Fantasy owners thought we had the NFL pegged. Quarterbacks were constantly setting passing records -- throwing for 5,000 yards was no longer a once-in-a-generation total -- and the tight end revolution was in full effect. Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were producing like elite wide receivers, and fantasy owners were scooping them up in the first and second rounds.
But after last season, the tight end position is back to being as unsure as ever. Those who took a gamble on Gronkowski or Graham early in 2012 drafts, hoping for certainty at a tricky, thin position, instead got a breakdown and damaged goods.
The performance of those stars re-affirmed the once-prevalent thought the position is just too physical to sustain statistical dominance. A tight end's body takes a beating in the running game that an outside receiver does not. It wears on them over the course of the season.
Gronkowski required multiple arm surgeries during the offseason, and had another back surgery in mid-June, putting the first few weeks of the 2013 season in doubt. Graham was tripped up by an ankle issue last season, and required offseason wrist surgery.
Right now, Graham looks like the lone elite option at the position, driving the Saints' tight end's value back and causing him to fall into the second round. Don't fall into that trap. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Don't be fooled again.
Let's take a closer look at the best quarterback draft strategies, notables at the position and the complete rankings and projections for the 2013 starters.
Tight end draft strategies
1. Pick a tight end like a quarterback. Many fantasy owners like to follow the trend of picking a quarterback in the middle rounds, so do the same at tight end; after the first tier goes off the board, there's not many to choose from. Here's my point: picking a quarterback early means missing out on the feature running backs or the elite receivers. In that case, lock up a potential game-changer at this thin position.
2. Pick just one tight end. Those who have played fantasy football long enough know how streaky production at the position can be, and much of it does not depend on the weekly matchup, like it does at running back or quarterback. Some weeks, teams just don't utilize the tight end at all, then next week there's an eight-catch, 80-yard and one-touchdown performer left on the bench. Avoid that headache by picking one of the solid top eight tight ends, and let him ride as long as he stays healthy. The player will likely produce some goose eggs, perhaps, but at least precious reserve roster spots -- which can be used on higher-ceiling fantasy prospects at running back, wide receiver or even quarterback -- won't be burned.
3. Watch Gronkowski's news very closely. If Gronkowski heals in time for the season's start and remains healthy, he could shatter every tight end receiving record there is, and handsomely reward those who took a gamble on him. Tom Brady needs someone to throw to in that heavy rhythm-passing offense. However, Gronkowski may on the PUP list into the season and prove worthless for the first eight weeks. Choose wisely.
4. Pick your TE last (well, before your D/ST and K). A fantasy owner could benefit from merely picking through the leftovers and play the hot hands each week, because there's not much of a difference between the middle of the pack starting tight ends and those who ultimately go undrafted. Last season, this strategy worked wonders for those who ended up with Dennis Pitta, Kyle Rudolph, Greg Olsen or Owen Daniels. There are a number of candidates to be the next breakthroughs, like Dewayne Allen, Coby Fleener or one of the ends coming off reconstructive knee surgery: Heath Miller, Jake Ballard or Scott Chandler. All of these guys are late-round picks. Miss on one of them, take one of the others. Use tight ends as disposable resources.
Tight end notables
• Reach: Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers. Resist the urge to draft Finley in the middle rounds. Sure, he's catching passes from arguably the best quarterback in fantasy, but last season he had just two touchdowns. Finley has talent and a relatively strong name in fantasy circles, but it's more likely his draft position exceeds his production -- especially with the self-destruction of the tight end position at the highest tiers.
• Steal: Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers. Davis, also coming off a down year, is a similar case to Finley; he once was considered an elite fantasy tight end, and he even led the position in scoring. The difference is that Davis is his team's potential No. 1 target in the passing game. He spent time in OTAs working as an outside receiver -- especially after the injury to Michael Crabtree (Achilles') that could knock him out most of the season. If Colin Kaepernick is going to justify his rising draft position, one of his targets will benefit, and it won't be the 32-year-old Anquan Boldin. A huge opportunity is laid out before Davis.
• Injury-risk: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots. At this point, Gronkowski's timetable to return from his back surgery is still unknown; he could miss mere preseason games, or he could be out through Week 8, if he's still on the PUP list at the end of training camp. The Patriots have a moratorium on talking about injuries, so we are going to get very limited information on his status before draft day. Drafting Gronkowski will mean drafting multiple tight ends, which just burns precious roster space.
• Top rookie: Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals. There not a huge difference between the rookie tight ends going into the season. Eifert, Zach Ertz and the 49ers' Vance McDonald all look like backups heading into training camp. So, for the top pick, go with the tight end drafted in the first round in April. It shows a commitment the Eagles and 49ers didn't make. Eifert might not fully knock Jermaine Gresham out of a starter's role, but he may be used as a second tight end and pass receiver immediately. Unless something happens to Gresham, Brent Celek or the 49ers' Davis before the draft, don't pick any rookie tight ends.
Tight end tier explanation
1. The linchpin. At one point, this tier consisted of more players, but now it's just Jimmy Graham all alone. If Gronkowski proves healthy, he will lead this elite group.
2. Former linchpins. Gronkowski (surgery) and Witten (age) might need geriatric walkers at this point, but they still stand out as the most intriguing of the tight ends after Graham. They shouldn't be drafted before Round 5, though.
3. Regular starters. This next group represents the players who can start every week, regardless of the matchup. Draft one of these guys, and don't waste a roster spot on a backup.
4. Fringe starters. These guys will be drafted late to be used as starting options in many leagues, but they won't always please the owner. Picking from this group should only be considered late in drafts.
5. Waiver-wire favorites. After the "draftable" tight ends, there are a handful of candidates that will be popular off the waiver wire this season. They don't provide consistent week-to-week production but an owner might catch lightning in a bottle from time to time.
6. Starters in name only. These tight ends have a starting job, but they won't truly impact fantasy this year. If an owner is needs a warm body in Week 1 due to a draft miscalculation or a preseason injury, look here. They at least will get snaps.
7. Wait-and-sees. There is some legitimate potential here, but it's either shrouded by injury -- Heath Miller (knee), Scott Chandler (knee) and Jake Ballard (knee) -- or rookie uncertainty (Eifert, Ertz and McDonald). Watch these guys in training camp, because they could skip a few tiers up into the draftable range if they earn playing time and targets.
Tight end rankings and projections
|Fantasy football tight end rankings and projections for 2013|
Check back all preseason for updates
Best of the rest
• Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets
• Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
• Visanthe Shiancoe, Baltimore Ravens
• Luke Stocker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
• Nick Kasa, Oakland Raiders
• Mychal Rivera, Oakland Raiders
• Logan Paulsen, Washington Redskins
• Gavin Escobar, Dallas Cowboys
• Dion Sims, Miami Dolphins
• Levine Toilolo, Atlanta Falcons
• James Casey, Philadelphia Eagles
• Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins