This is shaping up as a strong year for tight end depth in fantasy football. There are at least a dozen TEs that you could reasonably project for at least 600 yards and 5-6 TDs. As a whole, this group is healthier at the top of the talent heap (pun intended), offseason changes have played favorably for a couple TEs with big upside – Zach Hilton is teamed with Drew Brees; L.J. Smith becomes more of a focal point sans Terrell Owens – and a strong draft class offers plenty of potential – eight tight ends drafted in the first three rounds. Here's a look at how I'm breaking the tight end position down as we sit a little more than a month out from the start of training camps:
Tier 1: Antonio Gates
Tier 2: Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, Todd Heap
Tier 3: Alge Crumpler, Chris Cooley, Randy McMichael, Jason Witten
Tier 4: L.J. Smith, Zach Hilton, Heath Miller
Tier 5: Ben Watson, Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow Jr., Ben Troupe, Dallas Clark
Tier 6: Alex Smith, Jermaine Wiggins, Erron Kinney, Jerramy Stevens
Tier 7: Jim Kleinsasser, Courtney Anderson, Jeb Putzier, Marcus Pollard, Joe Klopfenstein
Tier 8: Doug Jolley, Desmond Clark, Stephen Alexander, Eric Johnson, Daniel Graham, Steve Heiden, Bubba Franks
Tier 9: Dominique Byrd, Kris Mangum, Matt Schobel, Itula Mili, David Martin, Leonard Pope, Marcedes Lewis
Other Notables: Kyle Brady, Robert Royal, Chris Baker, Bryan Fletcher, Daniel Wilcox, Kris Wilson, Anthony Fasano, Donald Lee, Adam Bergen, Ernie Conwell, Tony Scheffler
Minnesota – Under new head coach Brad Childress, the Vikings will abandon the two tight end sets that they've employed for years in favor of a single tight end and a fullback. That means that the team's two capable receiving TEs, Jermaine Wiggins and Jim Kleinsasser, will have to battle for playing time. Said Childress about their opportunities, "We're going to be in multiple personnel packages. You have to keep throwing fastballs at the defense. If you're standing back there in the same personnel package all the time, I think you become predictable. There's plenty there for them." If you're going to compare and contrast their skills, the edge as a receiver would go to Wiggins, while Kleinsasser gets the nod as a blocker. For those reasons, expect Wiggins to carry a little more fantasy value into the season.
St. Louis – The tight end was an afterthought in St. Louis under the direction of Mike Martz, but new head coach Scott Linehan places more value on the receiving aspect of the position. He directed Miami's offense last year, where TE Randy McMichael hauled in 60 passes. In '04, he directed a Minnesota offense that completed 71 passes to TE Jermaine Wiggins. No doubt, Linehan had a hand in the team drafting rookie TEs Joe Klopfenstein (Round 2) and Dominique Byrd (Round 3) in an attempt to gear up for the increased emphasis the team will place at tight end. If one of these two can establish themselves as the clear go-to tight end in the preseason, he'll be a fantasy sleeper on draft day.
On the Rise
Zach Hilton, NO – The addition of QB Drew Brees has many in the fantasy industry giddy about Hilton's potential. The logic goes that Brees loved throwing to athletic, man-child Antonio Gates in San Diego, so naturally he's going have the same predilection towards the skilled 6-foot-8 Hilton. I heard one pundit predict Hilton for 800 yards and 6 TDs. That's a little on the overboard side for me, but there is little doubt that Hilton is carrying the most buzz among tight ends heading into early drafts.
Todd Heap, Bal – Heap battled through injuries last season but still managed to haul in 75 passes. He claims to be as healthy as he's been in a long time heading into the summer session, and a trade between the Ravens and Tennessee has Heap now paired with QB Steve McNair. In his years with the Titans/Oilers, McNair proved adept at finding the tight end (remember Frank Wycheck?), so Heap should continue to be among the most targeted tight ends in the league . Heap's consistently gone fourth at the position behind Gates, Shockey and (very closely behind) Gonzalez in early drafts.
L.J. Smith, Phi – Smith broke out in '05 with 61 catches, 681 yards and 3 TDs. In addition, he was the sixth-most targeted TE in the league and, with Terrell Owens gone, he's going to continue to garner a lot of attention from QB Donovan McNabb given that the team lacks established and/or reliable receiving options. Smith will be a major focus of the Philly passing attack, and that has him rising in fantasy drafts.
On the Decline
Jerramy Stevens, Sea – Last August, Stevens gained steam as a fantasy sleeper. A former high school quarterback, he's tall, athletic and well-built, and he was finally stepping into a starting role after three years of playing second chair to Itula Mili. Stevens mostly delivered in '05, hitting career highs in yards (554) and TDs (5). But he ended the year with a disappointing performance in the Super Bowl where he had a few key drops. And Stevens has spent the offseason rehabbing a surgically repaired knee – he isn't expected to be back on the field until mid-August. Said Stevens recently, "I have a long ways to go." Mili is healthy after losing much of last season to an intestinal problem, and he figures to again eat into Stevens' production.
Eric Johnson, SF – The former Yale wide receiver enjoyed a monster 825-yard campaign for the Niners in '04, but injuries forced him to miss all of '03 and '05. His fragility forced the team to draft TE Vernon Davis – that and Davis' 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine – with the sixth pick in the NFL draft. Since then, Johnson's name has popped up in trade rumors. A move would be the best thing for his fantasy value. His situation in San Francisco is troubled – Davis is likely to start and, let's face it, this offense (30th in the league in points scored) still has a ways to go.