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Position Primer: Graham, Gronk, endless useful talent dominate TE talk

Brad Evans
Roto Arcade

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The Y! guys don't feel Graham is a slam dunk first-round pick. (USAT)

Almost 300 years ago, presumably when Morten Anderson was born, a trading post populated by alligators, serpents and fur trappers was officially staked by France in the name of Phillip II. Centuries later another monarch, in what is now New Orleans, is about to sit atop a throne made for one.

Fanatics, bow down to Jimmy Graham.

This year, the tight end position is fantasy's version of the Great Schism. Uncertainties involving perplexing injuries (e.g. Rob Gronkowski), advanced age (Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates), recent inconsistencies (Vernon Davis) and unproven track-records (Jordan Cameron and Rob Housler) has created an enormous gap.

It really is Graham and a bunch of other dudes.

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TETiers1

A healthy Gronk would set the stage for a duumvirate, but restrictions from multiple forearm/back surgeries greatly complicates the Pat's overall value. The expert community is split over where he should be drafted. To the left, eternal optimists are more than wiling to invest an early-round pick in a commodity that finished only behind Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall in points per game among WRs/TEs last year. Ten games from Gronk, they say, would be pure statistical bliss. However, to the right, players drink from a glass half empty. After all, assuming he lands on the regular season PUP list, six missed games would account for 46-percent of the fantasy regular season. They ponder: Why circumvent a Peyton Manning, Darren Sproles or Andre Johnson in Round 3 for a broken product? Count on him and you're living dangerously, Carlos Dangerously.

After the G&G Worry Factory, tight end tiers are defined by marginalization. Frankly, there's little to no difference from say Jason Witten, the third TE falling off draft boards on average, versus Owen Daniels, the twelfth. Last year, the pair were separated by a mere 0.4 fantasy points per game, a divide so slim it's not enough to warrant the 80-pick differential between the two in average drafts. Overall, compared to other positions the tier-to-tier drop-off at TE is much smaller. Even forecasted upstarts Cameron and Housler, both projected to be featured prominently in revamped offenses, could enter the elite fray, potentially vying for top-five TE honors.

Because of the incorporation, abundance and availability of large, athletic targets in today's pass-happy game, it really is a position characterized by endless values. If you refuse to chase Graham early, playing the patience game is a foolproof strategy. Even streaming the position (Pick up, plug and play when the matchup is favorable) appears to be an attractive option.

So what tight end pressing questions are owners fretting about the most? Here's a six-pack of sticklers:

It’s becoming increasingly trendy for owners to sink a Round 1 pick in Jimmy Graham. What’s your take: Smart or stupid?

Andy – I'm not gonna use the word "stupid," because I understand the argument for Graham – he's clearly the top option at his position. Graham is a monster talent tied to an excellent offense, and there are no injury red flags. Still, taking him in Round 1 seems ... well, unwise. You won't enjoy the downstream impact of selecting a tight end at the very top of a draft. That is to say, you'll probably hate your WR3, or your flex, or your RB2. If I can get Graham late in the second round or early in the third — pairing him with AP, Foster or Charles — then great, I'm in.

Scott – STUPID, but don't say it to Graham's face. I worry about what my backfield will look like if I take the plunge in Round 1. I don't entertain a Graham gambit until the middle of the second pass.

Brandon – STUPID. That's a little too rich for my blood. Graham's fantasy PPG value last season would have barely slotted him inside the top 20 at wide receiver last season. Yes, '11 showed that he's capable of more than what he supplied last season, but at the end of Round 1, I'm going to still want one of the remaining featured backs or a top of the heap wideout like A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall or Dez Bryant. And I should add that I'm not getting the same doomsday feeling about Gronk that many are experiencing at the moment.

Unquestionably, Graham is in a tier by himself, but surprises lurk behind every corner in Fantasyland. Ignoring Gronk, what TE is the biggest threat to dethrone the Saint?

Brandon – VD. I'm not ranking Vernon Davis among my top 5 tight ends, but his talent upside (he was No. 1 at TE in '09 and No. 3 in '10) and the loss of Michael Crabtree (and Kaepernick pet Delanie Walker) means VD is likely to be leaned on heavily. I can't guarantee it will all work out, but you can imagine a path to great things if it does.

Brad – DENNIS PITTA. With Anquan Boldin in San Fran, Jacoby Jones in need of a defibrillator and Joe Flacco supposedly now better than Drew Brees (Jaws desperately needs a psychological evaluation), Pitta is poised to solidify his standing as an elite TE1. Look for him to build on his strong finish (Recorded a TD in seven of his last 10 games).

Scott – I'm a DENNIS PITTA man, too. Joe Flacco stepped up in class in the playoffs, Anquan Boldin is gone, and the Ravens don't have such a dreamy defense any longer.

Outside his solitary-confined ex-teammate, no player has experienced more value volatility than Rob Gronkowski. With his availability for the first six weeks of the regular season in jeopardy, what round (in 12-team leagues) would you consider the Pat a good value?

Brandon – ROUND 4. He missed five games last season and still finished right on Graham's tail in fantasy points among tight ends last season. He's worth a top 50 pick from where I'm standing, and I'd certainly consider pulling the trigger on him in the fourth round of a 12-team league depending on how the chips fell to that point.

Brad – ROUND 5. Sitting on a porcupine sounds more enjoyable than chasing a battered tight end anytime before pick No. 60. As stated above, purposely bypassing proven, healthy talent for a commodity that may miss half the fantasy regular season is a stupid game to play. Sure, the payoff could be huge, but the downsides are substantial. Don't jump out of an airplane without a parachute, gamer.

Dalton – ROUND 4/5. I wouldn't draft Gronkowski until the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth round in 12-team leagues. So basically, any time after 50 picks would I then start to consider him decent value, preferably in the 60ish range.

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VD supporters hope the TE and Kaepernick are on the same page Day 1. (USAT)

Vernon Davis was the personification of a seesaw last year. Underused in the regular season, he flourished during San Fran’s Super Bowl run. What version will we see this year: Good, average or ugly?

Brad – GOOD. Davis' supreme blocking skills tied him to the line last year, greatly limiting his opportunities as a receiver. However, Michael Crabtree's Achilles setback forced the coaching staff to reevaluate the TE's role. Lining up as a wide receiver often in minicamp, he will embrace his new expanded role and run with it. A 70-900-7 projection isn't crazy talk.

Dalton – GREAT. The playoff version. With no Michael Crabtree, the 49ers should utilize the talented Davis much more in the passing game. With his skill set combined with Colin Kaepernick's emergence, I fully expect Davis to produce a top-three fantasy season among tight ends.

Andy – GOOD. You're going to love him. With Crabtree out of the picture, presumably until late in the season, the Niners almost have no choice but to lean on Davis. He's been beastly in the playoffs in back-to-back years, so his big game credentials are well-established. Draft and enjoy.

Take away, take away, take away this ball and chain … Antonio Gates crushed investors under a pile of underwhelming performances last year. What TE will cause nothing but pain and suffering this season?

Dalton – TONY GONZALEZ. I don't feel strongly about this, but there are few options among tight ends this year when it comes to the top tiers, and Gonzalez was on the brink of retirement at 37 years old. After recording 61 catches and 617 yards with six touchdowns over the first nine games last season, he had 32 receptions and 313 yards with two touchdowns over his final seven contests.

Andy – KYLE RUDOLPH seems like a strong candidate, because it's going to be awfully tough for him to match last year's touchdown total (9). I think the world of Rudolph's talent, but I have zero interest in attaching myself to Christian Ponder, even indirectly.

Scott – ROB GRONKOWSKI could be an injury-status nightmare for much of the year, and good luck getting a straight answer from the Patriots on anything. New England also has seven games that kick off after the 1 pm ET wave on Sunday, just to make things a little more difficult.

Play the Powerball. What DEEP Rip Van Winkle (120+ ADP) will wake up from a statistical slumber and crack the position’s top-10?

Andy – FRED DAVIS, please. He was quietly productive before the injury last season, and it was basically a fluke that he didn't find the end zone. Davis remains a legit talent, a key piece of a productive offense.

Scott – The Colts should get a sophomore breakout from at least one of their sophomore skill guys. Maybe DWAYNE ALLEN is that man to target (nothing against you, Fleener). Man, did these guys hit a home run with that magical 2012 draft class.

Brandon – JARED COOK. Jeff Fisher says that the Rams will employ Cook all over the field, and with the unproven talent proliferating the St. Louis skill positions, he is actually one of the elders of this mostly inexperienced group. With his athleticism, Cook definitely has the potential to make a top 10 run.

Brad – JORDAN CAMERON. Call me a Brandon Weeden believer. The QB has displayed improved footwork and a quicker release throughout the summer, indications he should take a step forward. Cameron's large frame and plus athleticism will become the apple of Weeden's eye in a Norv Turner offense that historically features the tight end. Look for him to become a focal point immediately with Josh Gordon suspended the first two weeks.

Dalton – JORDAN CAMERON. He's hardly a sleeper at this point, but he's getting hyped for the right reasons (he should see a ton of targets in a system that is conducive to tight end stats). It remains to be seen if he can take advantage of it, but all reports suggest he can. Personally, I'm either going to invest in one of the top-4 tight ends or wait on the position altogether.

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