay healthy and Daniels can improve on his redzone production, he may be in for a break out year in ‘09. Keep an eye on how the Texans work rookie James Casey into the offense. Casey was a do-it-all man for Rice, lining up in six different positions. In ‘08, Casey landed 111 catches for 1,329 yards and 12 scores.

Brent Celek: With the departure of L.J. Smith to Baltimore, Celek steps up in the starters role. His ‘08 numbers do not accurately reflect his impact, for during the Eagles’ playoff run he totaled 19 catches for 151 yards and three TDs. He is currently being left until the 14th round, and is a sure bet to outproduce his draft spot. If I don't get one of the top studs, or even if I do, Celek will be on my late-round radar. The Eagles drafted Cornelius Ingram out of Florida. Ingram is a raw talent that has to make up for a lost senior season due to injury. He has been said to be impressing in camp, but he remains a project that needs polishing. He may be an interesting pick up in dynasty formats, but Celek should be the man for Donovan McNabb in ‘09.

Dustin Keller: The Brett Favre-to-Keller connection looked like it had been years in the making. With rookie Mark Sanchez the favorite to win the starting job, look for the Jets to establish a run-first offense. Inexperienced QBs are more apt to using their safety valves. The Jets lack a true No. 1 wideout. Jerricho Cotchery is the headliner of a young and unproven receiving unit. Keller should be one of the more targeted options in the passing game. His most recent ADP has him falling to the 13th round. Good things come to those who wait!

John Carlson: Carlson was on an absolute tear heading into the fantasy playoffs of ‘08. His rookie success may have been due to the dismantlement of the Seattle receiving corps. Matt Hasselbeck is rumored to be healthy, but so is Nate Burleson and Deion Branch. With the free-agent signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the drafting of Deon Butler - Carlson will be in tougher competition for targets. That being said, he should still piece together a decent encore to his successful rookie campaign.

It looks like the learning curve is shorter for tight ends than wide receivers. Who, if anyone, are the Carlson's and Keller's of this year? Here are some rookies that may surprise in ‘09: Brandon Pettigrew, DET; Chase Coffman, CIN; Jared Cook, TEN; and Shawn Nelson, BUF.

Preseason Superlatives

Cream of the Crop: Jason Witten, DAL

Father Time: Tony Gonzalez, ATL

Bang or Bust: Kellen Winslow, TAM

Undervalued: Zach Miller, OAK; Dustin Keller, NYJ

Break Out Candidates: Greg Olsen, CHI; Owen Daniels, HOU

Fantasy Liability: Jeremy Shockey, NO

Sleeper: Brent Celek, PHI

Super-Sleeper: Chase Coffman, CIN

Rookie of the Year: Brandon Pettigrew, DET

Surprising ‘08 Stats: Visanthe Shiancoe, MIN, 7 TDs; Kevin Boss, NYG, 6 TDs, Anthony Fasano, MIA, 7 TDs