You know the rules, gamers. Two experts debate the merits of two players, then we settle this thing in the comments section. Let's play the feud...
Behrens argues for Graham: Well, this thing should be short and sweet, because I don't have anything bad to say about Gronk. He's terrific. I'd happily draft him near the Round 1-Round 2 turn picks. No, I don't expect Gronk to find the end zone another 18 times this season — he shattered the single-season scoring record for tight ends last year — but you'd be crazy to bet against him reaching double-digits. I'm not particularly concerned about his share of the workload alongside Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker, either, because he's tied to an all-time quarterback in a high-yield offense.
So why give the nod to Graham?
For starters, because I actually think there's still room for growth here. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a tight end who just delivered a 99-1310-11 stat line, but let's remember that Graham only played one season of college football at Miami in '09, after spending four years as this guy, playing hoops. In the early weeks last season, I thought Graham left some stats on the field. He may not be a finished product just yet, but his absurd combination of physical traits — freakish leaping ability, strength, speed, huge hands — has already made him an impossible cover.
The other thing you have to like about Graham is that he's pretty much the safest way for fantasy owners to invest in the Saints, if they whiff on Drew Brees. The tight end position gets tons of work in New Orleans' offense, but no one really noticed this fact until last season when Graham began hogging all the stats. In 2009, Jeremy Shockey, David Thomas and Darnell Dinkins combined for 88 receptions and 947 yards on 123 targets. In 2010, Shockey, Thomas and Graham totaled 102 catches and 983 yards on 149 chances. Last year, with Graham taking nearly the full position workload, he caught 99 balls on 149 targets. So you need to exempt him from the usual worries about Saints receivers, because his opportunities are essentially guaranteed. Graham never had less than seven targets in any single game last season, even when he was dealing with back pain.
And please, don't tell me you're concerned about the Sean Payton suspension. We've already been over this. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. will be calling plays and installing game plans; he's been part of Payton's coaching staff since '06, and he's been attached to Brees since '02. Carmichael took on additional responsibilities last season, following the freak sideline injury to Payton. If you don't think the Saints' offense will again be a fantasy juggernaut...well, OK. Please leave these guys for the rest of us on draft day.
Pianow votes Gronk: Like my esteemed colleague, I'm not going to engage in any kind of a smear campaign against Jimmy Graham. He's a terrific talent, and without a doubt he's worthy of an early pick.
But when I'm spending my blue chips at the table, I want to bet on sure things. I want the safest floor possible. And I see less downside to a Rob Gronkowski selection in 2012.
First off, Gronkowski has already given us two monster years compared to just one for Graham. Gronk had 10 end-zone spikes in 2010 and checked in as the No. 5 tight end that year in a basic-scoring league. One of my long-running precepts at the table is to beware the player who's only done it once. In this exercise, that's Graham.
And I'm not going to brush off the Sean Payton suspension angle as quickly as some others might. In my mind, we're dealing with uncharted waters with the 2012 Saints; this is a grand experiment into the value of coaching. Yes, Payton was hurt last year and his responsibilities were curtailed somewhat, but he was still with the club, still breaking down film, and still (this is the key point) calling the plays. This year, he's not allowed to have any involvement with the team. I've still given lofty ranks to every significant New Orleans skill player, but I think it would be a mistake to assume Payton's complete absence means nothing. And heck, the day Payton was hurt last year, that didn't work out so well — the Saints lost to scrubby Tampa Bay that afternoon.
And there's another assumption I want to avoid: the assumption that Graham will improve. Pricing in improvement to a young player is one of the most dangerous moves a fantasy owner can make. Think of all the buzzy sophomores who have broken your heart in baseball, the Matt Moores and the Buster Poseys and the Eric Hosmers. Graham's still No. 2 with a bullet on my board, but I'm not going for heroism in the Top 25 picks. Gronkowski's floor makes him the right selection.