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TE Primer: Versatility key to maximizing scoring potential at tight end

Brad Evans
Roto Arcade

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Jimmy Graham is a slam dunk as the top tight end in fantasy football. (Getty)

Jimmy Graham is a slam dunk as the top tight end in fantasy football. (Getty)

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Weeks ago while you were out sunbathing on the beach, smoking brisket in the backyard or improbably attempting to complete the drinking around the world tour at Epcot, Jimmy Graham was on the verge of changing history.

The Saints’ stud, who's humiliated defenses often in his four-year career, was engaged in a position designation battle for the ages. His claim: Due to his overwhelming usage out wide and in the slot, he was more wide receiver than tight end and deserved to be viewed, under a franchise tag, in a similar fashion as the Calvin Johnsons of the football world.

Graham certainly had a point.

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On the 721 snaps he logged in 2013, the multipurpose monster lined up wide or in the slot a whopping 80 percent of the time. Unfortunately, for Graham, an independent arbitrator ruled against him. The conclusion: Since the majority of his alignments were within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage (70 percent in ’13) he was disqualified from being a wide receiver. Using that "logic," Wes Welker, who stood up in the slot on 84.4 percent of snaps a season ago, shouldn’t be thought of as a WR either. Instead maybe receivers of a similar ilk should be called "underneath safety valves" or "magical short-field fairies."

Though Graham won’t receive WR eligibility anytime soon, analyzing the same data that influenced the judge’s decision can be beneficial to your virtual squad. Take a look at the chart below:

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Multi-use TEs are highly productive for fantasy purposes. 

Multi-use TEs are highly productive for fantasy purposes. 

In what shouldn’t come as a surprise, generally speaking, the more multidimensional a tight end, the more fantasy scoring potential he possesses. Among plus-sized targets that ranked inside the top-12 in per game average last year (excluding now retired Tony Gonzalez and TEs who played six or fewer games) only Julius Thomas, Vernon Davis and Garrett Graham recorded the majority of their snaps in-line (55 percent, 51 percent and 70 percent respectively), the traditional TE spot. Expanding out to the top-20, Delanie Walker was the only other tight end to join that class. When making a decision on what later round TEs you should highlight on your cheat sheet, ask yourself these four questions:

• Does he often shift about the field?

• Is he the primary receiving tight end?

• Is he a solo act or part of a two-TE system?

• Is he a fixture in the red-zone?

Filling out the above questionnaire on guys like Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph, Charles Clay and Ladarius Green is critical to revealing their overall potential.  

What other storylines at TE should you track this preseason? Here are the five biggest:

In what’s becoming an annual event, the Gronk recovery watch. He didn't start training camp on the PUP, a very encouraging development. Is this the year he finally registers action over a full 16-game slate? Should you spend a Round 2 pick? 

Brain games, Jordan Reed edition. Multiple concussions have complicated his fantasy value. His upside is enormous, particularly in Jay Gruden's air aggressive offense, but he's one shot to the head away from an extended absence. 

Unhappy camper. In a surprise move, VD joined the Jim Harbaugh pleated pants party on time. Still one has to wonder if a future standoff with Niners management is in the works. Could bitter feelings impact his performance? 

Rudolph the red-zone reindeer. He's shown brilliant flashes in the past, but the arrival of Norval and with an inexperienced QB, Teddy Bridgewater, likely under center a significant portion of the season, the ingredients are in place for a major break out. 

The return of Dennis Pitta. A bum hip delayed his 2013 arrival, but once cleared he again showed his importance to Joe Flacco enticing 8.3 targets per game. Steve Smith, Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels may eat into his workload, however, he is sure to be a fixture inside the red-zone. 

Jimmy Graham, the undisputed top dog at the position, should be drafted where in a fractional or full-point PPR setting (12-teams): MID ROUND 1 (6-9), LATE ROUND 1 (10-12) or PASS? 

Brandon – MID ROUND. He produces WR1 numbers at a position where you can't really count on anyone else, save a healthy Rob Gronkowski, doing the same. And he's led tight ends in receptions two of the past three seasons. That's worth a mid-first round pick, most definitely.

Andy – I suppose I'd pull the trigger LATE in the first round, at or near the turn. Graham's edge over the average starting fantasy tight end is well known. The mid-draft depth available at wide receiver makes me feel OK about snagging Graham at the top. After selecting him, I'd likely go RB-RB-WR or RB-WR-RB with my next three picks.

Dalton – I have him ranked No. 9 overall, so I guess this makes him a MID ROUND 1 for me. If he wasn't an injury worry (it's not so much him missing games as him being limited while playing such a demanding position), I'd be arguing for him to be the No. 1 overall pick. Tight end isn't as thin as it used to be, but getting a huge producer there is a major advantage, and Graham has averaged 90 catches, 1,169 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over the past three seasons. 

Rob Gronkowski, who has almost single-handedly kept surgeons in business over the past three years, is trending in a positive direction after being cleared by team doctors to resume full football activities this week. At his current 30.5 ADP (and climbing) according to Fantasy Football Calculator (TE3), is Gronk OVERVALUED or UNDERVALUED? 

Andy – He is massively OVERVALUED. Expecting any player to excel just eight months after ACL surgery is absurd. I'm aware of Gronk's extraordinary career fantasy value, but this is a sucker's bet. It's overwhelmingly likely that he'll be limited early in the season, if not throughout the year. And then, of course, we have the elevated ongoing injury risk to consider. I've learned not to buy any of what the Pats are selling in the summer. You should do the same.

Dalton – Sorry to be a cop-out, but I view this as "properly" valued. Yes, Gronkowski is a huge injury risk and who knows how compromised he'll be returning from major knee surgery. But if not for health issues, he'd be worthy of a top-10 pick. Gronkowski just turned 25 years old, plays for the Patriots and has scored 42 touchdowns over 50 career regular-season games. He's a beast in which I'm willing to pay for the upside. 

Brad – UNDERVALUED. Similar to Graham, Gronk, when healthy, is essentially an elite WR1 who happens to qualify at TE. Since 2011, he's averaged 13.8 fantasy points per game in standard formats, 19.2 ppg in PPR. Either of those marks ranked between Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green among WRs last year. Overall, he's a red-zone fixture, hard to contain downfield and Godzilla-like after the catch. The risks are obvious, but if you're a loud and proud member of #TeamHuevos, he's well worth a late Round 2 pick. 

[Ed. Note: They didn't ask me, but this looks like a sucker play. You forget all the problems with Gronk in recent years? Do you expect straight answers from New England if injuries crop up again? You can have Tom Brady, too. Look at those pedestrian wideouts again. - Pianow]

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

Dalton – JORDAN CAMERON. He should be a target monster with Josh Gordon suspended and looking like far and away Cleveland's most talented option in its passing attack.

Brad – JORDAN REED. Given his history of concussions, the downsides are apparent, however, his role is expected to increase significantly in a Jay Gruden offense that targeted Cincy tight ends 134 times a season ago. An excellent route runner who poses a matchup nightmare, he should wreck havoc across the middle emerging as an RG3 favorite. He's a longshot to outpace the TE competition, but a line in the vicinity of 80-880-8 isn't out of reach. 

Scott – I know VERNON DAVIS isn't the volume monster that some other tight ends are, but he's posted a pair of 13-spike seasons (one last year) and he usually plays a full schedule. I'm surprised he's not more respected in the fantasy community. 

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Fantasy Madlib. (Hyping adjective) _________ Eagle Zach Ertz has gained significant traction in recent (time span) _________ as a fantasy (noun) _________. Project his line in 2014 (rec-yds-tds-final TE rank). 

Brad – Rod-popping, Kardashians, dreamboat. 55-693-6, 11.

Scott – Explosive, months, target. Call it 65-799-7, 9. 

Andy – Versatile, months (beginning the moment Philly's season ended), sleeper. 59-660-7, 10.

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

Scott – ROB GRONKOWSKI is always my default answer here. And I think the LADARIUS GREEN show might be two years away, not ready for immediate viewing. Antonio Gates is still around to muck things up, opportunity-wise. 

Brandon – JORDAN REED. He's supremely talented, but four concussions combined from his days at Florida plus his rookie season make him more of an injury concern for me than Rob Gronkowski. He's getting a ton of buzz right now, and I'm sure he'll keep climbing the draft charts. But he's a huge risk.

Andy – ERIC EBRON for one. Rookie tight ends almost never make noise in fantasy. Only five first-year TEs since the merger have topped 100 standard fantasy points. Also, I've gotta go GRONK, for the reasons previously stated.

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

Brandon – LADARIUS GREEN. I have Green in my TE top 10. He flashed immense athleticism last season on the few ocassions that San Diego featured him. With Antonio Gates on his last legs, I expect Green to make a major move to prominence in the Chargers' offense this season.

Andy – CHARLES CLAY'S average draft position is a joke (125.7). That's easy profit right there. Clay was the only fun thing about an otherwise icky Miami offense last year.

Dalton – LADARIUS GREEN. He's an athletic freak capable of going nuts, with only Antonio Gates, who totaled just 449 yards and two touchdowns over his final 13 games last season (including the playoffs) standing in his way. Gates' 104 targets last year were his most since 2009 (and just one short of his highest since 2007), yet his four TDs were by far his fewest since his rookie season in 2003. If the coaching staff gives Green a chance, he'll be a monster. 

Brad – RICHARD RODGERS, a name to watch in training camp, is going largely undrafted in most 10 and 12-team leagues. He made major waves in minicamp impressing the coaching staff with his soft hands, strong route-running and ball adjustment skills. Right now, he has the edge over incumbent Andrew Quarless for the starting job. With Jermichael Finley out of the picture he could be a sneaky top-15 TE. Recall last year, the Packers targeted TEs 110 times. 

Scott – CHARLES CLAY is the go-to target when the Dolphins throw in the red zone, and he might even run in a touchdown here or there. If you want to go bargain bin, consider GARRETT GRAHAM in Houston, working with a quarterback who likes to throw between the numbers. 

SEE ALSO: QB PRIMER, WR PRIMER

Want to bull rush Brad? Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise. Also check out "The Noise' along with colleagues Andy Behrens and Brandon Funston for another season of 'Fantasy Football Live' Tuesday-Thursday at 6:30 PM ET starting July 29 on NBC Sports Network.  

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