Tight end is probably the hardest position to evaluate this fantasy season. On one side of the spectrum, you've got Gronk and Graham putting up 1,300 yards and 13+ TDs and breaking Mike Ditka's records. Gronk was the number 2 receiver last year behind only Megatron, and Graham was 6th. So when those guys are getting picked in the top 15, it really does make sense.
On the other side, you've got guys like Fred Davis and Jermaine Gresham, who put up similar stats to WR David Nelson from Buffalo - 600 yards, 5 TDs. Those guys will be starting in 12 team leagues every week. While David Nelson, the 55th receiver last year, won't be close to any starting lineups unless the matchup is pristine.
So the difficulty is not ranking the tight ends. That's pretty simple. It's knowing where to take them. For the first time ever in fantasy football, tight ends are going in the first round. (Gronk's ADP is 12, Graham's is 15). Then there's a gap of about three rounds before the next tier of tight ends (5 guys), and then another 20 to 30 picks until the final tier. So unless you're in the camp that says take Gronk or Graham early (I'm not), when should you make the move? 4th round? 5th? 6th? Or wait until the 10th and essentially resign yourself to playing the matchup all year?
I'm never a big fan of using more than 1 roster spot on tight ends, but I also don't want to take a second-tier guy too early. It's a precise timing thing. It really comes down to understanding the guys your drafting with, and trying to beat the rush. Also, if you're picking 1st or 12th overall, you probably want to start the run on tight ends, because during the 23 picks in between your selections, the entire second-tier could be gone. But if you're somewhere near the middle of the order, be reactive instead of proactive.
Basically, if you don't land a guy in that second-tier (Hernandez, Finley, Davis, Witten, Gates), you're going to be pretty miserable every time your guy has 2 catches for 35 yards.
Here are my TE rankings:
1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
Tom Brady's favorite target last year had 90 receptions, a league-best 17 TDs, and a stunning 14.7 yards-per-catch. Personally, I don't think there's any chance he replicates those numbers. Remember, Randy Moss dropped from 23 TDs to 11. With Welker leading the team in targets, Brandon Lloyd taking over as the downfield threat (presumably), and Aaron Hernandez continuing to emerge, Gronk is destined for a drop in numbers. Which means, probably still 1,100 yards and 12 TDs ... but I consider him a late 2nd round pick, not a top 10 pick.
2. Jimmy Graham, Saints
Graham was actually targeted on 25 more passes than Gronk was, but not nearly as many near the end zone. He was essentially Drew Brees's possession receiver, and will reprise that role this year. He's a better pure receiver than Marques Colston and is firmly established as Brees's favorite weapon. If I were going to take a tight end in the first two rounds, I'd lean towards Graham, especially in a PPR league. I'm thinking 1,400 yards and 9 TDs.
3. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots
To prove just how big the gap is between Gronk/Graham and the next tier of tight ends, my #3 guy is also a Patriot. For a few reasons: 1) Bill Belichick pioneered this whole "two tight end" obsession, and will continue to utilize it; 2) Hernandez was 7th in TE targets despite sharing the load with Gronk; 3) Tom Brady is going to dominate like it's 2007; and 4) The Pats aren't afraid to run up the score.
I actually think Hernandez will have more yards than Gronkowski. Half as many TDs though.
4. Vernon Davis, 49ers
I've always loved Davis, ever since he did this. Probably the #1 receiver for a pretty good team, albeit with a less than average quarterback.
5. JerMichael Finley, Packers
Everybody's sleeper last season, he disappointed with only 760 yards and 8 TDs, with 3 of those TDs coming in one game. Due to the unexpected emergence of Jordy Nelson, Finley ranked only 11th among tight ends in targets, and 3rd among Packers. Still, I'll rank him 5th because he's more of a freakish athlete than any other tight end, and thus has insane upside.
6. Jason Witten, Cowboys
Doesn't get any more reliable than Witten, who hasn't missed a game in 8 years, and always catches 80+ balls for 900+ yards. The TDs numbers are inconsistent, usually around 5 per year. But you can count on him for 50-60 yards every week. It helps that him and Tony Romo are BFFs.
7. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions
As an Antonio Gates owner for the past two years, I'm fine with omitting Gates from the second tier. I wouldn't touch him. He's been a "game-time decision" for the past 24 months. If you think he'll play, he won't, and vice versa. Don't waste your time. Instead, consider Pettigrew the top of tier 3. Even if Megatron miraculously breaks the Curse, Pettigrew will still see Witten-like numbers, though not as many yards, thanks to the fact that Pettigrew is the slowest human being on earth.
8. Antonio Gates, Chargers
Well, I suppose IF he is healthy, he'll be the best receiver Phillip Rivers has. But I'll let somebody else gamble on his knees.
9. Jacob Tamme, Broncos
Upside: Tamme could be the new Dallas Clark, catching 10 TDs with 1,000 yards for a resurgent Peyton Manning. Downside: he could be a 4th round pick from the U of Kentucky who does absolutely nothing. Personally, I like him, but I'm not totally sold.
10. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
A spitting image of super slow Pettigrew, even down to the detail that AJ Green is a young Calvin. The difference is that Dalton is no Stafford.
11. Coby Fleener, Colts
Lots of other guys being taken ahead of Fleener, but I like the upside. In case you slept through the NFL Draft, I'll remind you - Fleener was Andrew Luck's tight end at Stanford, and now they're together in Indy. More upside than the other TEs you can get here.
12. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
I thought Gonzo was done last year, but he went for 875 yards and 7 TDs, ranking 4th among tight ends in fantasy points. There's a reason he's the best tight end of all time. But at age 36, you've gotta wonder if he has any speed left. I don't want to risk it.
13. Fred Davis, Redskins
Lots of people like him as he replaces Chris Cooley and becomes the full time starter. It's true that RG3 has no one else to throw to, and it's also true that athletically he is elite like Finley and Vernon Davis. But I just don't trust punks from USC. Also, not a big believer in RG3, as you know.
14. Jared Cook, Titans
Another popular sleeper, often going in that second tier. Cook is almost exactly the same size and speed as JerMichael Finley, and went nuts at the end of 2011 with 330 yards in the last 3 games. But there are concerns about maturity and intelligence. Also, the Titans stink. If you're a big believer in Jake Locker, this is your guy. If Kenny Britt gets suspended for his DUI (probably will), I guess we can slide Cook up to 10th, especially if the suspension is 4 games. Keep an eye on that.
15. Brent Celek, Eagles
Michael Vick doesn't like him, but when Vick gets hurt Celek becomes productive.
16. Owen Daniels, Texans
Can't seem to stay healthy, but due to the lack of a #2 receiver in Houston, Daniels is sometimes productive.
17. Greg Olsen, Panthers
A decent sleeper.
18. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings
Another solid sleeper. A better keeper than sleeper.
19. Ed Dickson, Ravens
I could see Baltimore moving to a Patriots-style offense, and Dickson might become very useful.
20. Dustin Keller, Jets
They don't have much going on at receiver. Keller has some speed.
Heath Miller, Steelers - A reliable 30 yards per game.
Martellus Bennett, Giants - The only TE they have right now.
Kellen Winslow, Seahawks - An unparalleled moron.
Zach Miller, Seahawks - A colossal bust in 2011.
Lance Kendricks, Rams - 2nd round pick last year.
Anthony Fasano, Dolphins - Will pick up some of targets left by Brandon Marshall.
Dennis Pitta, Ravens - 4 TDs in the last 8 games last year.
Dallas Clark, Bucs - The ultimate gamble. Will he even make the team?
Tony Moeaki, Chiefs - Coming off a torn ACL. Probably won't be much use.
Todd Heap, Cardinals - Did you know Todd Heap was on the Cardinals? Me neither.