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Tighten Up

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Draft day is a crazy unpredictable event. No matter how much mock drafting you run yourself through, there will always be wrenches thrown into your gears. If you ask anyone on the planet right now who they were targeting at tight end, the answer of Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham would roll right off their tongue like a Freudian slip. In a 12-team league, 10 of the owners are going to be exhaling deeply with anguish as their targeted tight end goes just a few picks before their next selection. As elite as Gronkowski and Graham are, however, the position is deeper than it’s ever been. Half of the members of a 12-team league will still have an elitist at the position. Added to Gronkowski and Graham are the likes of Vernon Davis , Antonio Gates , Jermichael Finley and Aaron Hernandez .

My bet is that once the third tight end goes off the board, you’ll see a swift flow of panic picks. Once Hernandez is gone, Davis, Finley and Gates could go immediately after. Depending on your draft spot and which way the draft is moving, you could easily find yourself going from looking at a Top 5 option to being on the outside looking in.

After the second run of tight ends we still see solid value, but with much steeper downside. This is where we’ll see Owen Daniels, Jacob Tamme, Tony Gonzalez and Fred Davis begin to be pulled off the board. And there you are, after sitting on your hands a round too long, you’re now tight end-less while the other owners enjoy Gronkowski, Graham, Hernandez, Gates, Vernon Davis, Fred Davis, Finley, Owens Daniels, Tony Gonzalez and Jacob Tamme.

In order to balance out the tight end matchup each week against the other owners, you’re going to need to find serious value late. Luckily for those of us who like to wait on this particular position, tight end is deep enough in 2012 that you can do just that. There’s nothing flashy about these guys here, but we can see the tremendous amount of potential just waiting to be unleashed. Each of them has a great blend of overall talent added with gifted quarterbacks creating some very intriguing situations. Nothing amazing, but they’ll get the job done and could seriously surpass expectations.

Greg Olsen - I have a very strong tendency to not feel bad for professional athletes. These guys get paid millions of dollars to play the game they love and stay in shape during the offseason. Greg Olsen is my exception to the rule. Olsen has been underused so much in his career that it should be considered a criminal offense. Mike Martz murdered Olsen’s shot at a huge contract by running the wrong offense with the wrong personnel in Chicago. Olsen, at that time the Bears’ best receiver, was turned into nothing more than a blocking dummy. This year, Olsen’s second with Carolina, could be a strong breakthrough performance. Opposing linebackers are going to be forced to stay outside of the tackles, close to the line to monitor Cam Newton.

Newton proved to be the best rushing quarterback in the league in 2011, and defenses will be much more mindful of his ability to rip off huge gains this year. With the linebackers playing up to contain Newton, Olsen should see more room behind the linebacking core and in front of the safeties. Olsen is a big bodied target with great hands and will be used more in Year 2 with Cam Newton than he was last season. Also, Jeremy Shockey was released, increasing Olsen’s routes and playing time. The former first-round pick could put up big stats in 2012.

Lance Kendricks - The St. Louis tight end made a few great plays in 2011. However, outside of a handful of flashy plays from Kendricks and the usual play from Steven Jackson, there was nothing special about the 2011 Rams. Most of that falls squarely onto the shoulders of Sam Bradford. Bradford missed considerable time in 2011 due to nagging, hard-to-shake injuries. If Bradford can stay on the field for all 16 games, Kendricks should be able to put up some very noticeable numbers.

The word out of St. Louis is that second-round wide receiver Brian Quick has been impressing and could win the No. 1 receiver spot. Having Quick,Steve Smith and Danny Amendola in the slot will add up to an effective and underappreciated offense. As long as the offensive line plays well enough to free Kendricks from acting as an extra lineman, he should be able to develop a great relationship with Bradford, creating big-time defensive mismatches. Outside of Steven Jackson, no one on the Rams offense is a sure thing, though. But this late in the game you’re grasping at straws anyway. You might as take a swing on a great talent and hope for the best.

Jermaine Gresham - The Cincinnati Bengals spent most of the offseason attempting to figure out who exactly Andy Dalton’s secondary target is going to be. Just when they thought they had their answer in Jerome Simpson, he had to go ahead and force himself right out of town. The Bengals had to then turn to the draft for answers seeing that the major players in free agency had already inked deals.

Their second-round pick of Muhammad Sanu offers a lot of potential, but nothing is a sure thing. Rookies vary from case to case. Just because A.J. Green grasped the offense in his first campaign doesn’t mean that it’ll be that easy for Sanu. On top of that, the Bengals have their slot man, Jordan Shipley, attempting to work his way back from injury. With all the question marks making up the Bengals receiving corps, outside of Green of course, Jermaine Gresham could be utilized more than he was last season.

Andy Dalton will be looking for reliable targets to move the chains, and Gresham could be the second-best talent on the squad. The only thing holding back Gresham’s production is the fact that head coach Marvin Lewis really hasn’t had a top-notch tight end in all of his years with the Bengals. Hopefully this is due to lack of talent at the position over the years and not a Mike Martz disposition situation. What we do know is that the talent is there in Gresham, he has a more-than-capable quarterback, and he has an elite downfield teammate drawing coverage over the top. The situation could be playing right into his favor, or dare I say, hands.

Coby Fleener - Rookie quarterbacks have a tendency to be impatient in the pocket. When the pressure begins to build, they like to get the ball out of their hands at first chance. The offensive line of the Indianapolis Colts is going to be in complete shambles this year. This is an enormous transition year for Indianapolis. Even with all of these things in mind, rookie quarterback Andrew Luck is being asked to replicate the stats that Peyton Manning put up in his rookie year. If Luck even gets half way to that point, Fleener will have played a huge role in the process.

Luck is going to have slot receiver Austin Collie and veteran Reggie Wayne at his disposal. That’s about it. Collie is constantly off the field with concussion issues and Wayne is not the Wayne he used to be. By the time Wayne beats coverage, the pressure on Luck may be too much to capitalize on it. To me, Fleener has a 50/50 chance of being a Top 10 tight end in 2012. He has the talent, the situation, and even the pre-established chemistry thanks to being Luck’s teammate in college. The biggest factor is that of the coaching staff. Do they hold Fleener in to help create more time for Luck or do they let him loose and make him a large part of the offense?

The truth is we don’t know at this point. He could be given the Heath Miller treatment and be cemented at the end of the line. Or he could be given green light to run wild. Letting Fleener off the line in the state that the offensive line is in would most likely mean more 5-7 step drops for Luck. We don’t know how the franchise will use their new star signal caller until deep into the season. If Luck is allowed to drop back and Fleener is allowed to run his routes, they could rival Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in the rookie to rookie touchdown category.

Brandon Pettigrew - He’s not ranked as low as the previously mentioned players, but he’s still a ways back from the elite. Detroit has done a great job surrounding quarterback Matthew Stafford with talent. Calvin Johnson is the best of the best, Titus Young is a great speedster, Nate Burleson provides the possession work, and Brandon Pettigrew picks up the scraps. After the season that Johnson just put in, though, you can bet the ranch that defenses will be forced to change their strategies with him. He simply can’t be matched up against 1-on-1. Hell, he can’t even be double teamed effectively. Johnson could be in for the dreaded triple team action. Defenses may be forced to play Johnson 1-on-1 with a cornerback, a safety mirroring him over the top, and a linebacker playing zone in front of him. He’s still great enough of a receiver to connect with Stafford in the small openings, but they may not come at the pace they did last year.

With possibly of three players following Calvin Johnson’s every move, it would be a smart decision to send Pettigrew right out to the same side of the field. Pettigrew could find himself one-on-one with a zone scheming linebacker on a regular basis. I’ll take Pettigrew against 90 percent of the outside linebackers in the NFL. He’ll be a broken tackle away from huge yards after the catch. If the defensive mentality turns into a “take away Johnson and force Stafford to beat us” mindset, Pettigrew will be the second best guy to own in Detroit.