Once upon a time the tight end position was something most owners targeted toward the later rounds of their fantasy football drafts. While some owners pursued Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez in the early rounds, many other owners preferred to wait and land someone like Chris Cooley several rounds later and still receive a high level of fantasy production.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are out to change all that.
These two young, supremely gifted tight ends are setting the NFL - and fantasy football - on fire this season. Both are putting up the type of seasons typically seen by superstar wide receivers, not top-level tight ends. Given their youth and respective talent, both could become sure-fire fantasy studs who are drafted far earlier than tight ends have ever been selected before.
And if you have one of them this season, your quest for a fantasy title is in great hands.
Gronkowski is averaging 20.1 points per game in the National Fantasy Football Championship after the first 13 weeks of the season while Graham is delivering a healthy 18.9 per game. By means of comparison, only one wide receiver (Wes Welker) is averaging more points per game than Gronkowski and only two (Welker and Calvin Johnson) are averaging more than Graham.
Let's take it even further. Only two running backs (Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy) have a higher point per game average than Gronkowski. Only three (Foster, McCoy and Ray Rice) are currently averaging more than Graham.
Johnson, Foster, McCoy and Rice were all first-round picks in the NFFC this season and are the foundation pieces for many teams still aiming for their league titles. Gronkowski and Graham are providing similar production at a position typically not known for delivering something so significant.
Gates and Gonzalez set the standard for how elite fantasy tight ends have been judged in recent seasons. But as great as both of them have been (Gonzalez is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and Gates could be as well), neither delivered at the level Gronkowski and Graham have produced so far this season.
Gates' best season came in 2005 when he caught 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns. That produced 259.1 points in point-per reception leagues. Gonzalez's best season came in 2004 when he posted 102-1,258-7 for 269.8 points.
How does that compare to what this season's dynamic duo are delivering? Gronkowski already has 242 points in the NFFC while Graham has 227.6. By season's end, both should have easily surpassed the best fantasy seasons put up by the two tight ends everyone would acknowledge have been this generation's best at the position.
Gonzalez's 102 receptions in 2004 is the all-time record for tight ends in a season. Graham leads the NFC with 75 and is on pace to challenge that mark. He is also on pace to finish with with 1,395 receiving yards. That would best the current record for tight ends, held by Kellen Winslow Sr. (1,290 in 1980).
While Gronkowski's fantasy output has been superior, Graham has been slightly more consistent. Gronkowski has been held under eight fantasy points in two games this season while Graham has dipped below that level just once. Gronkowski has feasted more in terms of touchdowns (he has 13 to Graham's nine) while Graham has been the more reliable option for receptions (he has 75 to Gronkowski's 65) and yardage (he has 1,046 to Gronkowski's 928).
There's no reason to think either player will suffer a decline in production anytime soon considering both are working with two of the game's elite quarterbacks in Tom Brady (Gronkowski) and Drew Brees (Graham). In fact, both players appear to be gearing up for a big fantasy finish.
Graham has caught at least five passes and delivered at least 75 yards receiving in each of his last four games with the Saints pursuing San Francisco for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. Meanwhile in New England, Gronkowski has scored in five consecutive games and has caught two TDs in three of the last four to help the Patriots stay on course for the possible No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Which tight end carries more value may ultimately be splitting hairs considering both are delivering high-end WR1-type production this season. In fact, given the volatility of the wide receiver position this season, you could make a strong case that Gronkowski and Graham are the most valuable receiving options in all of fantasy, even ahead of Welker and Megatron.
Welker, for example, was held to a two-reception game in Week 11 while Johnson has failed to top 15 points in any of his last four games and hasn't reached 100 yards receiving since Week 8. Both are obviously still standout WR1 options but when it comes to high-end consistency, neither have been as good as Gronkowski or Graham of late.
When you begin to list the fantasy studs who are likely going to be major impact players the rest of the season, the names Rodgers, Foster, McCoy and Rice come quickly to mind. But be sure to include the names Gronkowski and Graham too. Not only have both become fantasy superstars but they will likely play prominent roles in championship runs from here on out as the season winds to a close.
TK's Hot Picks
Here are five sleeper picks for Week 14:
QB: Carson Palmer (Oak.) - The Raiders are scuffling but Palmer has been putting up solid fantasy numbers, topping 270 yards in three of the past four games. This week, he faces Green Bay's 31st-ranked pass defense. He'll throw it plenty trying to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and the volume makes him a fine sleeper pick.
RB: C.J. Spiller (Buf.) - He's putting up fine numbers since replacing Fred Jackson and this week faces a San Diego defense that hasn't looked good for nearly two months. Spiller will get plenty of touches and deliver quality RB2 production.
WR: Nate Burleson (Det.) - Burleson has quietly regained WR3 stature in PPR leagues with 25 receptions in his last four games. Minnesota's pass defense has major issues on the back end and the Lions should throw it a lot as usual, making Burleson a fine sleeper WR.
TE: Kellen Winslow (TB) - It would help the Bucs if Josh Freeman returns but even with Josh Johnson at QB, this is a favorable matchup against a Jacksonville defense that is struggling to defend tight ends. Winslow is looking good as a low-end TE starter this week.
D: Seattle - The Rams may be without starting QB Sam Bradford and backup A.J. Feeley. The Seahawks' D will feast Monday Night in a game that could be over at halftime.
Tom Kessenich is the Manager of High Stakes Fantasy Games for STATS LLC. Find out more about the NFFC at nffc.stats.com or email Tom at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomKessenich.