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Spin Doctors: Julius Thomas vs. Rob Gronkowski vs. Jordan Cameron vs. Vernon Davis

Everyone knows Jimmy Graham is the cream of the tight end crop, the man, the No. 1 target, Top Jimmy. But things really get interesting when you get to the No. 2 spot on this year's tight end board. We polled four Yahoo scribes and actually came up with four answers, which is what we'll discuss today. Who's Sundance to Graham's Cassidy? Help us figure it out. 

Del Don stumps for Thomas: I’ll acknowledge Julius Thomas has an injury history and that Rob Gronkowski likely has more upside, but he’s safely the No. 2 tight end on my board regardless. This a raw player who has just 15 career starts in the NFL (14 coming last year) after never playing football until his fifth year in college. Despite that, he hauled in 12 TD catches last season over just 14 games, and again, there’s room for plenty of growth as Thomas continues to improve his route running.

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It’s safe to bet on Denver’s offense regressing in 2014, but Eric Decker’s departure frees up 136 targets, and one more Wes Welker concussion could end his career. The touchdown potential is nice, but Thomas also got 8.8 YPT last season, which was more than Jimmy Graham (8.5). It sure helps having Peyton Manning throwing to him.

Gronkowski is coming off a torn ACL and has played in just 18 total games over the past two seasons (although admittedly he’s not far behind Thomas in my ranks), while Vernon Davis is 30 years old and plays on a team that threw the ball the fewest times in the NFL last season and added a bunch more weapons to compete for targets. Meanwhile, Jordan Cameron’s QB situation couldn’t be more in contrast compared to Thomas.

Thomas is an emerging talent playing in the NFL’s best offense who should see increased targets this season. I’d happily draft him in the middle of the third round of fantasy drafts.

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Solid gold or fool's gold? (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Solid gold or fool's gold? (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Evans is down with Gronk: While Americans were grillin,’ chillin’ and blowing off hands during the extended holiday weekend, a simple line penned by a New England beat-writer rocked Fantasyland:

“At this point all signs point toward Gronk being ready to go in Week 1.”

Huge.

Just a couple weeks ago indications suggested the former All-Pro tight end wouldn’t be available until October. Five months removed from reconstructive knee surgery, his eighth body fix in five years, it seemed another partial season was on the horizon. Optimism, though, is on high, an enormous shot in the arm for those willing to absorb the risk.

Because he’s missed 14 games over the past two seasons, the downside is obvious. However, cross that rickety bridge and great rewards are sure to follow. When healthy, he is arguably the finest tight end in the league. Jimmy Graham certainly has an argument, but, the numbers don’t lie. Since his breakthrough campaign in 2011, Gronk has averaged 13.8 fantasy points per game in standard settings. That’s an output better than Graham (12.1) and wide receiver standouts A.J. Green (12.1), Brandon Marshall (12.0) and Dez Bryant (11.9). In fact, only Calvin Johnson (15.5), the indisputable king of the receiving jungle, has outpaced Gronk in the category during that span. That’s it. When you invest in his services, you’re getting a WR1 eligible at tight end.

Without his deadliest weapon on the field last year, Tom Brady struggled mightily with a largely green group outside Julian Edelman. But the experience gained by guys like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins should only enhance Gronk’s value. If they advance, it should only alleviate attention.

New England does like to pound near the goal-line, but Gronk will again be a focal point inside the red-zone. Recall two years ago, he was targeted 17 times inside the 20, catching eight TDs. Even 12 or 13 games from him would outproduce the inconsistent Vernon Davis and one-year only producer Julius Thomas, a pair he bested by a full point-per-game last fall.

When it comes to this exercise, show your Patriotic pride.

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Cameron Outdoor Stadium (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Cameron Outdoor Stadium (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Behrens is a Cameron Man: Whatever questions existed about Jordan Cameron entering last season, he answered them emphatically. He's a star. Cameron ranked third at his position in both receptions (80) and targets (117) last year, and second in receiving yards (917). He was at his best with Brian Hoyer behind center, but he also managed to catch TD passes from a pair of sketchy quarterbacks (Weeden, Campbell) and a punter. Cameron is a hyper-athletic player, not limited in his route-running, and he's entering a contract year. He's also perfectly healthy at the moment, unlike Gronkowski. And to no one's surprise, the offseason hype surrounding Cameron has been absolutely glowing.

Perhaps the best thing Cameron has going for him, at least from a fantasy perspective, is the fact that he's now the unrivaled No. 1 receiver in Cleveland. Remember, the soon-to-be-suspended Josh Gordon averaged 11.4 targets per game last season. A significant share of Gordon's looks will go to Cameron in the year ahead; he's well-positioned to see an increase in usage, even as his team strives for greater run/pass balance. In fact, it wouldn't be much of a shock if Cameron challenged Jimmy Graham for the position lead in total looks, finishing with something in the neighborhood of 140.

Julius Thomas is tied to a terrific passing game, true, but he's also a secondary option, likely to see 25-35 fewer targets than Cameron. Vernon Davis is great, but his team ranked dead-last in the NFL in pass attempts last season - when Crabtree is in the gameplan, Vernon is a mere supporting player.

And Gronk? C'mon. He's a sucker's play in fantasy. When the season opens, he'll be just eight months removed from reconstructive knee surgery (ACL/MCL). If you're expecting an AP-like recovery, you're banking on the unlikeliest outcome. He's also undergone multiple arm and back surgeries in recent years, plus an ankle procedure. You simply aren't getting the 2011 version of Gronk. He should not be part of this conversation. Sorry, Gronk lovers. 

So, for me, Cameron is the obvious No. 2 tight end. I'd actually say there's a better chance he finishes first at his position than outside the top-five.

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Don't tell Singletary (Kyle Terada/USAT)

Don't tell Singletary (Kyle Terada/USAT)

Pianow closes with Davis: Just to make sure every Patriots fan is mad at us, I'll echo Andy's sentiments on Gronkowski. Sucker play. Don't confuse what's possible with what's likely. Don't forget the opportunity cost that comes with taking Gronk - assuming he misses time (and that's a very reasonable assumption). There are no DL slots in fantasy football. Playing a man down comes with a price tag.

Thomas and Cameron are wonderful talents, too, but they've only had one elite year. Cameron also could be dealing with a messy offense in Cleveland, not that it held him back too much in 2013. 

I'm usually floor-driven with these things, which pushes me to Vernon Davis. Okay, he wasn't much of a fantasy factor in 2012, but he was the No. 2 tight end last year, the No. 3 tight end in 2010 and the No. 1 tight end in 2009. He's posted monster numbers many times before, and he's missed one game in six years (are you listening, Gronk?). Don't get squirrely with those early selections.

And while the Niners have more competition for the ball in their 2014 offense, they're also prepared to give Colin Kaepernick more downfield and red-zone responsibility. I'm expecting Davis to get more opportunities, more catches and more yards this year, making up for any touchdown regression he might encounter. (And heck, Davis has made it to the 13-spike mark on two occasions. We can't project it, necessarily, but it's very possible he spikes 10 or more times again, nonetheless.)

I'll let others dream of upside and health and magical things. I just need Davis to produce around his mean, do something he's done several times before. Meet me in Northern California. 

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