It's no big secret running backs and wide receivers dominate fantasy drafts, especially in the early stages. Due to the lineup requirements of most leagues, mandating each team start multiple players from those positions, it makes sense. Regardless of your league's scoring system, the most prolific quarterbacks will make an appearance in the top overall ranks at year's end. The top-scoring tight ends are also likely to outpoint a good percentage of the receivers drafted ahead of them. The contradiction is a study in supply and demand, if you will. The demand is higher on backs and receivers because owners need more of them. With 32 starters at quarterback and tight end, an ample supply, and only one required to start (in most leagues), a small demand, the price is lower.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should draft only running backs and receivers, and wait until the final rounds to draft your quarterback and tight end, like you should a kicker. An ideal roster should always aim to have the most top-tier talent at as many positions as possible, without sacrificing depth. The question owners face, is when to veer off the traditional path to maximize value at the ancillary positions?
Today I'll break down the tight end position.
There seems to be a strong consensus on the top five guys: Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, and Vernon Davis. Traditionally speaking, landing a member of this quintet should be a secure investment. In the last five years, the preseason top five ranked tight ends (ADP figures from MyFantasyLeague.com) have finished the year within the same threshold 64|PERCENT| of the time. (finish rankings from my personal league; 1 pt./10yds, 6 pts./TD, 1pt./rec) Furthermore, 80|PERCENT| have stayed within the top 10 by year's end. Of the five tight ends who slipped outside the top 10 over the last five years, four were due to significant injury. In short, talented tight ends are typically a safe bet.
This year carries some extra uncertainty, however. Despite finishing third at the position in 2010, Gates only played in 10 contests due to foot and toe injuries. Clark, last year's consensus number one, had his season cut short after six games with a wrist injury that required surgery. And everyone's favorite breakout candidate, Finley, went down for the count with a knee injury, only five games in. Each guy returns with lofty expectations for 2011.
If the statistical percentages bear out this year, one tight end will fall out of the top five, and one out of the top 10. Let's give our best guess.
6-10 Finish - Dallas Clark - Indianapolis
The player who slipped to the second five in years past, came as a result of below-expectations performance. Gates, Witten and Davis, beyond being their team's top receiving target, are blessed with supernatural athletic abilities. Clark is more of a sleek, hybrid type who relies on mismatches, and the intelligence of his quarterback. He's not getting any younger, at 32, and Peyton Manning has a plethora of talented options at his disposal, including: Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, and fellow tight end Jacob Tamme. Clark seems like the best fit for the, "small regression/still top 10" category.
Outside the Top 10 - Jermichael Finley - Green Bay
It kills me to do this, and I hope I'm wrong. I just drafted Finley for my roommate, while he was partying it up in Las Vegas. Like most, I believe Finley has the skills, and certainly the throwing partner in Aaron Rodgers, to be the top player at his position. But you can't change the facts. To date, the uber-talented tight end has yet to play a full season, and as I referenced above, 80|PERCENT| of those guys falling out of the top 10 the last five years were due to injury, not lack of talent.
New to the Top Five - Jimmy Graham - New Orleans
Graham is a hot sleeper pick who's getting so much buzz, he's no longer a sleeper. There's good reason for the high projections. He's big, fast, has great hands, and, like Gates and 11-time Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, he played basketball in college. Graham ended his rookie campaign on a strong note, scoring four touchdowns in his last three games. More importantly, the Saints cleared the way for the former Hurricane to roll that late-season success into a big 2011. Last year's starter, Jeremy Shockey, left for Carolina via free agency, and the team cut Reggie Bush. Those two combined for 75 receptions last season. Scat-back dynamo Darren Sprolles was brought in to fill Bush's role, but Graham will slide into the starting lineup and figures to be a frequent target for Drew Brees, especially in the red zone. It's worth noting, Saints tight ends combined for 102 receptions, 983 yards, and 10 touchdowns last season.
Brandon Pettigrew - Detroit
The 6'5'', 265-pound beast blossomed in his sophomore campaign, hauling in 71 catches for 722 yards and four touchdowns. His ability to make the leap into the elite group this year depends on the health of his quarterback, Matthew Stafford. In his first two years, the 2009 first round pick out of Georgia has played in a measly 13 games. Thus far in the preseason, Stafford has looked the part of a budding superstar, and someone with an optimistic inclination, like myself, could view his missed time in a positive light. The shoulder that has been the cause for his inactivity has been declared fully healed, and not at an additional threat of re-injury. Much like other quarterbacks who've had to learn the game from the sidelines, ala Rodgers, Stafford looks to have a solid grasp on his offense, and a starving hunger to make some noise. The Lions' passing game could take off this year, with Pettigrew being a major benefactor.
Left out in the Cold
If you miss out on all these guys, shame on you. Just kidding. Hopefully, this means you're stacked elsewhere on your roster. Here are a few guys going late, that could be serviceable starters.
Marcedes Lewis - Jacksonville
Lewis had a breakout year in 2010, racking up 700 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Jaguars have looked terrible this preseason, and his quarterback situation is far from ideal, David Garrard or rookie Blaine Gabbert, but you could do worse. Lewis got 88 targets (14 in the red zone) last year, and the team did little to address their talent-starved wide receiving corps in the offseason.
Aaron Hernandez - New England
More hype is being heaped upon Hernandez' partner in crime, Rob Gronkowski, but there should be room for both to thrive again in 2011. The two each had 42-plus catches, 546-plus yards, and 6-plus touchdowns in their rookie season a year ago. "Gronk" is definitely the better red zone target, standing a robust 6'6'', 265, but Hernandez could be the team's most exploitable matchup nightmare for defenses outside the 20-yard-line. More often than not, the former Gator lines up off the line of scrimmage, pitting him against a smaller defensive back, or a slower linebacker. His versatility has been employed to this point in a fashion reminiscent of Indianapolis' Clark.
Benjamin Watson - Cleveland
Watson is being completely overlooked in drafts, despite his team-leading 68 grabs and 763 yards last season. It's understandable, as the athletic Watson wallowed away for years in New England, as onlookers eagerly awaited him to "get it" and capitalize on his natural ability. Maybe the pressure was too much and a change of scenery was all that was needed.