Last season, tight end was a position under attack. Several marquee names, victimized by the insatiable injury imp, left a trail of broken bones, shredded tendons and owner tears in its destructive wake. Antonio Gates(notes),Dallas Clark(notes) and Jermichael Finley(notes) were just a few high-priced players sidelined for long durations.
Unsurprisingly, their absences paved the way for new production sources to rise to the occasion. Marcedes Lewis(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes), who each went largely undrafted in leagues, finished the season as certifiable TE1s in shallow formats. Other fill-ins, including Jacob Tamme(notes), Aaron Hernandez(notes) and Joel Dreessen(notes), were also occasionally useful.
Their climb combined with the return of the top-flight crop and infusion of new talent makes the tight end position insanely deep in 2011.
Prior to the imp's onslaught last year, the TE trend was on an upward swing. Because of the league's increased vertical tendencies and due to the massive influx of athletic, soft-handed qualifiers, the position experienced significant growth. Check out the historical record below:
*TE7 = tight ends that averaged at least 7.0 ppg in standard-scoring formats
*TE10 = tight ends that averaged at least 10.0 ppg in standard-scoring formats
*DIF = ppg difference between No. 1 and No. 12 ranked tight ends (8-game minimum)
Once an black hole where only a couple of guys, namely Tony Gonzalez(notes) and Gates, were truly dependable, the position now churns out several reliable producers annually, altering how owners approach the spot on draft day.
So how should fanatics address the position this season? Here are three rules to live by.
Listen to Axl, exercise "Patience" – Considering the position's wide scope, depth and numerous question marks surrounding elite options, it's important not to overreach or overspend for a TE this year. Outside Vernon Davis(notes), uncertainty reigns supreme. Gates (34.5 Y! ADP) has already dealt with toe soreness. Dallas Clark (46.9), coming off major wrist surgery, doesn't have a healthy Peyton Manning(notes). Jason Witten(notes) (49.0) could lose valuable red-zone looks to ascending talent Dez Bryant(notes). Jermichael Finley (42.0) can never stay healthy. And Gonzo's (73.9) ancient trunks are nearly petrified. There's simply too much risk and too much talent available late to reach in the early-to-mid rounds.
Shop at Target – Oversized weapons that are centered often in the crosshairs typically finish inside the position's top tier. No surprise, more looks equals more scoring opportunities. Last year all six TEs who tallied 100 or more targets ranked inside the top 12 in total points. Because of the year-to-year turnover that always occurs, covet high-volume catchers who haven't switched teams or experienced a detrimental coaching change. Brandon Pettigrew(notes) (121.1 Y! ADP) and Dustin Keller(notes) (128.7) fit this description.
Understand the lay of the land – If you choose to buy generic, it's important to grasp a specific player's situation entering the season. It could help you uncover a late-round gem. For example, Tennessee's Jared Cook, whose drawn rave reviews from QB Matt Hasselbeck(notes) for this off-the-charts athleticism, is in a ripe environment. He, along with wideout Kenny Britt(notes), are the only viable vertical playmakers the Titans have. In Mike Munchak's newly installed system, he's expected to be a focal point, making him a strong breakout candidate. Dissecting a player's standing/role within a team allows owners to mine gold from garbage. Other unheralded products in nurturing situations include Todd Heap(notes) (122.3), Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) (127.6), Greg Olsen(notes) (132.7), Benjamin Watson(notes) (136.9), Jermaine Gresham(notes) (136.4), Kevin Boss(notes) (175.2) and Lance Kendricks(notes) (N/A).
Bottom line: Like thoughts by Jack Handy, the Mariana Trench, "Fight Club" and Morrissey lyrics, tight end in 2011 is crazy deep. Follow the rules above and riches are bound to follow.
Tight End – Tiers
Antonio Gates, Jermichael Finley
Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten
Zach Miller (Sea), Dustin Keller, Brandon Pettigrew, Marcedes Lewis
Which TE owned in less than half of Yahoo! leagues has the highest upside?
1. Jared Cook: "Upside" is Cook's middle name. Ok, it's actually Alan, but it should be "Upside" considering that he has posted a 40 time under 4.5 and a vertical leap of 41 inches. Throw in soft hands and a 6-foot-5, 250 pound frame and you have the perfect beast for the TE position. New QB Matt Hasselbeck and OC Chris Palmer have gushed about Cook's talents. And Cook likes what he sees from the new offense. "It's kind of like a totally new offense, kind of time for tight ends and everybody else to shine. New quarterback, new system … Who wouldn't look forward to that? It's kind of setting you up for success." I kind of agree.
Which TE, given his draft cost, carries the most risk?
1. Dallas Clark: As much as it pains me to criticize any Hawkeye (except maybe Ricky Davis and Ronnie Harmon), I can't sign off on Clark's current Yahoo! ADP (46.9). He's still wearing a brace on that injured wrist and may do so all season. The man has only played all 16 games once in his eight-year career.
Which TE, given his draft cost, looks like the best bang for the buck?
1. Kellen Winslow: Time to change what we thought about Winslow. They said he couldn't stay healthy, but he's played the last 32 games without a problem. They said he couldn't score with Josh Freeman(notes), but that duo hooked up for five scores over the last eight games of 2010. With no clear No. 2 receiver on the outside after Mike Williams, I expect Winslow to be plenty busy in Tampa this fall, to the tune of 75 catches, 800-plus yards and 6-8 touchdowns. A terrific value at an ADP of 97.