Cliques have been and always will be omnipresent throughout American high school culture. Preps, jocks, geeks, Goth kids, stoners, Eminem wannabes and all sub-groups in-between, create a complex social hierarchy. Membership in one or multiple groups can determine whether you're cuddling cheerleaders or building hit points on your World of Warcraft dwarven warrior on a Friday night.
Comparative reference groups are also pervasive in fantasy football leagues. Observe any draft this season and you're bound to encounter RB-heavy theorists, QB reachers, best available supporters and, though rare, kicker canoodlers. Believe it or not, some owners foster such a severe man-crush for Stephen Gostkowski(notes) they ignorantly draft him well before the Mr. Irrelevant round.
However, in virtual pigskin, conformity can be a killer. Too often weak-minded owners fall victim to the deadliest form of forced fantasy integration: positional runs. In many cases, these bandwagon scenarios mislead drafters into thinking once a high-tiered commodity comes off the board the next best available must be acquired immediately before Jeremy Shockey(notes) suddenly becomes a necessary evil. Every year, owners pocket their medical cards knowing they may snap tendons for a quarterback or, especially, a tight end.
At some point this drafting season, you will be faced with a very difficult decision: Should I bypass quality talent at a thinner position now for a tight end before the inevitable run occurs?
The answer: No.
This season, tight end is arguably the deepest and most balanced it's ever been. Unlike other premium positions, the tier-to-tier drop-off is far less steep. Essentially, circumventing elite tight ends for the best available at RB and WR is the ideal strategy.
To illustrate this point, examine the charts below. Using projections data from the Yahoo!/Pro Football Weekly fantasy magazine (On sale now!), forecasted points per game outputs were mined and averaged at each positional level to denote the tier-to-tier decline for TEs versus comparable QB/RB/WR.
APPG=Projected points per game average among tier
TDiff=Tier differential from top
* Tiers are based on ADP data pulled from Mock Draft Central.
*Scoring follows standard settings
TIGHT END TIERS
TE Tier 1
TE Tier 2
TE Tier 3
QB Tier 3
QB Tier 4
QB Tier 5
RUNNING BACK TIERS
RB Tier 5
RB Tier 6
RB Tier 7
WIDE RECEIVER TIERS
WR Tier 4
WR Tier 5
WR Tier 6
What the charts tell us:
1) Due to the harsher decline at RB, higher APPG among receivers and starting requirements in most leagues (2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE), passing over the Witten/Gates/Gonzalez bunch for the best available RB/WR is a sage tactic.
2) The Tier 2 TE group (Dallas Clark(notes), Kellen Winslow(notes), Chris Cooley(notes) and Greg Olsen(notes)) is composed of the best value picks at the position. Per ADP values, they will largely be available between Rounds 5-7 in 12-team drafts.
3) As an ADP outlier (42.9), Jason Witten(notes) is unquestionably overvalued. Owners who draft the Dallas monolith in the fourth round of 12-teamers will likely concede any chance at a dependable QB1, RB2/3 or WR2/3. In the upper-tier, Gates and Gonzalez are equal to Witten in projected production but will probably be available a round later.
4) On a side note: If you don't draft a top-flight QB early and avoid third tier options, a bevy of equal-footed choices will be available between picks 60-100.
Naturally, our prognostications are hardly foolproof and owners' picks from Round 4 on will be heavily influenced by their first three turns, but the exercise above lends insight into how much value and depth exists at tight end this season. A number of young, highly-skilled commodities in favorable positions (i.e. Owen Daniels(notes), Greg Olsen and John Carlson(notes)) are sure to exceed their ADPs. Similar to the Noise's conclusion on quarterbacks, instituting a patience policy for TEs is a very wise move.
So this year, instead of playing follow-the-leader when the inevitable tight end run occurs, brandish the Heisman, draft the best available QB/RB/WR and aim for the second and third tiers.
Here are the flames, lames and fresh names at tight end this season:
Tight End – Tiers
– Kellen Winslow, Greg Olsen, Chris Cooley
– Owen Daniels, John Carlson, Zach Miller
– Donald Lee(notes), Brandon Pettigrew(notes), Shawn Nelson(notes), Marcedes Lewis(notes), David Martin(notes), Robert Royal(notes), Randy McMichael(notes), Todd Heap(notes), L.J. Smith(notes), Daniel Graham(notes), Desmond Clark(notes), Martellus Bennett(notes), Benjamin Watson(notes)
Top 5 Tight Ends – Overall
1.) Antonio Gates – You're not going to be disappointed with any of the top four; try not to pay a premium. Gates impressively managed 8 TDs in an injury-plagued '08.
1.) Antonio Gates – You'll find my 250 words on why Gates should be the top TE here.
2.) Jason Witten – He was second among TEs in targets last year (121), and TO's departure could bring even more attention (both from Romo and opposing Ds).
2.) Jason Witten – A receptions machine, but his TD track record pales next to Gates.
2.) Antonio Gates – Injuries more than anything else sunk him last year (toe, hip, ankle); keep him healthy and he's the gold standard at this position.
3.) Dallas Clark – After finishing '08 as the No. 2 fantasy scorer at his position, Clark figures to get additional work in the post-Harrison era.
3.) Tony Gonzalez – New team, new scheme, more mouths to feed … his 73/900/5 line from '06-'07 looks more likely than a repeat of last season.
3.) Dallas Clark – You'll drink for free on this bar-trivia question: Who's got the most red-zone catches among WRs and TEs over the last two years? The Colts do a great job dictating matchups with the movable Clark.
4.) Tony Gonzalez – I refuse to believe the Falcons added the NFL's all-time tight end simply for his blocking. He might not get 100 catches, but he'll remain great.
5.) Greg Olsen – With Cutler at the controls, expect a leap in fantasy value. Olsen is the Bears' top receiving threat.
5.) Chris Cooley – Claims that he's been guaranteed at least six TDs this season, which – combined with his 849 yards – would have made him the No. 2 TE in '08.
5.) Owen Daniels – A whopping 133 grabs over the last two years, and the low TD count is a touch on the fluky side.
Top 5 Tight Ends – Overvalued
1.) No. 1 TE in your draft – Check the note in my Gates blurb above. There's depth at this position, and no tight end is the clear No. 1 entering the year.
1.) Jason Witten – Only because the majority sentiment in the fantasy community is that it's Witten and then everyone else.
1.) Kellen Winslow – I don't trust the quarterbacks in Tampa, and betting on Winslow still feels like a speculation play (11 TDs in 44 games).
2.) Owen Daniels – We all love the Texans' offense, and Daniels delivers plenty of catches and yardage. But he's only crossed the goal line five times over Houston's past 41 games.
2.) Zach Miller – You can't deny his talent, but finding the end zone is likely to continue to be a problem – Oakland has finished in the bottom 10 in offense four straight seasons.
3.) Zach Miller – Again, the problem is the lack of TDs. Miller was everyone's sleeper TE in '08, but he found the end zone just once.
3.) John Carlson – Tough to say this because I'm a Seattle fan and I love the guy, but he was forced into a go-to role as a rookie out of necessity. Additions/improved health at WR and more ground-game emphasis will likely rein Carlson in a bit in '09.
3.) Tony Scheffler – He's got a lot of skills, just not the ones Josh McDaniels is looking for.
4.) Tony Scheffler – He's in Josh McDaniels' offense and without Cutler? No thanks.
4.) Heath Miller – He's generally only overvalued by one out of every 10-12 people … you know, that one guy who always takes him too early in your fantasy draft?
5.) Dustin Keller – Love the player; don't like his quarterback situation. Keller will be a popular sleeper, but I'm not bullish on the Jets' offense.
5.) Jeremy Shockey – It's hard to play a key role in New Orleans' offense for 12 games without scoring. That he had just six red-zone targets tells me that Brees isn't his biggest fan.
5.) Vernon Davis – A little Schadenfreude here – we need more Mike Singletary rants in 2009.
Top 5 Tight Ends – Undervalued
1.) Greg Olsen – Based on opportunity and talent, he clearly has a chance to crack the top-tier at the position in 2010. If healthy, this will be a breakout year.
1.) Chris Cooley– 3rd-most targets, 2nd-most catches, 4th-most yards among TEs last season, yet he's falling because of just 1 TD scored. I'll take the discount and play the safe gamble that he gets back up to the half-dozen range.
1.) Zach Miller – The rarest of Raiders, a player who can thrive amidst the chaos.
2.) Visanthe Shiancoe – While I would have liked him even more with Favre (noted TE fetishist) at quarterback, Shiancoe was a revelation last year. In, um … several ways.
2.) Dustin Keller – The QB is inexperienced and the WRs are a big question mark. With little competition, Keller is likely to be what Zach Miller was to Oakland last season, with hopefully a few more TDs.
2.) Owen Daniels – You'll break even on his catches and yards, and some TDs eventually have to follow given how often he touches the ball.
3.) Chris Cooley – He's been largely forgotten by early drafters, but Cooley actually hit career highs in receptions and yardage in '08. A return to the end zone would help.
3.) Brent Celek – Eagles throw a lot (over 100 times to TEs in '08), and Celek proved a trustworthy heir to L.J. Smith with 4 TDs in final four games last season.
3.) Dustin Keller – He rallied nicely in the second half (35 catches, 388 yards) and inexperienced quarterbacks generally rely on their tight ends.
4.) John Carlson – Despite the presence of many receiving options in Seattle, I'm still bullish on Carlson. He'll get red zone work, and there should be many more stats to go around in '09.
4.) Vernon Davis – Freed of Mike Martz, he's into the post-hype sleeper phase as new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has high hopes for finding ways to utilize his speed best.
4.) Brent Celek – He went ballistic in the playoffs (19-151-3) and L.J. Smith is mercifully gone.
5.) Anthony Fasano – No. 9 fantasy producer at TE last season scored 4 TDs in final four games.
5.) Visanthe Shiancoe – There are 1,000 distractions with his team and offense, but this guy can really play.
Top 5 Tight Ends – Rookies
1.) Brandon Pettigrew – His most important contributions as a rookie will involve blocking. He's the clear starter.
1.) Brandon Pettigrew – Might be a few in his class with better receiving upside, but he's a complete package and already has a starting gig in hand.
1.) Brandon Pettigrew – His blocking gets him on the field; his size and speed should make him a red-zone consideration.
2.) Shawn Nelson – He's not the blocker that Pettigrew is, but Nelson is definitely a receiving threat. The Bills should find him useful on third downs.
2.) Shawn Nelson – He's a better receiver than Pettigrew and, while he's not currently the No. 1 TE on the Bills, his path to that spot is wide open.
3.) Jared Cook – Third-round pick has to battle his way up the depth chart, but he's a ridiculous athlete who owned the NFL Combine (best 40, best vertical at his position)
3.) Jared Cook – Oozes upside as a receiver, but he's unrefined in his routes and needs to be a quick study as a blocker if he's going to see the field.
4.) Chase Coffman – This year's Dustin Keller, he's a fantastic receiver but is smallish and inexperienced as a blocker.
4.) Shawn Nelson – Speed to burn, and a much better receiver than blocker at this point.
5.) Travis Beckum – He's another TE in the H-back mold, and the Giants can use all the help they can get in the receiving corps.
5.) Travis Beckum – When in doubt, follow the H-backs. Beckum's pass-catching skills pushed him to the early third round (pick No. 36).