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Position Primer: Tight end

TIGHT END TIERS
Jason Witten, Dal (44.4)
Antonio Gates, SD (41.3)
Kellen Winslow, Cle (49.8)
Tony Gonzalez, KC (60.1)
Chris Cooley, Was (71.1)
Dallas Clark, Ind (65.9)
Todd Heap, Bal (100.7)
Vernon Davis, SF (96.4)
Tony Scheffler, Den (135.4)
Heath Miller, Pit (110.0)
Jeremy Shockey, NO(96.3)
Owen Daniels, Hou (144.9)
Greg Olsen, Chi (171.8)
Alge Crumpler, Ten (125.9)
Ben Watson, NE (118.7)
Donald Lee, GB (177.0)
L.J. Smith, Phi (170.6)
Zach Miller, Oak (199.8)
Marcedes Lewis, Jac (243.0)
Randy McMichael, StL (195.4)
John Carlson, Sea (204.6)
Kevin Boss, NYG (256.5)
Jeff King, Car (197.6)
Dustin Keller, NYJ (195.4)
Ben Utecht, Cin (234.4)
Anthony Fasano, Mia (255.8) * Tiers based on Y! experts composite
* Numbers in () are (MDC ADP).
More primers: QB | RB | WR

Every professional team or individual sport has players that define their respective positions.

For NBA shooting guards it's Kobe Bryant. For Major League third basemen it's A-Rod. And for the Intercontinental class of late-80s wrestlers it was the Ultimate Warrior.

In the realm of virtual pigskin, San Diego's Antonio Gates is that type of iconic figure.

In just four full seasons, the former Kent State power forward has revolutionized a once wildly inconsistent roster eyesore. Gates' unrivaled combination of brawn, skill and savvy has and continues to be a coverage nightmare for opposing defenses. His numbers say it all. Since 2004 he's averaged 79 receptions, 993.3 receiving yards and 10.3 touchdowns per season.

Unmistakably, Gates is the all-powerful king of his position.

Well, he was until 2007.

Last season, his grip on the position's jeweled scepter loosened. The unforeseen resurgence of Dallas' Jason Witten temporarily ended the reign of fantasy's most productive tight end.

And given the increased dependability on tight ends as offensive weapons by NFL coaches, Gates' individual superiority will likely continue to shrink.

As the Noise first discussed last November, the pool of productive tight ends has deepened. Previously governed by dictatorial overseers Tony Gonzalez and Gates, the once lampooned position has dramatically evolved into an oligarchy of reliability, challenging conventional drafting methods and mindsets.

To illustrate how the surge of tight end production across the league has expanded and directly impacted ADP values since 2000, look at the chart below:

Year 6+FPPG 8+FPPG 9+FPPG ADP75
2000 3 1 1 4
2001 2 1 0 2
2002 4 0 0 2
2003 3 2 1 3
2004 8 5 2 4
2005 7 3 1 5
2006 9 2 1 5
2007 9 5 3 4
2008 ? ? ? 6
*6+FPPG=Tight ends that scored six-plus fantasy points per game in standard scoring formats (1 pt/10 receiving yards, 6 pts/TD, 0 pts/reception)
*8+FPPG= Tight ends that scored eight-plus fantasy points per game in standard scoring formats.
*9+FPPG= Tight ends that scored nine-plus fantasy points per game in standard scoring formats.
*ADP75=Number of tight ends selected in the first 75 picks in 12-team drafts in given year

It's no coincidence that since Gates first exploded onto the scene in 2004, tight end output has skyrocketed, consequently leading more owners to reach for pass-catching ogres earlier in drafts the following season.

Because of Gates' successes, offensive coordinators have installed more tight end pass plays into their playbooks. Since most pass-catching tight ends break off the line to exploit gaps in the short-field, the plays implemented for them are generally viewed as minor risks. Quarterbacks are leaning more heavily on their large, athletic targets in passing situations, especially near the goal-line. It's no surprise that nine tight ends have scored six-plus FPPG in consecutive seasons.

With more defensive coordinators turning to Cover 2 schemes and given the large number of nimble, crafty tight ends that have recently entered the league, the current trends will likely persist. Unfortunately for Gates, his indelible impact has indirectly affected his overall fantasy value negatively.

For a position once the subject of obligatory sophomoric draft night jokes, its increasing reliability is no laughing matter.

That is, unless your name is Jeremy Shockey.

Here are the risers, fallers and baby crawlers at tight end this year:

On the Rise
Player Team Y!RK07 ADP 12TMRD
Vernon Davis
8 96.4 8.0
'07 Stats: 6.1 TGT/G, 3.7 REC/G, 36.4 YPG, 9.8 YPC, 4 TDs
Lowdown: The richly talented Davis is fantasy football's version of Rich Hill. Physically, the third-year Maryland product is a marvel. He possesses a rare combination of speed and athleticism. However, sporadic lapses in concentration, especially running routes, have stymied his overall production. More confounding, questionable quarterbacks Alex Smith and Shaun Hill are far from exciting. Still, Davis has rapidly matured this past offseason in his mental approach to the game. He's logged numerous hours in the film room, studying Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt's days under Martz to gain additional insight into the offensive mastermind's complicated schemes. As he told NFL.com earlier this month, "I just really wanted to focus on this offense and so I've been sticking my face in the playbook every day. I wanted to get the basics down in this offense and so whenever I'm at home I'll study it, take a break, and then study some more and it's been helping. I feel prepared." In 12 years as an offensive coordinator/head coach Martz has never featured a tight end in his vertical spread. Ernie Conwell's 38 catches with St. Louis in 2001 is the best season produced by a tight end under his watch. But Davis is the Niners' most dangerous downfield target. Provided he runs accurate routes, Martz is committed to giving him opportunities, which subsequently will boost his fantasy value. If Smith or Hill can be at least average, Davis should establish new career benchmarks in receptions, yards and touchdowns. After the tier one six-pack is shotgunned, he's the next best thing.
Fearless Forecast: 57 receptions, 638 receiving yards, 11.2 YPC, 6 TDs
Tony Scheffler
9 135.4 11.3
'07 Stats: 5.3 TGT/G, 4.1 REC/G, 45.8 YPG, 11.2 YPC, 5 TDs
Lowdown: The Mile High Chef's torching skills will turn opposing defenders into a crme brulee. A fluid, soft-handed pass catcher, Scheffler has the tools to catapult to the top of the tight end second tier. Despite being plagued by a foot injury for the first five weeks of '07, he still managed to tally 5.7 FPPG, a mark equal to Jeremy Shockey and better than Davis and Todd Heap. The 25 year-old re-injured his foot in the Broncos' first offseason practice session in late May, but remarked to the Denver Post June 28 that "it feels pretty good. It's back to normal." He's expected to be at full strength when Broncos camp opens Friday. Scheffler worked out exclusively with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall in Atlanta prior to his pedal setback. With Cutler expected to take a major leap forward in his development and given the unbreakable bond the two have built over the offseason, Scheffler should thrive in his third year. Going in the early 12th round in 12-team drafts, he's one of the position's finest bargains.
Fearless Forecast: 53 receptions, 587 receiving yards, 11.1 YPC, 6 TDs
Greg Olsen
13 171.8 14.3
'07 Stats: 4.7 TGT/G, 2.8 REC/G, 27.9 YPG, 10.0 YPC, 2 TDs
Lowdown: The virtual gridiron's He-Man will showcase his superhuman strength and Grayskull powers en route to a profitable year. Given his deceptive burst and smooth route-running ability, Olsen is extremely difficult to contain in man-to-man coverage. Last year, he showed occasional flashes of brilliance, but due to the massive inconsistencies of Rex Grossman, his end-season numbers suffered. Whether it's the vexing Grossman or Kyle Orton manning the controls, Olsen will have to improve his 59.0 catch percentage to emerge as a dependable No. 1. Offseason reports have boasted about the 23-year-old's rapid development. Based on that, Chicago's obvious lack of reliable options at wide receiver and because Ron Turner's offense incorporates abundant two tight end sets, Olsen will be targeted frequently. Yes, the Bears would be better off with Mike Tomczak at quarterback and Desmond Clark is still lurking, but Olsen will be featured prominently in short-to-intermediate pass plays, labeling him an above average commodity in deep PPR leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 46 receptions, 501 receiving yards, 10.9 YPC, 5 TDs
Alge Crumpler
14 125.9 10.5
'07 Stats: 4.6 TGT/G, 3.0 REC/G, 31.7 PPG, 10.6 YPC, 5 TDs
Lowdown: Surrounded by inadequate weapons in his brief two-year career, Vince Young may have finally found a reliable target in Crumpler. Jumping off the steadily sinking Falcons ship, the once-reliable Crumpler makes the move from Cool-Lanta to Tennessee. Although his YPC totals dipped dramatically last season ('06: 13.9, '07: 10.6), the 30-year-old still possesses the skills to be very profitable. Crumpler is a slick, elusive receiver whose sixth sense for finding soft spots in coverage will make him incredibly dangerous in the red zone. Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has historically been fond of featuring tight ends in his system. That, coupled with Tennessee's inadequacies at receiver should make Crumpler a heavily relied upon target in Nashville this season. As he told the Associated Press in late June, "it's been a match made in heaven for us. I thought coming in here would be a good situation for me, and it's (done) nothing but meet my expectations, above and beyond my expectations thus far." Don't be surprised if he returns to the 800-yard, 6-8 TD plateau.
Fearless Forecast: 56 receptions, 611 receiving yards, 10.9 YPC, 6 TDs
Falling Down
Player Team Y!RK07 ADP 12TMRD
Antonio Gates
2 41.3 3.4
'07 Stats: 7.3 TGT/G, 4.7 REC/G, 61.5 YPG, 13.1 YPC, 9 TDs
Lowdown: For the first time since 2004, many owners will refuse to be the Gates keeper. Although he's been the unquestioned Zeus of the position over the past four years combined, the supercharged 28-year-old is a somewhat risky selection this season. Still recovering from toe surgery in February, the hobbled Gates didn't participate in any drills in mini-camp and his status for training camp is unknown. Several insiders believe he'll miss most if not all of exhibition play, shrouding his Week 1 availability in uncertainty. When healthy, he's the preeminent top tight end. Last season, he tied Indy's Dallas Clark for most red-zone targets in the league (25) and finished second only to Dallas' Jason Witten in FPPG in standard leagues (Witten: 9.5, Gates: 9.2). Yes, he's a warrior, but given his mysterious status it's easy to circumvent him for Witten or Winslow in the fourth round of drafts. As detailed in the introduction, Gates no longer wears a ruby-encrusted crown.
Fearless Forecast: 76 receptions, 932 receiving yards, 12.3 YPC, 8 TDs
Jeremy Shockey
11 96.3 8.0
'07 Stats: 6.6 TGT/G, 4.1 REC/G, 44.2 YPG, 10.9 YPC, 3 TDs
Lowdown: Even in his new digs, there's nothing Saintly about the expletive-spewing Shockey. The subject of numerous offseason trade talks and glowing Michael Strahan endorsements, the heavily-tatted tight end will again be cumbersome to own. Still recuperating from a broken left leg he suffered last December, Shockey was limited to rehabilitation exercises in mini-camp. The discord between him and the New York front office was irreparable, which, to no one's surprise, led to the New Orleans deal. In the Big Easy, there's hope he could salvage his career. However, he's bound to underwhelm. The Saints spread offense, which will limit Shockey's targets, combined with his injury vulnerability and downward spiraling production – his FPPG has plummeted in three consecutive seasons (5.7 in '07) – are three reasons to avoid him at all costs on draft day. Daniels, Scheffler and Miller, all of whom are being drafted some 15-40 picks after Shockey, are more attractive options. Don't pay for the brand name.
Fearless Forecast: 54 receptions, 604 receiving yards, 11.2 YPC, 5 TDs
Todd Heap
7 100.7 8.4
'07 Stats (6 games): 5.7 TGT/G, 3.8 REC/G, 39.8 YPG, 10.4 YPC, 1 TD
Lowdown: Labeled marshmallow "soft" by many, "The Dung" Heap enters training camp supposedly pain free. Last season, the 28-year-old missed 10 games with a torn hamstring. Even when healthy, he was generally ineffective, averaging just 5.0 FPPG. The hiring of Cam Cameron, who ignited Antonio Gates' career in San Diego, as offensive coordinator has already persuaded novice owners into believing Heap will post career-best totals. However, Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco are wildly inconsistent and unpolished in this stage of their respective careers. Heap could rack appreciable receptions in the Cameron's dink-and-dunk passing attack, but given his history of injuries – he's missed 20 games over the past four seasons – thoughts of trusting him as a No. 1 are hazardous.
Fearless Forecast: 61 receptions, 652 receiving yards, 10.7 YPC, 5 TDs
Benjamin Watson
15 118.7 9.8
'07 Stats: 3.5 TGT/G, 3.0 REC/G, 32.4 YPG, 10.8 YPC, 6 TDs
Lowdown: Watson may ooze athleticism from every orifice of his body both offensively and defensively, but his susceptibility to injury is starting to mimic Todd Heap. During the first five weeks of '07, Watson was arguably the league's most consistent tight end, crossing the chalk five times. However, after his initial success, he failed to eclipse 45 yards in a game and scored just once in his final seven games of the season. He did undergo ankle surgery in March, but is expected to enter camp at or near full strength. Because Tom Brady spreads the love efficiently, Watson will be worthwhile to own at times. But his increased risk for injury and New England's more pronounced ground game labels him a fringe No. 1. Anticipate a slight downturn in production.
Fearless Forecast: 40 receptions, 422 receiving yards, 10.5 YPC, 4 TDs
Late Round Rip Van Winkles
Player Team Y!RK07 ADP 12TMADP
Zach Miller
18 199.8 16.7
'07 Stats: 4.3 TGT/G, 2.8 REC/G, 27.8 YPG, 10.1 YPC, 3 TDs
Lowdown: The last time Oakland had a fantasy viable tight end, Ricky Dudley in 1999, wrinkled prune Al Davis still looked frighteningly similar to the Crypt Keeper. Undervalued in his unforeseen rookie campaign, Miller exceeded expectation catching 44 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Oakland was practically a run-exclusive offense last season, but with JaMarcus Russell somewhat seasoned, the offensive attack will be more balanced. Due to Russell's inexperience, Miller's enormous 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame, tender hands and excellent burst will be a very useful safety valve for the callow quarterback. His eight catches for 84 yards with Russell behind center in Week 17 could be a sneak preview of what's to come. In his second season, Miller is in the right situation to blossom, similar to Owen Daniels' situation last year.
Fearless Forecast: 56 receptions, 582 receiving yards, 10.4 YPC, 5 TDs
Kevin Boss
22 265.5 21.4
'07 Stats (13 games): 1.2 TGT/G, 0.69 REC/G, 9.1 YPG, 13.1 YPC, 2 TDs
Lowdown: Stealing a popular song title from another Jersey 'Boss', Bruce Springsteen, the second-year tight end is someone who's "Dancing in the Dark" in early fantasy drafts. With a solution reached in the battle between Jeremy Shockey and Giants management, Boss is officially thrust into a feature role. After Shockey was sidelined by a broken left leg December 16, the monolithic 6-foot-6, 255-pound Boss performed admirably in seven games, including the playoffs, catching 11 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Although still relatively raw, the strong-handed product has the size, body control and fearlessness to excel in traffic. With Shockey in 'Nawlins, Boss could develop into a borderline top-10 tight end, snagging 45-55 passes. For now, he's mid-round material (10-13) in 12-team leagues, but his value has unquestionably rocketed upward over the past 24 hours.
Fearless Forecast: 46 receptions, 510 receiving yards, 11.1 YPC, 5 TDs
John Carlson
21 204.6 17.1
'07 Stats (Notre Dame): 3.3 REC/G, 31.0 YPG, 9.3 YPC, 3 TDs
Lowdown: Since Jerramy Stevens' emergent '05 season, Seattle has been a barren wasteland for fantasy tight ends. However, former Golden Domer Carlson is hoping to reverse the trend. The latest in the long line of skyscraping, surprisingly athletic tight ends that have recently entered the league, Carlson is a well-rounded pass catcher whose bulldozing frame (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) should rack abundant yards after contact. Despite being extremely limited in OTAs, many Hawks insider, including those at Pro Football Weekly, believe the rookie's impressive work ethic and overall skills package will inevitably leapfrog Will Heller and Jeb Putzier on the Seattle depth chart. If he turns heads in preseason play, he could develop into a more than serviceable red-zone threat this year. Given Seattle's question marks at wide receiver, Carlson's '08 ceiling might be higher than you think.
Fearless Forecast: 36 receptions, 374 receiving yards, 10.4 YPC, 3 TDs
Dustin Keller
24 195.4 16.3
'07 Stats (Purdue): 5.2 REC/G, 67.7 YPG, 13.0 YPC, 8 TDs
Lowdown: The newly signed rookie out of Purdue is a Dallas Clark prototype who could spark a lackluster Jets offense. Ultra-athletic, explosive, tough and bruising, Keller has the physical and mental attributes needed to thrive at the professional level. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has expressed interest in occasionally working Keller out of the slot to create mismatches. Although the passing attack will likely be conservative, the youngster's size and lust for contact will lead him to generate appreciable yards even on short-to-intermediate routes. Already "pretty comfortable" with the offense, Keller will need a strong camp to overtake veterans Chris Baker and Bubba Franks on the depth chart. Given his eye-popping natural gifts that shouldn't be difficult to do. Similar to Carlson, keep abreast of his situation in exhibition play. He may not be an impact player initially, but if the Jets struggle, he should see plenty of opportunities over the second half of the season.
Fearless Forecast: 20 receptions, 226 receiving yards, 11.3 YPC, 2 TDs