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Fantasy Football 2011: Tight End Analysis

08.05.11 at 2:20 pm ET
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Fantasy football strategy has changed a lot in the last few years, and the changes are direct reflections of the ways football itself has evolved. The tight end position is a great example of how the changes in fantasy reflect the evolution of the NFL itself.

What used to be sort of an afterthought position is now more up-front in the minds of the typical fantasy GM. Why? Well, have you heard of Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis or Jermichael Finley? There are now more than just a few star players at the position. Back in the 90′€™s, if you didn’€™t get Ben Coates or Shannon Sharpe, you’€™d just wait until the late rounds and hope that a guy like Frank Wycheck might still be available. Even in the early years after the millennium, you wanted Tony Gonzalez, Sharpe or maybe Todd Heap. Fast forward to 2011. This season, we expect at least seven tight ends to be so good that you’€™d start them as your second or third receiver if you couldn’€™t start them as your tight end.

As I said, tight end has become a position that has plenty of stars and laggard fantasy GMs love drafting stars. So, as more tight ends get taken early, we at Rotobahn counsel patience. We do this because the influx of star power is not cyclical, but systemic. The position itself has evolved.

Just a look at our list of honorable mentions should tell you something. Any of them could have reasonably been included in the top twelve, and that is the point. Tight end is not a position where you should reach. No matter what round you are in, there is a tight end on the board that can start for you. It’€™s something to keep in mind if you are tempted to reach for a star too early. If you follow us at Rotobahn this August, we’€™ll be sure to tell you when we think ‘€œtoo early’€ is. Don’€™t get us wrong, we’€™d love to have an elite player at the position, but he has to be available at the right point in the draft. With that, let’€™s take a look at our top twelve.

1. Jermichael Finley, Packers

It might seem a bit daft putting a player up top that missed the bulk of 2010 with a serious knee injury, but Finley’€™s upside is so ridiculous that his floor is well worth the risk. This guy possesses talent that is rarely seen at his position and he is impossible for most teams to match up with. Not to mention that Green Bay presents plenty of other problems for teams to deal with. Now factor in that Finley has one of the most accurate passers that we’€™ve ever seen throwing him the ball and you have a player with one and only one question mark–injury. Assuming he’€™s healthy as we enter the season, Finley is our choice for the top spot at tight end.

2. Dallas Clark, Colts

Another injury risk at the top. And, again, the upside merits the risk. Clark is Peyton Manning‘€™s tight end, and as Jacob Tamme proved last season, that job, in and of itself, means fantasy glory unless you have no game at all. Clark will take his job back and barring a new injury, he will post great numbers and be the same player we saw in 2009.

3. Antonio Gates, Chargers

Yet another health risk. Gates is a very different player than either Clark or Finley, but he’€™s been the class of the position over his career and he was absolutely amazing until he went down in 2010. Gates missed seven games last year and STILL managed to score an astounding ten times. He was on pace to put up the best season by any tight end in history. He’€™s neck-and-neck with Finley and Clark.  He’€™d be listed number one, but of the three big dogs, he’€™s the least healthy at this point. If he’€™s still unhealthy at the end of August, we may downgrade him, but he appears to be on pace to start week one.

4. Vernon Davis, 49ers

Some folks might be looking for Jason Witten in this spot, but we love Davis’€™ skills and we think he finally has a coach that will fully unleash him on NFL secondaries. Davis has crazy speed and strength and we love his upside. There’€™s more risk for sure due to the quarterback situation, but we’€™re betting on HC Jim Harbaugh here. He’€™s too smart to not use Davis to the utmost.

5. Jason Witten, Cowboys

Witten was tremendous at times in 2010 and he was the most valuable tight end over the course of the sixteen game fantasy season. We expect another solid campaign from Dallas’€™ most reliable target. He’€™s still an elite fantasy option and he’€™s an even stronger option in PPR formats.

6. Owen Daniels, Texans

Daniels struggled for most of the season due to lingering effects from his 2009 ACL injury, but once he was all the way back, we saw the same player that was lights out prior to the injury. He is in a great offense with a very sound quarterback and he has Andre Johnson to drag the safeties away from him. As long as the knee holds up, this guy is going to post great numbers. Daniels is a very accomplished player. He runs refined routes, catches the ball away from his body and makes tough catches in traffic. He’€™s a quarterback’€™s dream and he’€™ll be a darn good TE1 for fantasy 2011. What’€™s best, is that he is available a few rounds after the big dogs go off the board.

7. Jimmy Graham, Saints

Yes, this is pretty high, but it’€™s really hard to watch this player and not be impressed. He’€™s has a great combination of size and athleticism. The man is a matchup nightmare in the Jermichael Finley mold. We pimped Graham last preseason as a steal in dynasty leagues and this year, we are giving a heads-up to the folks in redraft formats. Jimmy Graham has arrived, and he may end up posting elite fantasy numbers this season. I’€™ve gotten him in the late rounds in some mocks, but I fully expect that he will be a riser in the coming weeks. We like him as high as round seven in twelve team performance leagues. We’€™ll be watching his ADP in the coming weeks.

8. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

A lot of fantasy outlets are calling for a regression from Gronkowski in 2011. If they are  talking about touchdowns, they could be right as scores can be fickle, statistically speaking. That being said, in our view, this guy is a big-time player and he is only going to get better as long as his surgically repaired back holds up. Rotobahn expects Gronkowski’€™s role to actually grow a little bit. He’€™s a perfect Bill Belichick player. He plays both phases of the game equally well and is fundamentally sound, which means that they can spring him on defenses when the time is right and he’€™ll be a solid in-line blocker when he’€™s not being used as an offensive threat. Lastly, based on what we saw last year, Gronkowski has Tom Brady‘€™s trust and that has to be a good thing. We think he makes a very nice value option as a fantasy tight end. We’€™ve drafted him as late as round fourteen in mock drafts. He’€™s a steal there.

9. Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers

His knees are feeling better than they have in a few years and we love his quarterback. Winslow was more and more involved as the 2010 season wore on and all of his scores came after week nine. If they continue this trend, Winslow should be a top twelve tight end in 2011. He’€™s formed a solid rapport with QB Josh Freeman and he’€™s no longer the first option in the passing game, so he is seeing some lighter coverage. Winslow is a nice way to fill your tight end spot later on in the draft.

10. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars

Lewis was a fixture on Rotobahn’€™s waiver wire in 2010, but he won’€™t sneak up on anybody this season. Lewis has really raised his game and he wisely ended his brief holdout. With rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the fold, things could get even better for Marcedes in the future. The sooner Gabbert gets in there, the better things will be for the big man. You can get him fairly late and he has a little upside left even after last year’€™s bust out campaign.

11. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions

If you’€™ve been reading Rotobahn since last year, you know how much we like what the Lions are doing. They have drafted a lot of good football players the last few years and Jim Schwartz is a good young head coach. Pettigrew, much like Gronkowski of the Patriots, is a very complete player, which means he stays on the field. That creates statistical opportunity. And, like Gronkowski, folks seem to think Pettigrew over-performed in 2010. We don’€™t see it that way. Don’€™t forget, this player suffered an ACL injury that ended his 2009 season. He came back quickly and had a great 2010, which says something about his work ethic. Now he is a full year removed from that rehab and we see him being a solid option on a yearly basis. Draft him late and enjoy.

12. Dustin Keller, Jets

Keller was amazing last year until Santonio Holmes returned from suspension. With both Holmes and Braylon Edwards active, Keller found targets harder to come by. It’€™s right there in his game logs. All five of his touchdowns came in the first four weeks of the season. All that early scoring caused defenses to adjust and Keller failed to deal with that the way he needed to. In 2011, Keller enters his fourth season and Jets OC Brian Schottenheimer expects him to take it up a notch. We agree. With Braylon Edwards gone, we expect a few more targets for Keller between the 20s. He’€™s a good bet to be a solid fantasy tight end, and he has some upside as a late selection.

Honorable Mentions: Tony Gonzalez, Greg Olsen, Chris Cooley, Ben Watson, Zach Miller, Visanthe Shiancoe and Jermaine Gresham.

For our complete rankings, join us at Rotobahn.com.

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