The original purpose of the tight end (TE) was to be a blocker and to aid in the run game. However, in the past decade or so, a new wave of tight ends has cropped up; the pass-catching tight end. Pass-catching tight ends are very prevalent in today’s game of football, and are often the linebackers of receivers. They are faster and more athletic than linebackers, but slower than running backs and wide receivers. In generic offenses, teams utilize one tight end in the pass game and blocking game. In a different style of offense, called the west-coast style offense (First used by Bill Walsh), 2 pass-catching tight ends are utilized, and the purpose of the offense is to open up the passing and running lanes. Tight ends in both offenses are very useful to both their real life and fantasy teams. Where you find the elite tight ends are usually in the elite offenses. The reason for this is simple; elite offenses spread the defenses more, get the ball downfield, run the ball, and are better able to swing the ball to all sides of the field, leaving a receiver double-teamed. This often leads to a team’s top 2 receivers being tightly covered, leaving the tight end wide open for either a short, or potentially long gain or score. Another advantage of today’s tight end crop is size. They make for great red zone targets due to their size and athleticism. You may not realize it, but TE is often the position that wins or loses you a matchup any given week, and makes or breaks a championship run. This position is also the thinnest offensive position, and has the greatest drop off after the top 7, so grab one early if at all possible.
These rankings are based upon upside, the offense, catches, consistency over the years, and likely utilization in the passing game (ie number of catches). The rankings are tailored to Major League Fantasy Football leagues, but are also very useful in dynasty and keeper leagues.
1. Jimmy Graham – When you drop a league worst 14 passes, drop 228 yards off your season total from the previous season, and deal with injuries to your wrist and ankle, and still lead all TEs in fantasy production, you know you’re elite. That’s exactly what Graham did. He may have only posted 982 yards receiving (REC YD) and nine TDs in 15 games, but that still outproduced the likes of Randall Cobb, Cecil Shorts, Miles Austin, Mike Wallace, and Anquan Boldin, among others at receiver. This season, with Sean Payton back from his bounty scandal, season-long suspension, and Rob Gronkowski likely missing the start of the 2013 season due to injuries and off-season surgeries on his wrist and back, there may not be another TE who can threaten Graham’s claim to fantasy’s top tight end reigns. Expect him to bounce back to a 95 receptions (RCEP), 1,200 REC YD, 10 TD on 145-150 targets (TGT) season. Hands down, he should be the top TE off the boards.
2. Tony Gonzalez – One thing fantasy owners love more than anything, is consistency. That is exactly what Tony Gonzo’s game is. He is not the flashiest, quickest, or youngest tight end out there, but dang is this dude still nasty. Defenders absolutely hate trying to defend him because he is so physical, sure-handed, and will snatch the ball from the defender’s fingertips. Even at the advanced age of 36 last season, he still was the second most productive TE, posting 93 receptions, 930 REC YDs, 8 TDs, and 0 fumbles on 124 TGTs. Re-signing with Atlanta out of free agency for one last hurrah this season, expect Gonzo to leave everything on the field and post a 125 TGT, 95 RCEP, 970 REC YD, 10 TD season. He seems poised to go out with a bang and should be the second, if not 3rd TE off the draft boards. Not far-fetched that he could post a 1,00 REC YD/10 TD season this year.
3. Jason Witten – No, he may not be the same tight end he used to be, but he is still pretty dang good. Last season he was the only TE to eclipse 1,00 REC YDs (1,039), and set a record for RCEPs by a TE with 110, all while dealing with a spleen injury. Now the bad about him: Lack of touchdowns. It isn’t his fault he doesn’t score a ton of TDs, it’s Romo’s. Romo doesn’t throw the ball Witten’s way in the end zone, for whatever reason (beats me). Over the past two seasons, he has put up close to 2,000 REC YDs and 189 RCEPs, but only has 8 TDs to show for it. In other words, in TD only leagues, bump him down the list a little, but in most leagues (including dynasty leagues) he should be one of the 1st three or four TEs off the board. Expect another 90 RCEP, 1,000 REC YD season, but be aware, he may only get 5-6 TDs.
4.) Rob Gronkowski – This ranking has more to do with injuries and bone-headedness on the part of Gronkowski, and less to do with his ability. Had he not body slammed his best friend in a nightclub, had he not broken his forearm in week 11 against the Colts and then re-broke it against Miami in the final week of the season, and had he not needed back surgery to remove a disc, he would be the top TE going into this season. When healthy, he is über productive. In 11 games last season, Gronk still posted 790 REC YDs and a ridiculous 11 TDs. In a full season he’s a safe bet to post 1,100 REC YDs and 85+ RCEPs, even with Aaron Hernandez also in New England. Keep an eye on his status, and draft accordingly. If he misses five games or fewer, he’ll easily post around 700 REC YDs and 50 RCEPs. However, if he looks like he is going to miss half the season, or possibly more, expect more of a 500 REC YD, 40 RCEP, 4 TD season. If the latter is the case, try and trade for him while he is shelved, or try and steal him in the draft.
5.) Aaron Hernandez – The “other” Patriots TE, Hernandez may not get the recognition of Gronkowski, but he is still a top TE. Like the Gronk, his issue is durability, as he had surgery as well this off-season for his shoulder. In his first three seasons in the league, he has missed 10 games, but still managed to amass 18 TDs. He is also one of the scariest TEs, if not overall players, in the open field, as he has better speed than Gronk, and is tough as nails to tackle. Given he will likely be on the field before Gronk, and that he seems poised to be ready for week one, expect him to replace the role of Gronk for Brady and Co. Since he is a risk to miss time at some point this season, let’s go conservative with him and predict only a 80 REC, 950 REC YD, 12 TD season. Add or subtract some stats, depending on when the Gronk returns this season. High-risk/reward, but well worth the gamble as a top five TE. Even if Gronkowski does return around weeks 4-6, Hernandez may still put up better numbers this season.
6.) Vernon Davis – Looking at his numbers from last year (41 RCEPs/548 REC YDs/5 TDs), he may not seem like he should be this high, but he is. The more he gets acclimated to Kaepernick at the helm, and the more Kaepernick trusts Davis, the better off stats-wise both should be. With Delanie Walker now in Tennessee, and Michael Crabtree done for more than half the season, Davis is in an opportune position to be a significant contributor in S.F. again. His absolute floor for this season should be a 60/700/8 season, but a 70/850/10 season could also be on the horizon.
7.) Owen Daniels – One of the more consistent TEs over the past few season. Daniels battled various injuries, but still managed to finish as the 8th rated fantasy tight end. Even with a run-oriented offense and the drafting of DeAndre Hopkins, Daniels has worked his niche in with Schaub, and will continue to get his looks and catches. Assuming full health, he should yet again finish in the top 10 TEs, but may not score more than five TDs. 60/700/5 would be a nice stat line from your TE if you miss out on one of the bona fide studs. Drafting him anywhere between rounds six and eight is a good value for him, but grab him if a TE run starts sooner than expected in your league.
8.) Martellus Bennett – I’m bullish on him, but he is a 6’6″, 270 lb beast, who runs a 4.68 40-yard dash. Faster than most linebackers, he has no problem gaining yards after the catch. The bad news is that he goes to Chicago, where the offensive line has more holes than swiss cheese, and he will have the erratic and often sacked Jay Cutler. My concern here is Bennett may spend more time trying to keep Cutler erect than catching the football. However, seeing as he is the best receiver not named Brandon Marshall on the team, I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t set career highs in his first season in Chicago. Grab him in the middle to early part of the late rounds, and watch how much of a steal he could end up being with a safe, yet aggressive stat line at 60/750/8.
9.) Antonio Gates – His best days are behind him, and he is now at the mercy of the inconsistent play and decline of Philip Rivers and Rivers’ right shoulder. The issue with Gates the past few seasons has been injuries. He has missed games in each of the past three seasons, and even in the games he played, at times he seemed to definitely had lost a step. Injuries in his rear-view mirror to start the season, there is no doubt he is Rivers’ best receiver, and best red zone target. Even last season, when Gates battled plantar fascia issues, he still put up seven TDs, but only managed to eclipse 60 REC YDs once all season. Gates’ issue going into this season will be Rivers. Conservatively, expect 63 RCEPS, 800 yards, and 8 TDs for gates this season, but don’t expect much more unless Rivers has a renaissance season.
10.) Dennis Pitta – Pitta burst onto the tight end radar last season in Baltimore, and he should only continue to show he is the real deal this season. The presence of Ed Dickson doesn’t bother me, as Pitta clearly dominated the TE targets last season in Baltimore, 93 to 33, and will continue to dominate targets again this season. Looking at the receiving core in Baltimore, Pitta is hands down the 2nd best receiver in Baltimore, behind Torrey Smith. Easily seeing an uptick in looks this season, Pitta is the perfect sleeper candidate to eclipse 800 REC YDs, 70 RCEPs, and 9 TDs, but not come at the price of a top five TE. If you draft him after Aaron Hernandez goes off the boards, I don’t blame you, as I’ll certainly be looking to grab Pitta if I miss out on one of the true elite tight ends in the draft.
11.) Brandon Myers – If you have never heard of him, you’re not alone. A former Oakland tight end, Myers goes to the Giants, who have a knack for turning even the most average tight end into a potential fantasy star. The guy posted a 79 RCEP/806 REC YD/4 TD season in Oakland last year, so he is well worth a shot in any fantasy draft in the later rounds. The key here will be earning Tom Coughlin’s trust by being useful in the running game. If Myers shows he can block in the run game, he’ll see the field more and get more receptions, however, if he falters in the run game, he’ll be one of the first players in the Coughlin doghouse. Buy low and expect 55/600/7 for Myers as the third pass option for Eli Manning.
12.) Kyle Rudolph – I will be the first to admit, I am SOLD on him. Even with a young, inconsistent at times, still-in-the-maturation process QB in Christian Ponder, Rudolph found a way to post 9 TDs on 53 RCEPs last season, including 14 red zone targets. The downside to him is that his value is directly tied to his ability to score, as he won’t get a ton of receiving yards. There are worst things than only being behind Greg Jennings as top receiver, and that’s exactly the role Rudolph will fill. Any maturation in Ponder’s game will only boost Rudolph’s value, and that should equate to more targets. As long as Kyle continues to score touchdowns and see a healthy dose of red zone targets, he could threaten top 10 TE territory. If he isn’t scoring, he could disappear as quickly as he burst onto the scene. If I had to call my shot, I’d predict Ponder to finally tap into his potential after a great week 17 last season (featuring 2 pass TDs, 0 INTs), and have a stat line of 60 RCEP/600 REC YDs/8 TDs. Draft him as your starting TE, but also grab a backup to ensure protection in case Rudolph doesn’t score.
13.) Greg Olsen – Yes, ESPN is all high up on him after his season last season, but I’m not. Yes, he had 69 receptions and 843 receiving yards, but only saw 5 red zone targets, catching only one. Carolina is a run first offense (Cam, DeAngelo Williams, Johnathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert), especially in the red zone, and I don’t see Olsen repeating his numbers from last season. Carolina is going to continue their run-heavy offense, and I see Olsen falling to third in the receiving pecking order this season, as I have my money on Brandon LaFell finally breaking out. Even as Cam’s 3rd option, Olsen should still be able to post 50 RCEPs/600 REC YDs/5 TDs, with only 2-3 red zone targets. He is a buy low candidate in drafts, who will be grossly over-drafted. Draft him if he falls to around the 10th-12th rounds, but not before.
14. Fred Davis – He would be higher if he could stay healthy (torn Achilles in 2012) and get rid of off-field issues (suspended for drugs in 2011). His talent is undeniable, as Davis has been provided every opportunity to succeed as Chris Cooley’s replacement, but has been on a seesaw ever since 2010, posting his best year in 2011 (59 RCEPs, 796 REC YDs, 3TD), before missing the final four games due to suspension. In 2012, even when healthy he didn’t seem his old self, and only played in seven games with zero scores. This is Davis’ make or break season. If he can return to 2011 levels, he should have no problem re-establishing himself as a legitimate top 10 TE, but if he starts 2013 where he left off in 2012, he could find himself as a fantasy afterthought. He should be available in the later rounds, and produce either a 50 RCEP/600/5 TD season as a baseline, or 40/350/3 if he reverts to 2012 levels. Very high risk/reward, as you’ll get him at a backup TE price, but his potential is that of a top 10 TE.
15. Jermichael Finley – Yes, he is this low, even in the elite Packers offense. He didn’t do much in 2012 outside of yardage (667 REC YDs), and so long as he continues to criticize Aaron Rodgers leadership, he is going to continue to be annual waiver wire material. There is no question, Rodgers holds the key to Finley’s success, and if/when Finley re-establishes Rodgers’ trust, especially in the end zone, he’ll return to fantasy relevancy quickly. When Finley is on his game, he is a top five TE, but as of right now, this might be a mercy ranking. View him as no more than a backup TE going into the season, but immediately start him if it seems he has gotten back into Rodgers’ plans, even if it’s as 4th option in Green Bay. This is aggressive, but give me $20 on him posting 60 RCEPs/750 REC YDs/7 TDs.
Heath Miller – His main claim to fame is as Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite red zone target. He absolutely burst onto the fantasy scene last season after posting 816 REC YDs and 8 TDs, before wrecking his knee in week 16, tearing his ACL, MCL, and PCL. He will likely miss some time this season and start on the physically unable to perform list, but once he comes back, he should go back to being Roethlisberger’s favorite red zone target. Keep tabs on him.
Jared Cook – His upside is easy to be enthusiastic about, but to date, he hasn’t done much in the NFL. At 6’5″, 248 lbs, with 4.48 speed, he could explode without notice like Mount St. Helens. Granted, he spent his first seasons in the NFL in TE hell in Tennessee, and now goes to the more up tempo, pass-friendly offense in St. Louis. There is hope yet, and he should easily have a career year in his first season in St. Louis. He would make a solid backup with top 15 TE upside.
Tyler Eifert – Hands down the stud TE of the 2013 draft class, he enters into an interesting situation. He’ll start the season behind A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, and Mohamed Sanu in the pecking order, but by season’s end could be behind only Green. Should definitely be the first rookie TE off the boards in dynasty leagues, and is my sleeper pick to finish in the top 12 TEs this season, as it may not be long until he replaces Gresham as Cincinnati’s top tight end.
Jermaine Gresham – If this guy can return to his pre-knee injury days in Oklahoma, Eifert may not see the field a ton this season. His numbers from last season weren’t bad (64 RCEP/737 REC YDs/5 TDs), but the problem is that the Bengals drafted Eifert in the first round, which may signal that Gresham’s days in Cincinnati is over. The good news is he is still the top TE in Cincinnati, and if he builds upon his stats from last season, he should have no problem holding off Eifert. The bad news is it is more likely that both Gresham and Eifert cap one another’s upside until one or the other runs away with the starting gig.
Brandon Pettigrew – Following back to back solid campaigns in 2010 and 2011, where he posted a combined 9 TDs, he seemed poised to put his name in the hat as a top 10 TE. Then he nearly fell off the fantasy radar last season after only 3 TDs, and fumbling 4 times. It is hard to trust him going into this season, but take a flier on him in the hopes of him rebounding from a down 2012 season, as only Calvin Johnson is ahead of him in line for receptions. Won’t likely post top 10 numbers this season, but top 12-15 is definitely well in reach for Pettigrew. Draft and stash.