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Fantasy TE/K/Def Health Report

This is kind of a grab bag of a health report as we get down to those late-round positions. The orthodoxy has been challenged a bit on the "last rounds" for K and DST, with some elite defenses calling for the "round early" strategy. It's tougher for TEs, where positional scarcity and a variance in style, both schematically and physically, makes an internal comparison more difficult.

There are no risk-adjusted rankings here since at some point about halfway through a draft, risk stops being too much of a consideration. You're looking for value, yes, but you're also looking for upside, and that's where risk management helps. Instead of steering you away from risk, as I do with top-round talents, I'll steer you to the injury risks in the lower half. Understanding the risks will allow you to avoid the big ones and hedge the little ones, buying in on the upside. Think of it like buying a car -- if you can get a Hyundai Genesis that's just as good as a BMW at half the cost, you should do it. Then again, if you can get a great deal on a Benz, you should do that instead!

It's a tough time of year to keep track of everything. I've been reading the daily camp reports from Joe Bryant at Footballguys.com and recommend that highly. Don't be the guy who heads into a draft and makes the pick that gets the "he's on IR already!" response. With the SI Fantasy Football 2011 guide on newsstands and great writers around the web like Bryant, Sigmund Bloom, and others available, you've got no excuses for not being prepared.

The Chargers have been getting big production from Gates despite injuries over the last few seasons. Last season's toe problem added to the ankle and foot problems that have hobbled him, but it was the first that cost him games and fantasy points. It's a slow decline for Gates' health, and coming into camp, even a full offseason of rest hadn't gotten him completely past the issues. His fantasy value will be wrapped up more in his red zone targets than anything else, with 10 TDs last season (one in five of his catches!) disguising the decline. It's unlikely he'll do anything more than that, not that 10 wouldn't be adequate. He's just such a risk to do so much less that you can't take him in his normal spot atop the TE ranks.

Clark is a TENO -- Tight End in Name Only. He's in the slot as much as he's in tight, and Peyton Manning treats him as a WR2 in most sets. Clark's wrist injury last season did allow Jacob Tamme to develop, but don't expect that to cut into Clark's targets. Clark will be the slot receiver in many sets anyway, but questions at WR for the Colts could make that the normal set. (Yes, that makes Tamme a nice late-round value as well.) Clark's wrist injury was traumatic and unlikely to cause him any issues, aside from adjusting to a brace he's wearing. He is a bit more injury prone due to his size and his willingness to go over the middle, but he's still a great value.

A lot of people think Finley will be fine after ACL surgery. He's had plenty of time to come back, they say. Except Finley didn't have ACL surgery. The ligaments were fine. It was his lateral meniscus that was torn, but when the doctors went in, they saw "more damage." The Packers haven't said what the doctors told them, but indications are that there's some serious degeneration, making Finley a possible microfracture guy in the near term. Worse, Finley had an infection in his knee after surgery that had to be addressed, setting him back. It's not the surgical rehab that's holding Finley back in camp, it's that his knee is going to be a problem, period. Depending on your league, Finley could be going as soon as the fifth or sixth rounds (ADP: 67, according to MockDraftCentral) and there, it's just too much risk with other options available. Finley's a good value later, but you'll be fine passing on him and taking Dustin Keller or any of the next five or six TEs coming off the board. (Chris Cooley at 138 gives you an idea of where Finley should be.)

Daniels has also had a lot of time to come back from ACL surgery, and yes, Daniels did have ACL surgery ... in '09. He just never came all the way back in '10 physically. Several experts are high on Daniels, but while I don't mind him physically, I'm still not sure what upside there is here. Daniels has been relatively consistent through his career with only his half-season before the ACL injury looking like even a second tier TE. He's not that big, he's not that fast, but he is in an offense where he might be the only value pick. Where I'm confused is wondering just how much the ACL held him back last year. Looking at tape, he did come on at the end of the season, but that was when Andre Johnson was out.

The Pats have a pair of good young TEs. One of them had the same type of hip surgery that Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, Tim Thomas, and others had. It's called a femoral-acetabular impingement of the labrum, or FAIL. New imaging technology allowed doctors to see those tears in Hernandez's hip and go in to fix them arthroscopically. Players have come back from this in several sports without issue, as well as a couple NFL players this season, such as Osi Umenyiora and Kevin Boss. Gronkowski had back problems in college, so having both is a good hedge for the Pats. It's not the worst strategy for a fantasy player either, but it's tough figuring out which one to play. Gronkowski is slightly bigger and got a few more red zone looks. The better play? Get a TE with more certainty unless Hernandez falls to you late.

Sure, Todd Heap seldom seems healthy, but he's played 16 games in six of his 10 seasons. Last year he missed time with a hamstring strain, but that three-game gap is pretty normal given the injury and the demands of the position. Heap never was able to leap into the first tier of TEs the way many expected, but he is a decent option that is falling too far in most drafts. Given the lack of options and Heap's size, Kevin Kolb is likely to keep finding his TE -- in this case, it's Heap. If you miss the TE you wanted at the top, bite your tongue and wait on Heap.

Kickers are replaceable. In fantasy, they're really not even necessary, as many leagues have started dropping kickers altogether. Then again, that last second drama that makes kickers such a big part of winning or losing exists. All I have say is "Scott Norwood" or "Adam Vinatieri" and two dichotomous images are going to pop into any football fan's head. Kickers must be your last pick, and in most cases, all you're doing is picking the offense they go with. That makes Tynes a good option. He took a helmet to the thigh in the first preseason game; yeah, that's as painful as it sounds. He should be fine by the time the kicks count, if you choose to count them this season.

One man doesn't make or break a team, but Troy Polamalu sure came close. The Steelers defense is a solid unit with or without the Hair back there, but they're a lot more explosive with him. A strained Achilles held him back late last season, but it didn't require surgery. One source told me the tendon was "hanging by a literal thread" at the end of the season, so it's still very much a danger. The Steelers will be watching him closely. He's hardly the only trouble spot, with an aging secondary, James Harrison coming off back surgery and a tough schedule conspiring against the Steelers. They're a very good defense, but a risky one, so I wouldn't worry about drafting them too early.

There's plenty of talent, but do the Packers play "too hard?" I'm not saying that they should slack it up in Titletown, but the Packers defense often plays like its hair is on fire. For a player like Clay Matthews, that's a lot of hair and a big fire. Mike Neal is coming back from a shoulder injury, Matthews held up just enough to get a ring, and Charles Woodson should have no real issues after his Super Bowl shoulder injury. There's the thought that repeating is hard because it takes such an effort to get there in the first place. There's no question this defense does all the things you want in a fantasy D/ST, but there's just enough risk that you should slide them down slightly on your list. If they fall to you after a couple teams pick the Jets, Ravens and maybe a couple more, the Packers are a good enough team to risk picking.

Nick Fairley fell into the laps of the Lions in the draft. Pairing him with Ndamakong Suh is just plain scary. Then again, we might not see that combo much early in the season. Fairley had to have minor surgery to correct a stress fracture in his foot. It's the same kind of procedure Tom Brady and Michael Crabtree have had, so the return rate is solid, though Fairley is a much bigger guy and there's a bit more pressure on the foot. There are other injuries here, with Kyle Vanden Boesch's the most worrying. He had neck surgery, similar to Peyton Manning's, but is expected to be fine for Week 1. The backfield is weak and injury-riddled with Eric Wright hoping to return from a knee injury that ended his '10 campaign early. The Lions just haven't been good at keeping players healthy and the improvements they've seen in personnel will likely be held back by availability. I'm not buying them as the "big leap forward" defense this year. Good yes, great no.

Now that all the positional work is out of the way, next week will start the normal schedule for the Med Check. You'll get the normal look ahead on Thursday (plus Thursday game notes once those kick in) and then the Saturday night column, which will take you right up to game time. There will be CONSTANT updates of that column right up to game time on Sunday so that you'll avoid the dreaded zero. You can also follow me on any of the various social media (Twitter, G+, Facebook) and there's always e-mail as well. If you have ideas on how to make this column better for you and other fantasy players, I'd love to hear your ideas. Thanks for making me part of your season.

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