There is little debate about where Jimmy Graham ranks among tight ends in fantasy leagues. While perhaps there should be more -- Rob Gronkowski did put up more points per game in 2011 and 2012 -- Graham enters this season as the unquestioned No. 1 tight end in the rankings.
There is plenty debate, however, as to where exactly he slots in the overall rankings. Is Graham a safe first-round selection, or are guys in his average draft position neighborhood such as Dez Bryant, Marshawn Lynch and DeMarco Murray better picks, pushing Graham into the early-to-mid-second round? Let’s audit his numbers to figure out just where he belongs.
Before jumping into a discussion on how Graham compares with the other elite fantasy players, we need to dispose of his stats. Graham has had a significant role in the New Orleans offense for the last three seasons. From 2011 through 2013, he has averaged 90 receptions (142 targets) for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. In standard-scoring leagues, that translates to 188.9 fantasy points. Last year, the No. 10 running back, Reggie Bush, had 193.2 points, and the No. 11 back, Ryan Mathews, had 187.1 points.
Of course, 2014 Graham won’t simply be a reflection of 2011 through 2013 Graham. There’s plenty of reason to believe he’s both getting better as a player and that his position within the Saints’ offense is gaining prominence. Graham scored a career-high 16 touchdowns last year, a development that can be linked, at least in part, with Darren Sproles’ declining role. Sproles is now in Philadelphia, and while Pierre Thomas proved himself as a pass-catching back a season ago, he’s not the sort of weapon out of the backfield that cannibalizes Graham’s production the way Sproles did.
Secondly, in 2011 and 2012, Marques Colston was at the peak of his production. Not including the 2007 season in which he played just 11 games, he set career lows in yards (943) touchdowns (five) and yards per catch (12.6) last year. He also had just 110 targets, a career low for a season in which he played at least 15 games. Graham is now undoubtedly the top target for one of the league’s best quarterbacks in one of the league’s most potent offenses.
With Graham established as a safe first-round pick, where does he rank among players at all positions? Graham’s average draft position is 8.3, which makes him the seventh pick in a typical draft, trailing LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Calvin Johnson and Eddie Lacy. That means the opportunity cost of selecting Graham is a top-tier receiver like Demaryius Thomas or Dez Bryant, or a second-tier running back like Marshawn Lynch or Montee Ball. Fantasy owners might feel like they can’t invest that high a pick in a tight end with running backs at a premium and receivers so high-scoring.
However, they should also know that the first round is about locking in floors. Graham comes with one of the safest floors of any player in the league, certainly safer than any of the non-elite running backs. With the devaluation in running backs, owners should be looking past the position once the top group is off the board anyway, and the receiver position is as deep as ever. His current spot as the seventh player off the board in a typical draft is appropriate. Don’t worry about that “TE” designation next to his name. Just make the pick and watch the yards and touchdowns roll in.
Most overvalued player
Marques Colston, WR -- Colston remains a productive player in one of the NFL’s best offenses. He will be counted on to be the second option behind Graham, and is still a huge weapon for Drew Brees in the red zone. At the same time, he slipped to career-worst totals across the board last year. He has never been an explosive receiver, which is perhaps a good thing as he ages since that club was never really in his bag to begin with. Unfortunately, it also limits his ceiling.
The wide receiver position is deep, and Colston is being selected in the same range as guys like Emmanuel Sanders and Kendall Wright. Colston is a bit of a square peg in a round hole here, as he isn’t traditionally overvalued, but he does come with a lower ceiling than many of the similarly priced receivers.
Most undervalued player
Drew Brees, QB -- While waiting on a quarterback still makes sense if you miss out on the top-three guys, grabbing one of them locks in rock-solid production for 16 consecutive weeks. Why is it, then, that Brees is available into the third round in some 12-team drafts? Going back to 2006, here is where Brees has ranked among quarterbacks in fantasy points each season: 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 2nd. Not only is Brees a model of consistency that comes with a high floor and a high ceiling, but you can pair him with two other very high picks in most leagues, given that he’s coming off the board in the late-second or early-third round in most drafts. Don’t let antiquated thinking about quarterbacks in fantasy leagues allow you to ignore how dominant Brees has been for nearly a decade.
As an aside, nearly every player who is projected to have a role in the New Orleans offense is worth drafting. That means wide receivers Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks, and running backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, should be universally selected in fantasy leagues. In an offense like this, any of them is liable to turn a profit this year.
QB: Drew Brees, Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin
RB: Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet, Khiry Robinson
WR: Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks, Robert Meachem, Nick Toon
TE: Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson
All the attention is heaped upon Brees and the New Orleans offense, but this defense in 2013, under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, was very good. The Saints held opponents to 305.7 yards and 19 points per game, both of which ranked fourth in the league. They were also fourth in sacks with 49, and had the 11th-best pass rush according to Pro Football Focus. While they were tough on opposing skill players, though, it didn’t necessarily translate into fantasy success. The Saints generated just 18 turnovers, tied for the second-lowest total. Those, of course, are the plays that lead to big scores in fantasy leagues.
Ten of last year’s starters are back, with cornerback Champ Bailey the only newcomer. The heartbeat of the 3-4 scheme is defensive end Cameron Jordan. The fourth-year man out of California had 12.5 sacks last year, and is easily the unit’s best player in IDP leagues. Rush linebacker Junior Galette was second on the team with 12 sacks a year ago, and holds down the left side with Jordan on the right. The two of them stand as the team’s best pass rushers. Linebacker Curtis Lofton, another player worthy of selection in IDP leagues, led the team with 125 tackles last year.
Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro, in his second year out of Texas, quarterbacks the secondary. He, too, should be drafted in IDP leagues after racking up 79 tackles, one sack and one interception as a rookie. Bailey does bring an impressive resume and leadership to the secondary, but he’s no longer the lockdown corner he once was.
The Saints defense is a good bet to bounce back in fantasy leagues this year. One of the best real-life units should force more turnovers than this group did a season ago, and chances are it will recover more than 37.5 percent of opponents fumbles, as it did last year. Heading into the season, the Saints should be considered a top-12 fantasy defense.