In today's Twitter-dominated, nanosecond-length attention span news cycle, we have a tendency to engage in hyperbole and superlative. The most immediate event we just witnessed was either the greatest of all-time or the worst of all-time with no in between. It often dumbs down sports discourse and completely ignores the historical perspective we have gained over the years.
However, that doesn't mean that the most recent wasn't also the best, capably illustrated by the overall performance of NFL tight ends in 2011. Last season was, without a doubt, the greatest season for tight ends in NFL history. Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints rewrote the record books, with the former coming out just ahead. Gronkowski's 1,327 receiving yards were the most by a tight end in a single season. Graham's 1,310 came in a close second. Gronkowski also set the single-season record for most touchdowns by tight end with 18. No doubt Ben Coates was nodding in approval all season long.
But it wasn't just Gronk and Graham laying down a marker for the tight end position. Seven tight ends caught at least 75 passes last year, with Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez, Jason Witten and Kellen Winslow, along with Gronkowski and Graham. Seven tight ends racked up at least 800 receiving yards (five of the seven above, with Dustin Keller and Brent Celek replacing Pettigrew and Winslow), and Hernandez, Gonazlez, Antonio Gates and JerMichael Finley joined Gronk and Graham to give the position six guys with at least seven touchdowns. And remember, Finley and Gates were considered disappointments last year, and we haven't even mentioned Vernon Davis or Owen Daniels, the latter of whom lost most of the season to injury. Simply put, coupled with the dominance of the passing game in the NFL, we're smack dab in the middle of the Tight End Gilded Age.
What was once unthinkable is now a certainty for the 2012 season. We will have two tight ends off the board in the first 15-20 picks. Depending on your league, Gronkowski or Graham could go in the first round. The first 60 picks of an average draft -- that's just five rounds in a 12-team league -- could feature as many as six or seven tight ends. Just five years ago, basically everyone's draft strategy for tight ends was, "I'll just wait unless I get Gates or T-Gon." Now half your league will have their starting tight end among their first five picks. With all due respect to Bob Dylan, the times aren't a-changin.' They have a-changed.
We break down the tight end position in depth here, including the top 25 by tiers below:
Here is how we should tier the tight end position heading into the preseason: