It's difficult to recall a time when the NFL had as much tight end talent as it does now. Or at least, it's difficult to recall a time when the tight ends were putting up numbers as big as they do these days.
Even most casual fantasy owners said heading into last year: Don't draft a tight end early. Don't spend a third- or fourth-round pick on Antonio Gates or Dallas Clark – just grab a guy like Kellen Winslow or Chris Cooley in the eighth round. As it turned out, the tight ends were even deeper than anyone expected, as Marcedes Lewis and Rob Gronkowski, who went undrafted in most leagues, combined for 20 touchdowns last year.
Entering 2011, fantasy owners might be able to procrastinate even longer on their tight end selections than they did last year. The volume of tight ends that should push 800 yards and five touchdowns next year is quite large. At this point, the "buy low" stance at tight end might be almost mandatory. And yet, usual suspects like Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley and Jason Witten have shown the ability to put up huge numbers and justify fairly early picks.
The good news is that, whether you draft one early, middle or late, it might be difficult to land a bad one.
1. Antonio Gates, San Diego
Putting a silver lining on Gates' six missed games from last year is the fact that he produced at a career-high level. He finished with 782 yards and 10 touchdowns, numbers that outdo the vast majority of NFL tight ends who play all 16 games. It looks like the San Diego passing game is better than ever, and despite being hurt relatively often, Gates played 16 games in each of the four years prior to last year.
2. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis
While his 9.4 yards per catch from last year's injury-shortened season weren't impressive, his numbers from his six games played still prorated to about 100 catches for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns for a full season. As long as Peyton Manning is around, it looks like Clark should be good for similar production, health permitting.
3. Vernon Davis, San Francisco
Despite his receptions dropping from 78 in 2009 to 56 last year, Davis still totaled 914 yards and seven touchdowns last season. That's seriously excellent per-catch productivity. The issue, of course, is whether Alex Smith can actually get him the ball. It seems safe to figure, however, that 60 or so catches has to be his floor. The problem is that it's unreasonable to expect Davis to maintain that yards per catch average, not to mention his touchdown percentage. If he increases his receptions and maintains his per-catch production, Davis will join Gates and Clark in the top tier.
4. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay
It can understandably be intimidating to draft a player this soon when he only had 301 yards and a touchdown a year ago, but Finley's upside justifies a spot this early. His injury issues are definitely concerning, however, so it's probably safe to say that Finley's floor is lower than that of players like Jason Witten, Zach Miller and maybe even Jimmy Graham. The upside with Finley, however, is Antonio Gates/Dallas Clark-type production, and maybe even more than that.
5. Jason Witten, Dallas
Witten undoubtedly is coming off a great fantasy season, but there's also little doubt he'll be overdrafted in 2011 because of it. He remains a nearly flawless option in PPR leagues, but instead of 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, expect something more like 950 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. Witten's touchdowns last year were inflated due to Jon Kitna's inability to get the ball to his wide receivers. Tony Romo will spread the ball around more.
6. Zach Miller, Oakland
Miller looked like he had a chance to finish last year as the league's top fantasy tight end before a foot injury derailed his productivity. His first seven games saw a total of 33 receptions for 453 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was a non-factor thereafter. If he stays healthy in 2011, which he has generally been able to do throughout his last four years, he should make a solid push for 800 yards and eight touchdowns.
7. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans
Graham finished his rookie season with 27 catches for 307 yards and five touchdowns in his last eight games. With Jeremy Shockey out of the way, he should have a good chance to continue that type of production. His floor might be lower than others in this range, but his upside is quite high in the New Orleans offense.
8. Owen Daniels, Houston
Daniels' 2010 season barely off the ground due to his prolonged recovery from an ACL tear the year prior, but he was very sharp in the final month of the season. Those four games yielded 22 catches for 271 yards and two touchdowns. If he could just stay healthy the whole year, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns could be within reach. Unfortunately, Daniels hasn't demonstrated a great deal of durability to this point.
9. Chris Cooley, Washington
It looks like he's safe from Fred Davis, so Cooley should be his usual self in 2011. That means 70 to 80 catches for about 800 yards and a few touchdowns. His upside is limited by the dysfunctional nature of the Washington offense, but he should remain a top option in formats that emphasize receptions and yardage.
10. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville
There's no doubt Lewis was great last year, as the former blocking specialist turned himself into a complete playmaker by posting 700 yards and 10 touchdowns as a pass catcher. For fantasy purposes, however, this doesn't look like the kind of player to buy high on. While fully respectable, Lewis' 58 receptions last year still badly trail the production of tight ends like Gates, Clark and Witten. Lewis' odds of duplicating 10 touchdowns on just about 60 catches aren't too great, so he needs more targets in 2011, or chances are he won't reach double-digit touchdowns again.
11. Rob Gronkowski, New England
The vice versa is true, but Gronkowski's fantasy value is severely limited by Aaron Hernandez, particularly in terms of consistency. While both posted numbers useful in certain formats, it tends to be feast or famine with these guys, so Gronk's 10 touchdowns last year probably weren't fully capitalized on by fantasy owners. Gronkowski looks like the player to own between the two, however, as he's an every-down tight end while Hernandez is basically a receiving specialist.
12. Kellen Winslow, Tampa Bay
Looks like you can expect about 70 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns from Winslow, but maybe not a bit more than that. When you bunch those considerations with the injury troubles Winslow has had over the years, it's probably best to keep Winslow in the seventh- or eighth-round range on your draft board.
13. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta
Gonzalez is tough to rank. Was last year's 656-yard season a fluke, or is the 35-year-old finally starting to slow down? He remains a very solid option in PPR leagues, but it's looking like Gonzalez's days of burning defenses could be gone. With just 9.4 yards per catch last year, it seems Gonzalez is mostly just a short route specialist at this point.
14. Dustin Keller, New York Jets
After a monstrous four-week span to open the season, in which he totaled 19 catches for 254 yards and five touchdowns, Keller's production fell off a cliff last year. He has the athleticism to make an impact on a more consistent basis, and it seems like his floor is something like 650 yards and three touchdowns in the Jets offense, but last year's numbers (687 yards, five touchdowns) might be his ceiling.
15. Ben Watson, Cleveland
With 68 catches for 763 yards and three touchdowns last year, Watson turned out to be a good waiver-wire pickup for most owners who missed out on whatever tight end they drafted. The problem is it's tough to tell whether those numbers are his ceiling, or if he's capable of improving. The Browns look mostly like a ball-control offense, so we'd guess Watson's odds of improving aren't especially great.