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Fantasy 2011 tight end rankings

Tight ends are like Cris Carter: All they do is catch touchdowns. Former coach Buddy Ryan was -- and still is -- ridiculed for saying that about a future Hall of Fame pass-catcher he let go back in the day with the Eagles.

But there was actually some logic to that seemingly asinine statement. Tight ends really don't make a big difference. Usually they are just a serendipitous beneficiary of circumstance near the goal line, snagging a one-yard TD because everyone on the defense geared up to stop the quarterback, running back or wide receivers.

The same holds true for fantasy -- for the most part. Don't waste your time drafting talent at arguably the weakest position. At least with your last-round kicker you are pretty sure to get something in the way of consistency out of the pick.

Sure, there are the exceptions in the form of Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Dallas Clark, but mostly drafting a tight end is surely just going to distract you from getting a real fantasy game-changer at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. Remember, those are the ones defenses usually focused on. Fantasy owners should follow suit, certainly in the early rounds.

Tight end is easily the position you should spend the least amount of time agonizing over on draft day. After the aforementioned elite three go off the board -- almost certainly before they actually should in your league -- you can just pick up a lineup-filler in the latter rounds and be all right.

You can be more than all right sometimes, too, especially if you made the best of the meaningful picks before that with a passer and a trio of running backs and wide receivers. That is at least seven spots on your roster you should fill before you draft your tight end.

Even the best of the tight ends shouldn't start to go off the board until you have your top two running backs and wide receivers. That makes Round 5 the place to start picking from the position.

And, since the current draft averages of the top trio have them going off the board from as early as late Round 3 through Round 4, you probably should just wait much longer and hope to catch lightning in a bottle, er, a late-round pick.

So, let's try to outline some value guys for you:

Aaron Hernandez, Patriots -- He is a tight end that plays like a wide receiver (there are a few in the league like this), and he has a few factors weighing his fantasy value down considerably. One, Rob Gronkowski looks like the Pats' premium sophomore at the position; and two, Hernandez's offseason hip surgery leaves some question marks. Tom Brady has plenty of throws to go around if Hernandez is healthy, though. Gronk might catch the Cris Carter ones -- those short TD passes -- but Hernandez can really bust the seams of defenses as Chad Ochocinco works the outside and Wes Welker works the underneath. Have you heard us say this Pats offense is going to be tough to stop? Hernandez is a great value going off the board in Round 12 or later, and he is not even getting drafted as a fantasy starter at the position.

Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings -- Another great way to pick up value on a player who can exceed expectations is to catch it a year after he went bust. Shiancoe was a great surprise in Brett Favre's non-terrible year with the Vikings in 2009, catching 11 touchdowns. Favre's disastrous '10 campaign made Shiancoe worthless for fantasy owners. Looking at the numbers, though, the only significant differences were with touchdowns; he caught just two last year. Wait, those actually do matter then, right? Yes, but they are merely circumstantial, though. Shiancoe's receptions and yards have remained about the same in each of his past three seasons. Donovan McNabb, a famed tight-end devotee, is going to put those short TD tosses back on Shiancoe's resume. He can have outstanding value relative to draft position.

Jimmy Graham, Saints -- Jeremy Shockey has been shuffled off to football purgatory in Carolina, and Marques Colston, the lanky receiver who actually served the tight end purpose over the middle in the Saints offense, is coming off offseason microfracture surgery. Offseason microfracture surgery? Yes, the surgery the Giants' Steve Smith had in the middle of last season and still had him unsigned before the first preseason game. This doesn't bode well for Colston, but it does make Graham a big-time breakthrough pick. Graham is in just his second season, but the end of his first finished with four TD catches in the final three games. Eleven catches, four of them TDs, and 70 combined yards. Heck, allJimmy Graham does is catch touchdowns -- not to mention Drew Brees has a habit of throwing them. We would call Graham a sleeper, and he might be in some leagues, but last year's finish and the promise of that Saints offense should elevate him into the middle rounds. He should outperform his draft position wherever he is picked.

Jermichael Finley, Packers -- Speaking of seam-route runners in great offenses, Finley was poised for a huge season a year ago before a knee injury. In the first four weeks of last season, he made the Packers' No. 1 wideout, Greg Jennings, a secondary option. Finley had 21 catches and 301 yards at the time of his season-ending misfortune. Jennings had just 12 for 161. Jennings was the one just catching touchdowns. Finley has to prove healthy this preseason, but the early reviews exceed encouraging.

Tony Gonzalez, Falcons -- Gonzalez has been a model of health and consistency in his 14-year career, missing just two games. So, naturally, we are inclined to label him an injury risk (half joking). Gonzalez has a great quarterback getting him passes in the red zone -- Matt Ryan -- but tight ends just aren't supposed to last this long. He should be a risk for the first time in his completely healthy career and might not finish among the top 12 fantasy tight ends. His name is surely going to get him picked among them, though. He is a nice pick if he slips, but this is where the warning we led with above should resonate the loudest. Don't reach for a 35-year old. It is the same strategy you take to your local watering hole: Home in on the 20-somethings.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots -- One of those 20-somethings, but ... this bust warning is listed with lip pinched tightly between the teeth. Yes, the Pats offense has sick potential, and Gronk is a function of that. The problem could lie where this discussion started: those short circumstantial TD tosses. The rookie's first catch in his career was exactly this in Week 1 last season: One catch, one yard and one TD. (Imagine if he dropped it, or a lineman jumped offside.) It has been a bane of this fantasy analyst's career to try to decipher how Brady's passes are going to be distributed on a weekly, or yearly, basis. Are the red-zone targets going to continue to go to Gronkowski? Is Hernandez (above) going to take some of them as a second tight end with those defenses focusing on Gronk? Buddy Ryan pooh-poohed Carter for being on the fortunate end of red-zone calls, so we won't do it with Gronk. But you have to be warned the Pats like to build perception in one place and sneak someone else out on the other side for easy scores. You can't always bank fantasy value on TD-potential alone.

How in the world did we get away with validating Ryan's stupidity on Carter ... multiple times no less?

Now on to the complete tiering of the bore-you-to-tears (half kidding, again) position ...

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE SOON: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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