Throughout the week, the Yahoo! fantasy team will review each of the four major positions, with an eye toward 2012 drafts. The plan is to take a Q&A approach. We're looking at trends, sleepers, rookies, free agents, potential busts and breakouts ... it's like an early draft of a position primer, basically. We begin today with the tight ends, a group that just rewrote its chapter in the record book.
But you might recall that NFL analysts also declared 2009 to be "The Year of the Tight End," after eight different players at the position caught at least 75 passes, with Dallas Clark snagging 100. That year, Clark became the first tight end to deliver a 100-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown campaign, and Vernon Davis tied the all-time single-season position record for touchdowns (13).
The fact is, tight end usage has been trending upward across the league over multiple seasons. If you think 2011 was a huge year for this position, just wait 'til you see 2012 ... and then 2013, and every year thereafter. The tight end revolution didn't just begin. It's been unfolding for a few years. At this point, it can be argued that they've taken over. Please welcome our new fantasy overlords. The top-scoring players at this position now deliver fantasy totals that match the numbers posted by top-tier receivers. Just check the year-to-date WR/TE scoring leaders:
1. Calvin Johnson, 233.7 fantasy points
2. Rob Gronkowski, 211.9
3. Wes Welker, 206.2
4. Victor Cruz, 183.8
5. Jordy Nelson, 182.1
6. Jimmy Graham, 181.3
If you intend to own Gronkowski or Graham next season, be prepared to draft 'em higher than any tight end has been selected since the prime years of Shannon Sharpe. Both players will fly off the board within top-20 overall picks, and possibly the top-15.
If instead you prefer to draft a mid-round tight end — after all, that's where many of you found Gronk and Graham back in August — then you'll appreciate the depth offered by this roster spot. In 2011, we've seen 14 different tight ends average at least 6.0 fantasy points per week. In 2001, only two players reached that mark, Tony Gonzalez and Marcus Pollard.
When we look at the average fantasy production delivered by a top-15 tight end over the past decade — we'll use that number because it's essentially the ownable population of TEs in a standard league — then the full extent of the tight end boom becomes clear:
2001 - 5.36 fantasy points
2002 - 5.20
2003 - 5.24
2004 - 6.79
2005 - 6.61
2006 - 6.34
2007 - 7.02
2008 - 6.40
2009 - 8.13
2010 - 7.63
2011 - 8.03
Data source: FFToday.com
You'll note the surge in scoring in 2004, coinciding with Antonio Gates' breakout season. Then we saw another massive leap in '09, the first "Year of the Tight End." Today, this position accounts for a greater share of total offensive production than at any point in league history. Coordinators no longer expect tight ends to function as merely ancillary linemen, mini-tackles who can help control pass rush. These days, the elite tight ends are running every pass route in the playbook. They're too large to be covered by most defensive backs, and they're too fast and athletic to be checked by any linebacker. When you pair the exceptional pass-catching and route-running ability of a player like Graham (or Gronkowski) with the military-grade precision of Drew Brees (or Tom Brady), then you have an almost unstoppable offensive weapon.
Take a look at this touchdown catch by Graham from the Saints' Week 16 win over Atlanta. Brees placed that ball in a spot where only his 6-foot-6 tight end could reach it, throwing it over a three-deep line of Falcons defenders. Brent Grimes was on Graham like a cape, but the receiver had an eight-inch height advantage and perhaps an 18-inch vertical leap advantage. How can you possibly stop that? Without finding a similarly sized, hyper-athletic power forward/superhero type to play defensive back, you really can't.
Q: But isn't it likely that Graham and Gronkowski will regress in 2012? Maybe significantly? Fantasy gurus are always cautioning readers to never pay for career years, but that doesn't stop 'em from setting the preseason sticker prices ridiculously high.
A: Well, injuries are a fact of life in the NFL, and a thousand things need to go right in order for any player to reach 90-plus catches or double-digit TDs. Those are insane numbers to actually project. But still, they aren't completely unreasonable for the top TEs in 2012. In each of the past five seasons, at least one tight end has caught 90 passes — and in both 2005 and 2006, the top pass-catching tight end finished with 89.
There certainly hasn't been anything fluky about Graham's big year. He's merely become the sole recipient of what was already a huge receiving workload for the tight end position in New Orleans. In 2009, three different Saints TEs combined for 88 catches, 947 yards and five touchdowns. In 2010, another three-headed receiving monster accounted for 102, 983 yards and 10. This year, with one game remaining on the schedule, Graham has delivered 91, 1213 and 10. The only other tight ends who've caught passes in 2011 are John Gilmore and David Thomas, who've combined for just eight catches and 36 yards. New Orleans is simply funneling the entire TE workload to Graham, a second-year player with obscene athletic gifts, still developing as a receiver and route-runner.
Gronkowski's situation is slightly different, as the New England offense also features another highly skilled tight end, Aaron Hernandez. In fact, Hernandez actually has a slight edge over Gronk in per-game pass targets, 7.8 to 7.6. The duo has totaled 21 touchdown catches, with Gronk having established a new single-season record for the position (15 and counting). It shouldn't surprise anyone if, in a healthy year, Hernandez poached a few scores from his teammate. The nice thing about this passing offense, of course, is that the fantasy stats are seemingly without limit. The Patriots have given us a double-digit TD receiver every year since 2007.
Q: So who's the top-ranked tight end in 2012, and how early will he be drafted?
A: Graham's name will be the first in my TE ranks next year, assuming a healthy off-season. But I can appreciate the argument for Gronk, too. There's not really a bad answer here. Considering the dearth of exceptional, full-workload running backs and the utter dominance of the league's best passing offenses, it no longer seems like much of a risk to target the top tight end near the end of Round 1, or early in Round 2. Those of us who drafted our first fake teams during the Ben Coates era are going to need to adjust.
Q: Speaking of really, really old tight ends, how much longer can the 30-something legends — guys like Gates and Tony Gonzalez — maintain their exceptional productivity? Can they last at least one more year?
A: We can probably toss Jason Witten into this discussion, too, since he'll be 30 when the 2012 season begins. I hate to bet against Hall of Fame talents, particularly inner-circle guys like Gates and Gonzo. I'm not willing to tell such players that they can't do something. Most fantasy analysts didn't really like Gonzalez heading into 2011, his age-35 season, and yet he's caught 79 passes for 867 yards and seven TDs. His numbers this year are even better than they were in 2001, when he led all tight ends in scoring with a 73-catch, 917-yard, six-touchdown season. Gonzo is really as reliable as any name in the player pool; he's caught 70 or more passes in 12 of the past 13 seasons, and he almost never misses a game.
Gates is a somewhat different story, because the plantar fascia injury of 2010 has clearly affected him to some extent this year, and it might be an issue in future seasons. And yet he's still the preferred target of one of the NFL's better quarterbacks, a man capable of making degree-of-difficulty catches like this, in coverage. So he's not someone I'm interested kicking to the curb, either. This is still a top-five TE .
Witten is obviously a longtime favorite of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, and he's averaging a career-high 12.1 yards per catch this season. He's caught 80-plus passes in four straight seasons, and he's eight catches away from reaching that plateau again, with one must-win game remaining. Going forward, the greatest threat to Witten's production might not be age, but his teammate Laurent Robinson. These days, Romo seems to connect with Robinson on all the big improvisational plays.
Q: Is Jermichael Finley ever going to give us a season that justifies his draft position?
A: Finley has been one of my favorite players to discuss this year, because he's somehow disappointed all of his fantasy owners while delivering stats that are historically great by the standards of his position. If you want a perfect case study for our changing expectations in this roster spot, look no further than Green Bay. This year, Finley has caught 48 passes for 703 yards and seven TDs through 15 games. If you'll scroll up just a few paragraphs, you'll find the stat line that led this position in scoring in 2001: 917 yards, six TDs.
Finley has averaged 7.5 fantasy points per week this year, and we're beating him up over it. (OK, the drops are frustrating. I'll give you that). There's a decent chance that he'll be the steal of the draft at this position next year. He remains a freakish talent, an excellent downfield threat (14.6 yards per catch), and he's tied to an Aaron Rodgers-led offense. If this guy let you down, then blame your forecast, not the player.
Q: Who's the sleeper to target in next year's draft? Will any rookies make an impact?
I'm supposed to toss out Jared Cook here, because he's enjoying yet another late-season binge, and we all know he's a dangerous athlete. But Cook will be entering an unprecedented fourth straight season as a fantasy sleeper in 2012, plus he'll have to deal with the return of Kenny Britt, who's awesome. So let's focus on someone else.
Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph was an early second round pick in 2011, but Visanthe Shiancoe has obviously topped the depth chart for the Vikings this season. Shiancoe will be a free agent in 2012, which means Rudolph is about to make a major leap in value. He's only caught 23 passes as a rookie, but several of them have been of the highest quality. Here's one example. Here's another, and another. Don't ignore him next season, particularly if you miss out on the top-of-draft tight ends.
Clemson junior Dwayne Allen just won the John Mackey award, given to the top collegiate tight end, and he's generally considered the top draft prospect at the position if he declares himself eligible. Allen is 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, coming off a 577-yard, eight-TD season. He's a dual threat guy, a good blocker and a solid receiver. Depending on his landing spot, Stanford senior Coby Fleener could be a person of interest for fantasy owners, too, coming off an impressive 10-TD campaign. He's 6-foot-6, capable of making plays like this absurd one-handed end zone snag. Clearly, Fleener has benefited from his multi-year relationship with Andrew Luck. We shouldn't dismiss the potential of first-year players at this position, not after Gronkowski finished as the fifth highest-scoring tight end as a rookie. Environment, of course, is everything.
Early TE ranks for 2012, if you made me draft a team today...
1. Jimmy Graham
2. Rob Gronkowski
3. Jermichael Finley
4. Aaron Hernandez
5. Antonio Gates
6. Jason Witten
7. Jermaine Gresham
8. Brandon Pettigrew
9. Tony Gonzalez
10. Fred Davis
11. Vernon Davis
12. Owen Daniels
13. Ed Dickson
14. Kyle Rudolph
15. Dustin Keller
16. Jared Cook
17. Brent Celek
18. Greg Olsen
19. Jake Ballard
20. Tony Moeaki
21. Kellen Winslow
22. Dallas Clark
23. Evan Moore
24. Coby Fleener
25. Heath Miller
26. Lance Kendricks
27. Dwayne Allen
28. Visanthe Shiancoe