The tight end position has emerged as the “Belle of the ball” over the past few seasons and is no longer a position to ignore until the middle rounds after a brave soul of an owner took Antonio Gates in the third round … gasp! The NFL, as well as fantasy football, is a copycat league and team-after-team is looking for their big, athletic tight end to create mismatches in defensive backfields. Let’s take a look at the rankings for tight ends with training camp only a couple of weeks away.
1) Jimmy Graham, New Orleans: Count me among the pundits who believe that Graham has ascended to the top spot over Rob Gronkowski. The main reason is that while Gronkowski will have a very hard time matching the 18 touchdowns he amassed in 2011 and Graham will actually improve on the 11 that he put up. Watching Drew Brees abuse defensive backs and linebackers by lofting the ball to a spot where only the super-athletic Graham can go up and get it will be common place once again next season. Graham is still learning the position and was targeted 24 more times than Gronkowski last season. Brees will force-feed him the ball again in 2012.
2) Rob Gronkowski, New England: This really is the classic, “Six of one, a half dozen of the other” scenario. Graham and Gronkowski are 1 and 1A, and ranking one over the other is really a matter of splitting hairs. Tom Brady knows a good thing when he sees it (case in point, his wife) and he certainly realizes that he has the league’s premier red zone tight end option in Gronkowski. Brady will continue to target the big guy from Arizona until defenses can figure out a way to shut him down. Should that actually happen, the Patriots have such a dizzying amount of talented receiving options that as defenses sellout to stop Gronkowski that Brady will simply target someone else to reap the benefits.
3) Aaron Hernandez, New England: Hello, ‘Someone else.’ Hernandez actually had a very successful 2011 fantasy season by registering more than 900 yards receiving and seven touchdowns, all of which was overshadowed by the record-setting seasons that Gronkowski and Graham put together. Hernandez is really an oversized receiver lining up from the tight end position for the Patriots, and creating mismatches with slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs. He has excellent hands and the speed to run away from defenders once he has made the catch. Also, Brady looks his way often. When New England trots out its two-tight end sets, defenses are forced to pick their poison when deciding who to try and double, leaving the other free to burn them. The addition of Brandon Lloyd has been pointed to as a reason that Hernandez may see a drop in his totals and I steadfastly disagree with this assessment. Lloyd will run his vertical routes and actually free up more space in the middle and seam routes at which Hernandez excels.
4) Vernon Davis, San Francisco: Davis came out of the gate very slowly last season, admitting that he had a hard time picking up the new San Francisco offensive scheme. As a result, his final numbers for the 2011 fantasy season look a bit pedestrian compared to the players ranked directly above him. He notched 67 receptions, 792 receiving yards and six touchdowns during 16 regular season contests. However, examining his season a bit more closely reveals the reason why Davis has landed so high in these rankings. In his final three games of the season, Week 17 and two playoff games, Davis was targeted 24 times, amassed 18 receptions for 410 yards and four touchdowns. Oh yeah, he figured out that new offensive scheme just fine and developed a chemistry with Alex Smith that made for a nearly unstoppable combination down the stretch for San Francisco. Both Smith and Davis are back for the 2012 campaign, and the 49ers have also added Mario Manningham and Randy Moss to bolster their receiving corps. That makes it harder for defenses to double-cover Davis. Look for Davis to put up monster fantasy points in 2012 as he comes out of the gate sprinting, rather than stumbling as he did last season.
5) Antonio Gates, San Diego: Ah, now here is a name we have grown accustomed to seeing on top of these rankings for the past eight years. Wow, has it really been that long? Indeed it has, and the odds are that it will be coming to an end sooner rather than later as Gates enters his 10th year in the NFL. That being said, Gates will be the main beneficiary of the departure of deep threat wideout Vincent Jackson and he has at least this one last hurrah before fading into the fantasy sunset. The Chargers are revamping their passing game heading into 2012 as the aforementioned Jackson and Mike Tolbert are taking a combined 100 receptions with them, as they left in free agency. The Chargers have signed former Denver Bronco Eddie Royal and former New Orleans Saint Robert Meachem in an effort to improve their receiving corps, but they may take some time to adjust to their new team. In the meantime, Philip Rivers will hone in on his most trusted target, Gates. Gates has never relied on speed to get open and is a master at using his huge frame to shield defenders from getting between him and the ball. Early reports are that Gates is feeling healthy after struggling with foot problems that have caused him to miss nine games over the past two seasons. As some younger names climb to the top of the rankings and garner early-round fantasy draft selections, Gates will slide down to a very nice value in the middle rounds of your draft and put up excellent stats in 2012.