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Breaking Down The Top 10 Tight Ends

Thank goodness the Fourth of July weekend has come and gone as it brought an end what was an eventful week in the NFL and in the fantasy football realm.

What started with ‘suspension Thursday’ ended with a pair of defensive players suffering fireworks injuries. I will forego getting up on my soapbox regarding the dangers of handling fireworks by amateurs and instead wish a speedy recovery to both Jason Pierre-Paul and C.J. Wilson.

While Individual Defensive Player (IDP) league owners will have to navigate the waters with a potential top-3 defensive linemen out of action for a while, ‘suspension Thursday’ hit home with owners in non-IDP formats. Preseason top-10 tight end Antonio Gates has been handed a four-game suspension for violating the league’s Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED) policy.

I will also skip my soapbox sermon regarding players using ‘holistic’ medicine that they don’t run by the league first. Hey, it’s an original excuse so let’s give Gates credit for that.

As luck would have it, the Gates suspension falls right into our laps when we are taking a look at the top-10 ranked tight ends heading into 2015. It feels good when things just fall into place.

Of all the skill positions (sit down kickers! I am not telling you again), there was more movement among the top 10 tight ends since March than any other position.

Enough stalling and let’s take a gander at my currently ranked top 10 tight ends for 2015.

1) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots (previous rank – 1): Yes, it is still Gronkowski’s world and we are all just living in it. He is a tier unto himself and it is not even close. In standard scoring formats last season, Gronkowski outscored the second place tight end by 30 points, and in points per reception formats the margin was 36.

As if Gronkowski needed any help in distancing him from the pack, this offseason has seen a huge shakeup among the top of the tight end class from this time last year.

Jimmy Graham is now a Seattle Seahawk after being traded and will see a dip in the 142 targets per year he’s averaged the last four seasons. With Julius Thomas leaving the Denver Broncos for Jacksonville, he is unlikely to see the 16 red zone targets and 12 touchdowns he’s averaged the last two seasons. We already mentioned the Gates (who finished second in tight end scoring last year) situation.

Those are the reasons other tight ends are falling off, so let’s look at a few reasons Gronkowski is also pulling away. Gronkowski has racked up double-digit touchdowns in every season that he has played at least 10 games (he played only seven games in 2013). He averages better than 14 yards per reception over his career and 958 yards per season the last four years.

Gronkowski has finished as a top-5 tight end in every season except the injury-shortened 2013 and twice finished as the top scorer with a second-place ending as well. The bottom line is that when Gronkowski is on the field he produces at an elite level and that will continue despite the looming suspension that quarterback Tom Brady faces. Oh yeah, Gronkowski is also completely healthy heading into training camp for the first time in a few years. He is a first-round draft pick in redraft leagues.

2) Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks (previous rank – 2): Yes, Graham is still sitting precisely where he was in many rankings prior to fantasy drafts in 2014. No, he is no longer in the conversation as the top overall tight end selection. He is actually closer to dropping to third or fourth than he is to catching Gronkowski at the top.

To slightly misquote Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” “We are not in New Orleans anymore.” Graham is leaving behind quarterback Drew Brees, and the 658 passing attempts he averaged per season since he entered the league, for the great Northwest.

Sure, Graham will step right in as the main focus of the Seahawks’ passing game but that isn’t as enticing as it sounds. Since entering the league, quarterback Russell Wilson has averaged just 417 pass attempts per season and Seattle has run the football more than half the time. It is highly unlikely (I’m being kind here) that Graham will see the nine targets per game he’s averaged the last four seasons in New Orleans.

It’s not all doom and gloom, he’s No. 2 after all, for Graham as he is teaming up with a young quarterback that just may be the next Drew Brees. The 452 passes that Wilson attempted last year were a career high. While they are still working on a long-term deal, the fact that Seattle is surrounding Wilson with better receiving options shows a commitment to more passing in the future.

Look for Graham to be utilized both over the middle as well as a field-stretching deep threat with his ability to create mismatches all over the field. Graham is also one of, if not the most, dangerous red zone options in the league, and while Marshawn Lynch will still garner some goal line looks, you can bet Graham leads the team in that regard.

I’m guessing short slants from inside the 5-yard line are for the most part avoided this season (sorry Seahawks fans). Jump balls to the 6-foot-6 Graham will be employed early and often. He is no longer a first- or second-round fantasy draft option. Folks may start to consider selecting Graham late in the third round or optimally in the fourth at the earliest.

3) Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (previous rank – 4): The hype train for Kelce is at full speed here early in July and yours truly is fully on board. There is a lot to like about the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end as he enters his third year in the league.

First and foremost is that while playing himself back into shape last season he managed to put up top-7 fantasy totals in both standard and points per reception scoring formats.

Early in the year, Kelce was basically on a snap count as he returned from a knee injury that cost him all of the 2013 season. Despite averaging only 34 snaps per game in the season’s first nine weeks, Kelce posted 32 receptions and four touchdowns. His breakout game was the eight receptions for 93 yards and a score in Week 4 against New England.

Kelce would still find himself splitting reps with the now departed Anthony Fasano until emerging in Week 10 as the top tight end option.

From Weeks 11-17, Kelce averaged 55 snaps per game and finished the year with a flourish. Over the final four weeks of the season he hauled in 23 passes for an average of 71 yards per game and one touchdown.

Kelce is an ascending fantasy talent on an offense committed to improving its passing game. As the undisputed No. 1 tight end from the jump, Kelce is primed for a big season. The addition of Jeremy Maclin should help to free up space for Kelce to operate down the seam and he has the physical tools to dominate smaller defensive backs.

Look for Kelce to cement his place among the second tier of tight ends (we already established Gronkowski as the first tier) with a very productive 2015 campaign.

4) Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers (previous rank – 3): While not the sexiest name to call out on fantasy draft day, Olsen is nonetheless a valuable one for fantasy purposes. He brings something that every fantasy owner covets at a volatile position such as tight end … consistency.

Over the past three seasons he has finished as a top-10 scorer in both standard and points per reception scoring formats. In fact, he landed at No. 4 last season setting career highs in targets, receptions and receiving yards.

Olsen has shown excellent durability as well, having missed a total of two games in his eight-year career and they were both back in 2007. Since joining the Panthers in 2011, he has averaged just over 1,000 snaps per season according to Pro Football Focus.

Olsen is a favorite target of quarterback Cam Newton, who has thrown his way more than 100 times in three of their four years together. He has also caught at least 69 passes in each of the past three seasons and never caught less than five touchdowns as a Panther (the consistency thing again).

With a less-than-stellar wide receiver corps led by second-year wideout Kelvin Benjamin and rookie Devin Funchess, Olsen will be very busy again in 2015.

For the past two seasons Olsen has led the team in receptions and that is likely to continue as Newton will look to rely on his most trusted receiving option. Olsen is a prime example of a tight end who can be had in the later rounds at a position of value and put up top-5 fantasy numbers.

5) Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears (previous rank – 5): After some brief blustering about getting a new contract, Bennett showed up to minicamp and has stated he will be at training camp. That is good news for fantasy owners as Bennett has emerged over the past two seasons as a fantasy force.

In his first season with Chicago (2013), Bennett finished as the No. 10 tight end and last season jumped up to a fifth-place finish. He set career highs in targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season.

Since escaping Jason Witten’s shadow in Dallas, Bennett has seen his catch total increase on a yearly basis. It increased by ten receptions from 2012-13 (55 for the New York Giants and 65 for the Bears) and then a hefty jump of 25 from 2013-14 as he hauled in 90 passes.

Bennett has also been a workhorse since joining Chicago and proved to be very durable, playing all 32 regular season tilts. His run blocking ability is underrated, and while that doesn’t seem like a fantasy bonus it is because it keeps Bennett on the field. He’s averaged 972 snaps per season since joining Chicago and is the undisputed top tight end again heading into 2015.

Of course, there will be significant change to the Chicago offense this season as Marc Trestman and his “pass-a-palooza” offense was shown the door. The days of seeing 128 targets are over for Bennett as new head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase will eschew the dink-and-dunk scheme Trestman employed.

All is not lost, however, as one thing Gase does love to utilize is big tight ends in the red zone and Bennett stands 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. During his two years in Denver, Gase’s tight ends were targeted 49 times in the red zone and 6-foot-5 Julius Thomas saw 33 of those targets. Oh yeah, Thomas also caught 12 touchdowns in both 2013 and 2014. That is good news for Bennett, indeed.

Also working in his favor is the fact that Jay Cutler tends to lock in on receivers he trusts and with Brandon Marshall now in New York that leaves Bennett and Alshon Jeffery as the primary options for Cutler.

So while Bennett will likely return to the 60-65 receptions range, there is a very good chance that he surpasses his career-high six touchdowns and reaches double-digit scores for the first time, making him a top-5 option for fantasy purposes.

About Wally Spurlin

Wally Spurlin is a Fantasy Football Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer Association (FSWA). Spurlin’s work has appeared in print publications, including the FSWA award winning 2014 USA Today Fantasy Football magazine as well as the 2015 edition. Wally is also a weekly co-host on the Fantasy Football Feeding Frenzy pod cast on Fantasy Sharks Radio at Blog Talk Radio.Follow him on Twitter @WaltonSpurlin