Position Primer: Tight End

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When asked about overseeing the development of Kellen Winslow(notes) Sr. during the early 80s, offensive innovator Don “Air” Coryell remarked:

“I like to spread people all over and put them in motion and move them and try to put a good player on one that isn’t as good.”

Little did San Diego’s coaching pioneer know at the time, but his strategy of exploiting individual matchups with an oversized target was advanced well beyond its time. It was revolutionary really.

Prior to Winslow, tight ends were historically shackled, relegated to moving mounds of flesh for rushing legends Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson. Largely conservative, ground-pounding schemes required maximum bodies in the trenches. Kept inside the box, tight ends were freed only occasionally. Mike Ditka’s 75-catch campaign in 1964, an era dominated by workhorse backs, was analogous to finding sushi at a Bears tailgate – extremely rare.

But starting with Winslow, extending to Tony Gonzalez(notes) and Antonio Gates(notes) and continuing with JerMichael Finley(notes), the position has undergone a landmark transformation. In a rapidly evolving pass-centric league, monolithic targets have successfully transitioned from pass protectors to catchers.

More athletic than the trailblazers of yesteryear, the modern day tight end is a matchup nightmare. Their multidimensional abilities are a complete disruption to defensive schemes, man or zone. Sneaky, speedy and strong, they are incredibly difficult to contain. As a result, offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and curvaceous pop singers, have understandably fallen in love with them, especially inside the red zone. Their evolutionary ascension over the past 10 years says it all. Analyze the chart below:

YEARTE7TE10DIF
200011-7.2
200120-3.5
200220-3.3
200330-5.5
200442-6.8
200561-6.2
200650-4.1
200760-4.1
200841-4.9
2009114-4.2

*TE7 = tight ends that averaged at least 7.0 ppg in standard formats (6 pts/rec. TD, 1 pt/10 yds)
*TE10 = tight ends that averaged at least 10.0 ppg in standard formats
*DIF = ppg difference between No. 1 and No. 12 ranked tight ends (8 game minimum)

The position has clearly entered its golden age. Earlier this century it was a one-man show (Gonzalez), but now numerous tight ends have become dependable scoring threats. In some cases, they’re the reason why owners reached the pinnacle of their leagues. Last year’s explosion marked a production zenith for the position. Eleven tight ends averaged at least seven fantasy points per game, nearly double the previous decade high. Even Greg Olsen’s(notes) 6.8 ppg tally, the 12th-highest among TEs a season ago, would have finished third in 2000. And his backers would tell you he largely stunk up the field.

Due to TEs’ overwhelming multi-situational effectiveness, particularly at the goal-line, their unprecedented success a season ago should boil over into 2010. Although logic dictates that Gates, Dallas Clark(notes) and Vernon Davis(notes), the position’s pacesetters last season, are deserving of fairly early draft picks, patience continues to be a virtue for most owners. The talent pool is insanely deep. Cast a net for late-round dregs John Carlson(notes), Jermaine Gresham(notes) or Fred Davis(notes), and you could turn a starter’s profit. It’s a position truly spoiled with riches.

Thanks to the ground-breaking philosophies of Coryell thirty years ago, tight ends are redefining common fantasy perceptions.

Handcuffed, unproductive commodities they are no longer.

Here are the flames, lames and stars of video games at tight end entering 2010:

Tight End – Tiers
 – Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates

 – Vernon Davis, JerMichael Finley, Jason Witten(notes), Tony Gonzalez, Brent Celek(notes)

 – Owen Daniels(notes), Visanthe Shiancoe(notes), Kellen Winslow, John Carlson, Zach Miller

 – Chris Cooley(notes), Heath Miller(notes), Dustin Keller(notes), Greg Olsen

 – Fred Davis, Kevin Boss(notes), Jeremy Shockey(notes), Benjamin Watson(notes)

 – Jermaine Gresham, Jared Cook(notes), Tony Scheffler(notes), Brandon Pettigrew(notes), Marcedes Lewis(notes), Todd Heap(notes), Anthony Fasano(notes), Bo Scaife(notes), Tony Moeaki(notes), Rob Gronkowski(notes)

Top 5 Tight Ends – Undervalued

Andy
Behrens
1.) Tony Gonzalez – A forgotten man in the ranks, but he led all TEs in targets last season and topped all Atlanta receivers in RZ looks.
2.) Jason Witten – Here’s another proven TE who goes later than Finley. Witten is coming of a 94-catch season – the TDs will rebound.
3.) John Carlson – This breakout is almost too obvious. Carlson will spend a lot less time blocking in 2010, more time running routes.
4.) Zach Miller – The quarterback upgrade in Oakland improves Miller’s situation substantially – Campbell has been known to target his TE.
5.) Tony Moeaki – Gresham has the hype, but this guy could lead all first-year TEs in fantasy scoring. And his alma mater will win the Big 10.

Brad Evans
1.) JerMichael Finley – Mouth-watering skill set and prominent role in pass-happy attack should propel him into top-3. Bargain around pick No. 56.
2.) Brent Celek – Kolb’s inexperience should place the safety valve in the crosshairs often. Posted the third-highest RZ target percentage in ’09.
3.) John Carlson – At this time next season, we’ll be rehashing how he became a top 10 TE commodity. You’re stealing people blind after pick No. 120.
4.) Fred Davis – Going largely undrafted, ’09’s down-the-stretch difference maker shouldn’t be forgotten.
5.) Jermaine Gresham – Gifted rookie could be the most productive Bengals TE since Rodney Holman. Has Gates-like upside in the very near future.

Scott Pianowski
1.) JerMichael Finley – He won’t be undervalued in any league that gets it, but you might get a good price on him in a less-competitive group. The plusses to this freak are obvious.
2.) Kellen Winslow – Young QBs look to their tight ends when things break down. I’m not worried about the TD drought down the stretch, I’m just following the opportunity.
3.) Brent Celek – You’ll pay a top 6 price but there’s an excellent chance he’s a top 3 return when everything is all tallied up. He’s known, but the value still looks good.
4.) Dustin Keller – There’s a modest cap on his catches and yards given the set-up around him, but he might surprise you with 7-8 TDs. He scored in all three playoff games last year.
5.) Zach Miller – Very steady and reliable player and Jason Campbell(notes) loves throwing to his tight ends.

Top 5 Tight Ends – Overvalued

Andy
Behrens
1.) JerMichael Finley – We all see elite potential in Finley, but he’s priced and ranked as if he’s already reinvented the TE position.
2.) Kellen Winslow – It’s the team, not the player. The Bucs offense isn’t likely to pile up points, limiting Winslow’s fantasy ceiling.
3.) Owen Daniels – He’s in the right offense, and Daniels was terrific before the injury. But he’s still recovering, and not a lock for Week 1.
4.) Greg Olsen – The next useful fantasy TE who emerges from a Mike Martz offense will be the first.
5.) Jermaine Gresham – With a position this deep, there’s no reason to mess with rookies. Plenty of competition for targets in Cincy.

Brad Evans
1.) Dallas Clark – He clearly sits on the throne of the Noise’s TE hierarchy. But an ADP in the early 40s says his perceived worth is inflated.
2.) Jason Witten – Injury to Dez boosts early season value slightly. However, lack of TDs is a concern. Last year he was 26th among TEs in RZ targets.
3.) Owen Daniels – I professed my love for Daniels a week ago, but minor setback in recovery has increased worry. Too risky in the pick No. 70-80 range .
4.) Greg Olsen – Within Martz’ system tight ends are historically invisible. Olsen frankly shouldn’t be flirting with TE1 status in 12-team leagues.
5.) Chris Cooley – Fred Davis, who was an unheralded hero down the stretch, could eat into targets. Far better options are available much later.

Scott Pianowski
1.) Owen Daniels – His expectant ADP assumes he’ll be full-throttle in September; I’m not going to chase him aggressively, but others apparently will.
2.) Jermaine Gresham – Rookie production at tight end is a very elusive thing. Forget the Bengals hype on him, everything is sunshine and lollipops in August.
3.) John Carlson – I really like the player, but I’m hesitant to get tied to Matt Hasselbeck(notes) at this stage of his career.
4.) Jeremy Shockey – He never plays a full season and he’s got too much competition for the ball in NO. I’d consider Shockey as a bye-week fill in, nothing more.
5.) Russ Francis – He had one big game in front of Howard Cosell and all of a sudden no one could be rational. Maybe he was too much of a free spirit, like his Oregon track buddy Steve Prefontaine.

Brad "The Big Noise" Evans has obsessed about his fantasy teams since the days when Jeff George had value. Yahoo! Sports fantasy’s resident baseball, football and bracketology expert, Brad also lends advice on the two-time Emmy-nominated webcast "Fantasy Football Live" each NFL Sunday.
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Updated Tuesday, Aug 3, 2010