Nothing typifies the modern NFL like the tight end position. For the last decade, there's been a quiet evolution, one that had two forks. The first was the quick, small TE, typified by Dallas Clark. Clark acted as a bigger WR, running routes and counting on speed to create mismatches. The other fork was typified by Tony Gonzalez, who used his size and athleticism to create mismatches, especially in the red zone. The bigger model seems to have won out. NFL scouts and GMs comb colleges for the next big thing -- literally. We're seeing TEs get bigger and bigger, with less emphasis on blocking and speed. There's still a place for blocking, but offenses use them more as spacers or moving blockades than a smaller OT these days. With players much taller than Gonzalez's 6-foot-5, the mismatches in the red zone make some of these players solid fantasy options. With Rob Gronkowski (6-6), Jimmy Graham (6-7), and Fred Davis (6-5) taking over for Gonzalez as the top TE picks, scouts might end up at more college basketball games than football. It's clear that TEs are growing, both in fantasy importance and in height. As with any position, size is no guarantee of durability, so let's look around the league at the TEs:
Scott Chandler was a waiver wire hero last season after scoring six TDs in the first seven games, but ankle and knee injuries chopped down the 6-7 Chandler. All his value is in the red zone, but that's not bad for fantasy purposes. He's not an elite level TE, but if he can stay healthy (a big if), he's a second tier steal.
The Dolphins had hoped Anthony Fasano could groom his replacement, but thus far, none of those options have challenged Fasano's position as the TE1. His biggest skill is durability and any upside is based on the poor WRs, not Fasano's skills.
Rob Gronkowski's season ended not with an ankle injury -- he was able to play through that in the Super Bowl -- but with a series of issues that made people wonder how hard Gronkowski would work. Most of us would party hard if we were young, rich and famous, but that doesn't make us want to draft them more. Gronkowski's talent level and opportunity is off the charts, but expecting another explosion of TDs probably isn't the best projection. He'll lose some targets to Aaron Hernandez, who has everything but Gronkowski's size and durability, but there's enough to go around, making both valid picks at the top of any draft.
The TE isn't a big part of Tony Sparano's offense, but Dustin Keller has been solid as Mark Sanchez's favorite target. With problems in WR depth, Keller has the same opportunity, if not the same offense. Figuring out how the Jets will handle the red zone complicates projections, but Keller is durable enough that he'll at least get the chance.
Ed Dickson got most of the targets at TE last season, but not all. Dennis Pitta got enough action to keep both of them from being good fantasy TEs. The plus for Dickson is that he's durable -- much more durable than the more talented Todd Heap, who exited before 2011. Dickson had a preseason shoulder injury but should be fine as a fantasy TE2.
Like all Bengals, Jermaine Gresham was the beneficiary of better QB play in '11. The only downside to him is durability. Leg issues slow him even when able to play. He's dealing with a knee sprain in camp; hopefully that isn't a sign of things to come. His durability seems to make his ADP a bit high, but not too much given the upside.
Ben Watson was as good as he could be in a bad offense last year. He lost a couple games to concussion, but has been durable. There are lots of options and little in the way of guarantees with the Browns, so Watson is more of a late round "hope pick" than even a third-tier TE. When you get to that stage, you're just looking for opportunity and upside, which Watson has.
Heath Miller should be better than this. He's got good size, has some savvy and is durable. Somehow that just translates into mediocre fantasy numbers. He gets a new offense, though not a TE-friendly one. We'll see if Miller can become more of a red zone option, but you can't count on it.
Like the rest of the Texans offense, Owen Daniels is a bit fragile. He played in 15 games last year, missing only the last week for rest, not injury. His targets went up, but not as much as most expected. Part of that is the absence of Matt Schaub, but counting on all the Texans to be healthy at once is folly. With Joel Dreessen gone, Daniels could get more red zone looks.
The Dallas Clark era is over. The Colts drafted back-to-back TEs in the second and third rounds, giving Andrew Luck two solid targets. Coby Fleener is most familiar to Luck, but Dwayne Allen has been getting as many looks at camp, reminding many of former Colt Marcus Pollard. Fleener's size probably gets him more red zone looks than Allen, but they'll split targets.
Marcedes Lewis went from 10 TDs to 0 last year. That's usually the result of an injury. Instead, it was just a terrible passing game. Lewis is durable and still talented, but you have to believe in Blaine Gabbert to draft Lewis as anything more than filler.
Jared Cook showed some connection with Jake Locker in his late season cameo, so there's more hope here. Cook has size and surprising speed. People miss that he didn't have the starting role last season even though he played 16 games. His durability is unknown, but isn't a negative. In a world where we really overuse the term "sleeper," Cook really is one.
Jacob Tamme arrived with Peyton Manning, giving Manning a familiar target. He's going to split those with Joel Dreessen, however, so his fantasy value on targets and even familiarity is overblown. Even with Manning, he was just a good backup, not a second-tier TE like Dallas Clark.
Tony Moeaki is coming off an ACL tear, like every other Chief. Not all of them, but a lot. The knee injury was a fluke, but Moeaki has a long injury history going back to Iowa. He's healthy for now, but the absolute upside is his '10 season. Kevin Boss is a capable backup, but only if he's healthy as well.
Brandon Myers gets the job by default after Kevin Boss exited. The TE isn't a big focus in this offense, although Myers has the size to get some red zone looks. Keep your eye on David Ausberry, a project pick with great athleticism.
Antonio Gates has missed much of the last two campaigns to foot injuries, diminished even when he was on the field. Even so, he was still more productive than most TEs because of his red zone skills. If he can stay healthy, he's still a top-tier option. If he can't, you've seen the downside. With age and injuries like these, you have to expect him to miss games no matter how healthy he says he is right now.
Jason Witten has become the model for TEs today -- big and strong -- rather than Dallas Clark, as some thought a couple years ago. His size and durability help him, though the spleen injury he's dealing with this preseason remind us that one big hit can take down anyone. It might drop his value in drafts -- and if so, grab him. Witten is still durable, even after a bruised spleen.
The Giants seemed to sacrifice TEs for a Super Bowl win, which most fans would say was a fair deal. They were able to grab Martellus Bennett, who never pushed Jason Witten, but still has upside. He'll have a chance to establish himself as Travis Beckum rehabs from ACL surgery. That could be enough in an offense where Eli Manning likes tall targets. Don't be fooled by Bear Pascoe's name at the top of some depth charts. He'll play, but he's a blocker.
Ignore the minor knee sprain. Brent Celek knows this offense, works well with Michael Vick's scrambles and is generally durable. Generally means his knee injury comes on top of hip and leg problems that put him on a surgeon's table at the end of last season. He probably has peaked, but could put up good numbers in a good offense this season. Celek's the guy you look to if you miss out on the top TEs.
The only knock on Fred Davis was his drug suspension last season. He's big, durable and productive. With a new mobile QB, Davis figures to get even more looks. The Mike Shanahan offense used a lot of rollouts last season with Davis coming across. Imagine what that will be like when defenses have to choose between covering a deep WR, a running Griffin and Davis. If you miss on Graham and Gronkowski, Davis is as good an option as will exist.
Mike Martz doesn't like TEs, but the 6-7 Kellen Davis got five TDs anyway. That size isn't changing, but the offense is. Davis isn't going to get tons of targets, but he's as solid a red zone target as Jay Cutler will have. The five TDs are downside. Think of Davis as a more durable Scott Chandler.
Brandon Pettigrew got a ton of targets, but wasn't that efficient. He has shown he can stay on the field, which was a worry. He's good on opportunity and there's still some upside, but last season was probably near peak for him.
Jermichael Finley played all 16 games last season and his numbers landed about where we expected they would if he could stay on the field. Finley has been banged up in the preseason, reminding us of the downside.
The Vikings brought in John Carlson to replace Visanthe Shiancoe, but Carlson's fragility is already showing itself. Kyle Rudolph looked pretty comfortable down the stretch with Christian Ponder. Rudolph's size and durability is his advantage if he doesn't lose too many targets to Carlson, who's also a big red zone target.
Tony Gonzalez may be 36, but he's still able to get to the end zone and post up. His basketball playing days have rewarded him well in that regard. He may lose some looks because of all the options, but trying to single cover Gonzalez is going to lead to mismatches.
Greg Olsen won't have to share targets with Jeremy Shockey this season, but he's always been on the edge of something without ever getting there. Olsen's speed and size combo should be perfect for Cam Newton. He's very durable, so if you believe in the Panthers, Olsen's potential to be their real WR2 has to excite you.
It's hard to remember that Jimmy Graham was a project pick by the Saints. He played one season of football at Miami, but had clear size and physical gifts. He's been far quicker than the Saints ever expected and is the first TE coming off the boards in most fantasy formats. His durability seems solid, with his athleticism helping there as well. That should be what makes you pick him over Rob Gronkowski.
Dallas Clark has missed significant parts of the last two seasons with injuries. His broken leg is healed and he still offers mismatch issues due to his speed and precision. If he's healthy -- and that's admittedly a huge risk -- he can do exactly what Kellen Winslow did in Tampa, maybe more.
Todd Heap remains talented, but fragile. He's shown bursts, and in this offense, should be a nice safety valve. The numbers don't show that as he's just not targeted that much. There's no backup here worth mentioning, meaning the TE remains irrelevant in Arizona.
Lance Kendricks had his rookie season crushed by injuries and dropped balls. He's talented enough that people see room for upside, but he'll need Sam Bradford to stay upright and his own healthy to take a big upswing.
Vernon Davis has every tool you want in a TE, including durability. His numbers were a bit off last year, but it looks like a fluke.
The Seahawks buried Zach Miller last season. The worry is that they'll do the same with Kellen Winslow. Even with a new QB, the offense is the same. Winslow doesn't need huge target numbers to be effective. It might even help. He just needs to find seams and be in the red zone mix. It's hard to think it will be any different for Winslow, though his durability has gone up, playing in 16 games the last three years despite a lot of maintenance issues.