"I like a dunk. It creates momentum but it's not as good as scoring a touchdown." – Antonio Gates
Playing arguably the most enigmatic position in fantasy football, tight ends are unpredictable, hard to draft and victims of constant innuendo jokes. In the past few years, the role of the tight end has evolved from pass blocker to pass catcher with offensive coordinators involving them more in various schemes. The proof is in the numbers. Every year since 2003, the amount of 100-point fantasy tight ends has trended upward, peaking at six in 2005. Why has tight end production skyrocketed in fantasy and reality? Two words: Antonio Gates.
Since the launch of Yahoo! Sports' fantasy football game on June 1, my inbox has been inundated with a variety of emails about the San Diego Chargers leviathan. The most common inquiry: Is Gates worth an early round pick?
Always wanting to satisfy the curiosities of fantasy followers, I grabbed a magnifying glass and investigated the fantasy impact of the radiant superstar. After several hours of neck-deep research, I had a new theory challenging traditional drafting methods unfold right in front of me. Aptly coined the Gates Effect, the hypothesis questions the historical RB-RB-WR strategy by encouraging owners to take the Charger phenom in Rounds 2 or 3. Why? The answer may shock you.
Reason 1: Gates is a fantasy humanitarian.
Let's just say one day wealthy fantasy owners will donate their extra cash to the Antonio and Melinda Gates Foundation. How great of a giver is he?
The chart below shows the percentage drop-off from first- to second-ranked players by position over the past two seasons.
Crazy isn't it? In comparison to the primary positions, Gates' supremacy is remarkable. The two-year 17.3-percent average decline between Gates and the second-rated tight end crowns him as the Warren Buffett of fantasy tight ends.
You need more evidence of his superiority? No problem. In 2005, the fourth-year vet had 39 more fantasy points than the next highest-scoring tight end, Jeremy Shockey. Also, since 2003 he has totaled six more touchdowns than Kansas City Chiefs perennial producer Tony Gonzalez.
Based on his position dominance and incredible consistency – he had 12 games of 50 or more yards in last season – Gates unequivocally gives his owners a monster-sized advantage over their opponents at tight end on a weekly basis. That upper hand could mean all the difference for your playoff run.
Reason 2: Gates is an elite receiver.
Below is a chart depicting the top five receivers based on two-year season averages from 2004 to 2005.
Notes: TFPTs=total fantasy points scored, FPPW=fantasy points per week average, Y! ADP=2006 average draft pick in Yahoo! Sports leagues, *Points derived from the following system: 1 point/10 receiving yards, 6 points/TD
As you can see, Gates holds his own when compared to the league's best wideouts. Ranked fourth in performance total points over the past two years among wide receivers that played at least 28 games, he is undoubtedly an upper-echelon pass catcher.
Although you may question the legitimacy of the numbers since Terrell Owens, Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin all suffered major injuries within the same time span, take a closer look. Amazingly, Gates has averaged the sixth-highest points-per-week mark among all fantasy receivers since 2004. His two-year 11.5 average is better than marquee producers Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Chambers, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne and Hines Ward. The stats speak the truth. Gates' receiving prowess makes him an irrefutable early round choice.
Gates is a fantasy revolutionary. But the $64,000 question still remains: Where exactly should you take him?
As I've continued to preach time and time again, running backs are the thick-legged brutes of fantasy football that need to be the primary focus in the first and early second rounds. However, question marks surrounding many tier-three workhorses, such as the tender-kneed Domanick Davis, make Gates an attractive option if you have a mid-to-late second-round pick in a 12-team draft.
Discussed a few weeks ago in the Noise, the average scoring difference between the first and 10th running back in the past five seasons is 41.9 percent. For tight ends, it's far more severe at 54.4 percent. Due to the steep tier-to-tier tumble, it makes sense to capture this lighting in a bottle anytime after pick 20.
You ask curiously: "What about Philip Rivers?"
Gates is the ideal safety valve for a young quarterback in the pre-pubescent stages of his career. In 2005, he caught nearly 71 percent of Drew Brees' 114 targeted passes and snagged eight scores inside the 20-yard line despite just 12 red-zone looks. That is ridiculous efficiency. As long as Rivers locks in on the All-Pro 100-plus times, Gates' numbers won't suffer. Bank on it.
You ask defiantly: "All right smart guy, what about the rest of the tight end field?"
Just because the Chargers powerhouse is a tricked-out Cadillac doesn't mean all tight ends are bikini babes with an affinity for washing cars. Once Gates is crossed off your cheat sheet, avoid the position until at least Round 6. Similar to quarterbacks, you can find sure-handed, dependable options, ala Chris Cooley, Todd Heap or Jason Witten, after pick 50. Be patient.
What tight end will be this year's breakout sensation? Who has the best value according to early drafts? Here are seven sensational sleepers for 2006:
Chris Cooley, Redskins 2005 stats: 71 REC, 774 YDs, 10.9 YPC, 7 TDs, Y! ADP: 67.2
Lowdown: The anti-itch cream for any Redskins quarterback, Cooley is primed for a large numbers leap in Al Saunders' tight end-friendly offense. Saunders, the man that made Tony Gonzalez a seven-time Pro Bowler for the Chiefs, loves to call the tight end's number. That means Cooley, who is coming off a 71-reception, seven-touchdown breakout campaign, will find a more prominent role on a Washington offense poised for high productivity. In 2005, the former halfback was a consistency king while logging 10 games of 40-plus yards. He was also an instrumental fantasy playoff piece for owners last season, catching five touchdowns in his last four games. With a Y! ADP of 67.2, he is a top-five tight end and arguably the most underappreciated player at his position. You can expect 75 receptions, 825 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jason Witten, Cowboys 2005 stats: 66 REC, 757 TDs, 11.5 YPC, 6 TDs, Y! ADP: 58.4
Lowdown: In the Terrell Owens school of mental ineptitude, Witten is the straight-laced janitor that quietly gets the job done. However, his numbers spiraled downward after injuries and inconsistencies on the Cowboys' offensive line forced him into a block-heavy role. Going for an insanely low $6 in a recent expert's auction, the two-time Pro Bowler has already been written off by some with T.O. on the roster. However, the ability of Owens and high flyer Terry Glenn to stretch the field will allow Witten to freely roam between the hash marks. Don't underestimate the positive impact of Owens. Over the first seven games of 2005, Eagles tight end L.J. Smith compiled his best stretch of the season – 5 REC/G, 43.9 YPG and three total TDs – with T.O. on the field. Having the egotistical twit around will make the sticky-fingered Witten a borderline top-five tight end.
Vernon Davis, 49ers 2005 stats: N/A, Y! ADP: 103.1
Lowdown: Davis is the cherished golden ticket in the Willy Wonka world of rookie tight ends. The sixth overall pick in April's draft, he is a rare combination of explosive 4.4 speed and soft hands, catching 51 passes last year as a junior at Maryland. In order to use quarterback Alex Smith's deceptive speed, second-year San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan has said he wants to implement more rollout plays this year. Given Davis' ability to separate from defenders, he should thrive in such a scheme. Although loaded with upside, Davis is a relatively unrefined pass blocker and may struggle at times this year adjusting to the nuances of the pro level. For now, he is a superior selection after pick 100, especially in keeper leagues, and he should be capable of 60 receptions, 650 yards and six touchdowns.
Ben Watson, Patriots 2005 stats: 29 REC, 441 YDs, 15.2 YPC, 4 TDs, Y! ADP: 117.2
Lowdown: New England fans are hoping Watson turns into a former franchise great with the same first name, Ben Coates. Watson is an incredibly fast, vertical route runner who can be a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers. The third-year Georgia standout will see an increased role due to the clouded state of the Patriots' second wide receiver spot after David Givens' departure. With Watson's 10 red-zone targets in 2005 – the second highest on the team – expect Tom Brady to look his direction more often inside the 20. Currently the 16th tight end selected in Yahoo! Sports drafts, he is one reason why the position can wait after Gates.
Kellen Winslow, Browns 2005 stats: N/A Y! ADP: 108.8
Lowdown: Finally healthy and looking to give the Dog Pound something to bark about, Winslow is the most talented tight end available in the wee hours of your draft. The sixth overall pick in 2004, he has the agility, quickness and body control to be a first-class player, but he needs experience. Romeo Crennel's club finished sixth in the league with 99 total tight end targets in 2005. As long as those looks transfer to Winslow, this could be the year he finally delivers. Also, with Braylon Edwards out the first seven weeks to recover from an ACL injury, Winslow is likely to see an expanded role in the Browns' offense. What other reason do I have to give you? Count on 55 receptions, 700 yards and six touchdowns.
Ben Troupe, Titans 2005 stats: 55 REC, 530 YDs, 9.6 YPC, 4 TDs, Y! ADP: 126.7
Lowdown: Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow is a tight end's best friend. Led by Troupe, Erron Kinney and Bob Scaife, Tennessee's three-headed monster caught an NFL-high 147 passes for 1,346 yards and eight touchdowns last year. With the presence of David Givens and a healthy Drew Bennett, a new emphasis will likely be placed on wide receivers, thereby diminishing the tight end-heavy offense employed a year ago. But the 23-year-old Troupe will see a great deal of targets due to his incredible wingspan and beefy 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame. Entering his third year, he should continue to see his numbers trend upward. Depend on borderline top-10 tight end totals around 55 receptions, 590 yards and five touchdowns.
Zachary Hilton, Saints 2005 stats: 35 REC, 396 YDs, 11.3 YPC, 1 TD, Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: Over the last seven weeks of last season, the 6-8, 268-pound Hilton was a Saint that marched in, totaling 30 receptions, 360 yards and a touchdown – eighth-best among fantasy tight ends in performance scoring formats. The signing of tight end-friendly Drew Brees could make Hilton this year's version of Chris Cooley. Why? With Brees behind center, Antonio Gates was targeted nearly eight times per game since 2004. Also, new Saints head coach Sean Payton was a pivotal key in the development of Jason Witten while an offensive assistant in Dallas. Combine that with Hilton's towering size and sure hands and he is a strong breakout candidate capable of achieving No. 1 tight end numbers at a fraction of the cost.
Reported by Yahoo! Sports' own Jason Cole on July 21, an inside source said that Saints super rookie Reggie Bush could be headed for a long holdout and may sit out the entire season if his contract demands aren't met. On the contrary, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis described the talks on July 24 as "proceeding on a normal course." Regardless of what information you believe, it appears Bush will not be in camp until at least mid-August, greatly diminishing his fantasy value.
Spin: Over the past few weeks, I have mentioned repeatedly to keep a 10-foot pole distance from the over-hyped Bush in drafts. The recent holdout news just extended it. If Bush were to miss most or all of training camp, he would put himself at a massive disadvantage, similar to Chicago Bears running back Cedric Benson last year. Although equipped with electric athletic skills, Bush could be facing a lost season. With an ADP of 50.1, he is avoidable in non-keeper formats until headway is made in contract talks.
On the flipside, the news couldn't be better for Deuce McAllister supporters. If Bush's contract negotiations stall, his value soars as long as his surgically repaired knee can withstand the rigors of training camp. McAllister would get a major boost in yardage opportunities with Bush out, making him a formidable No. 2 running back on any squad. At this point, his 85.9 Y! ADP screams steal. Move him up your draft cheat sheets.
Finally, third-string back Michael Bennett would instantly become a dark horse in Bush's absence. Very deep leagues should take a late-round flier on the former Minnesota Viking as a handcuff option for McAllister.
UNLEASH THE BEAST
I have to say your logic stinks. In your analysis of Muhsin Muhammad versus Jerry Porter, it's great that you can look up offensive rankings from last year, but what good does past statistics do? Everyone watching the Bears' offense saw how much more involved the passing game became with Rex Grossman. And now with a capable backup in Brian Griese, Muhammad is much more attractive than a guy who's always had more hype than on-field production. Sometimes fantasy geeks need to look up from their spreadsheets once in a while and use common sense.
Noise: To ensure full disclosure, I own a copy of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and have a candle-lit shrine dedicated to Mike Ditka in my basement. An ardent Bears supporter, I know very well the potential Grossman exuded in limited doses late last season. The point of the comparison was to determine which of the two players with similar ADPs was the better selection based on offensive systems. Considering the Bears ranked 30th in the NFL in passing attempts last season with 26.1 per game – Grossman attempted 23 passes in his only regular season start in Week 16 – and were ninth in total rushes, it's clear Chicago head coach Lovie Smith emphasized a grind-it-out offense. Although Muhammad had similar red-zone targets inside the 10 as Porter, Smith used a run-first mentality near the goal line. With that in mind, Porter is the more attractive player to consider because he will find more open areas in the red zone in a friendlier passing offense. Also, defenses will key on Randy Moss in the end zone, aiding Porter. The Bears' No. 2 receiver – second-year player Mark Bradley – played in only seven games as a rookie last year and gives Muhammad little breathing room.
Like you, I would love nothing more than the Bears to institute some semblance of a passing game. Grossman has the potential to be a serviceable middle-of-the-pack quarterback, but he desperately needs more regular season grooming. Brian Griese is a reputable insurance policy, but outside of his best season in Tampa Bay in 2004, his abilities are only backup worthy.
The bottom line: With the Bears' two-pronged rushing attack and Moose's proneness for dropping passes – he tied Plaxico Burress for an NFL-high 11 drops in '05 – he likely won't find pay dirt more than six or seven times this season. The numbers and systems tell the story. Porter is the smart man's choice.
One last thing, labeling fantasy players as "geeks" is picking a fight with 18 million Americans. Fantasy games are a multi-billion dollar industry and are played primarily by educated professionals living in suburbia. Heck, the guy who signs your paycheck is probably one. With fantasy participants growing exponentially each year, the only "geeks" are the wallflowers missing out on all the fun. Those people I call dweebs.