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Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski headline our list of top tight ends

Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski headline our list of top tight ends Photo:

To say that the NFL presently is in a new era or a golden age of tight end play may not cover it. What the most talented tight ends are doing right now is, well, completely changing the definition of that position.

Or, if nothing else, trying to change it. Jimmy Graham took the fight to the league this offseason, arguing that he deserves to be designated as a wide receiver. The league, his team and an NFL arbitrator disagreed, pinning the TE franchise tag on a disappointed Graham. That the argument had any merit at all, though, speaks to the changing nature of this position. Just about every team still wants a true, old-school blocking tight end on the roster, for short-yardage and goal-line purposes at the very least. Most also want a tight end who can stretch the field, challenge defenses up the seam.

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There are more players capable of filling that role than ever before, as the TE spot enjoys a renaissance. Here are the top 10 at that position:

Honorable mention: Charles Clay, Dolphins; Martellus Bennett, Bears; Delanie Walker, Titans; Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, Colts; Jared Cook, Rams; Jordan Reed, Redskins; Brandon Pettigrew, LionsBrent Celek and Zach Ertz, Eagles; Tyler Eifert, Bengals

Plucking a couple names from that list of honorable mentions, Clay is the closest to top-10 inclusion; Cook may be the most talented of the bunch.

Clay really began to emerge last season, hauling in 69 passes for six touchdowns as the Dolphins began to utilize him in mismatch-creating ways. Will they continue to push the envelope with him? If the answer is yes, then there will be little preventing Clay from 80-plus catches and upward of 900 yards. He has immeasurable upside.

Cook's potential, meanwhile, has been both his blessing and his curse. When he is on his game, Cook is among a handful of tight ends capable of carrying a passing attack. Unfortunately, he's more often struggling to find consistency.

10. Antonio Gates, ChargersGates has delivered a brilliant, likely Hall of Fame-worthy career since joining the Chargers in 2003. He is an eight-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and second-team member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-2000s team. Last season, at age 33, he hauled in 77 receptions for nearly 900 yards. There certainly is something left in the tank. 

Gates is not higher on this list, however, because he is not the player he once was. He may not even be the best tight end on his own team by the end of 2014, with Ladarius Green ready to inherit the mantle. But for now, Gates is still a key member of the Chargers offense and a player Philip Rivers cannot do without. 

9. Heath Miller, Steelers: Every team in the league could use Miller on their roster, either in the No. 1 TE role he currently serves with Pittsburgh or as part of a tag-team duo like the Patriots had in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Miller, 32 in October, remains a heady blocker and a must-have safety net for QB Ben Roethlisberger.

The two worst performances of the 2013 season for Pittsburgh's offense came with Miller out of the lineup, when he was still working his way back from a devastating knee injury. That's no coincidence. In a lot of ways, Miller is the straw that stirs the drink in Pittsburgh. The Steelers never hesitate to run behind him, while few tight ends are as trustworthy through the air -- Miller caught 78.4 percent of the targets tossed his way last season, better than any starting tight end. 

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8. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings: Took a super scientific poll on Twitter this week, asking people to choose between Rudolph, Gates, Miller and Greg Olsen as their TE if they were trying to win a Super Bowl this season. Rudolph was a runaway victor. Whether or not that's the right call depends on how far removed the fourth-year Viking is from a broken foot that cost him half of 2013. The previous season saw Rudolph nab a Pro Bowl spot with 53 receptions and nine touchdowns, while he served an every-down role. 

Rudolph and all of his teammates could see improvement with better play from the quarterback spot, be it with Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater at the helm. The 6-foot-5 Rudolph also ought to benefit from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who oversaw much of Gates' career with the Chargers.

7. Greg Olsen, PanthersIs Olsen the flashiest or most talented TE in the league? Not even close. Consider him instead Jason Witten Lite. At 6-5 and 253 pounds, Olsen runs nearly identical in size to Witten (6-5, 257) and he plays a similarly solid, chain-moving game. Olsen came through last season as Cam Newton's favorite target, which resulted in a career-high 73 receptions. He might have to reprise that role again in 2014, with the WR corps around him depleted. 

Want a superstar at tight end? Look elsewhere. Need a reliable pass-catcher and steady blocker? Here's your guy.

6. Julius Thomas, BroncosThe 6-4, former basketball player was a revelation for the AFC champions last season. He entered 2013 with one career NFL catch and left it with 66 under his belt. Thomas added 12 receiving TDs (second on the team to Demaryius Thomas' 14) and picked up 18 more receptions during the postseason. Still a raw product, Thomas has enormous upside. 

Broncos GM John Elway did say that Thomas is "not at that [Jimmy Graham] level" yet -- perhaps a bargaining ploy, with Thomas' contract expiring after the year. He may not be that far away. 

5. Jordan Cameron, BrownsSay hello to the league's next great tight end. Heck, Cameron may be on that level already thanks to a breakthrough 80-catch showing in 2013. The production came in very Jimmy Graham-like fashion, with Cameron frequently lining up split wide or in the slot to apply greater pressure to opposing defenses. It also came despite the Browns being forced into a revolving-door situation at QB. All the elements could combine this season for Cameron to fly past his impressive '13 numbers -- more stability at QB, the absence of WR Josh Gordon and a looming contract battle. 

4. Jason Witten, CowboysIn attempts to defend the embattled QB, Tony Romo supporters often circle back to the question of "Where would the Cowboys be without him?" 

Well, where would Romo -- and, in turn, the team -- be if not for Witten? There has not been a more consistent tight end in football over the past decade than the 32-year-old Cowboy. Over that span Witten has averaged 84.4 catches per year, a clip that has him just 21 receptions shy of 900 for his career and a mere 201 yards away from the 10K plateau. Dallas asks the world of him every season, both in the pass and runs games; last year, he played 1,012 snaps, more than any TE not named Tony Gonzalez.

3. Vernon Davis, 49ersThe beat goes on for Davis. Now 30 years old and entering his ninth NFL season (all with San Francisco), the athletic 6-3 Davis remains a do-everything weapon for the 49ers. He matched career-highs in yards per catch (16.5) and touchdowns (13) last season en route to his second career Pro Bowl nod. Even with Davis on the verge of 400 career receptions, it could be argued that he's never been maxed out as an offensive threat. That's because the 49ers -- whether under Jim Harbaugh, Mike Singletary or Mike Nolan -- have continued to ask Davis to fill his role as a blocker. He has done so without hesitation.

2. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: Perhaps on account of Gronkowski's sporadic presence in the Patriots' lineup of late (he missed nine games last season, five in '12 and has been unavailable for the playoffs), it might be easy to forget how dominant he can be. Consider this your reminder: In 2011, Gronkowski caught 90 passes with 17 touchdowns, all while serving as arguably the best run-blocking tight end in the league.

Though he can and will challenge defenders at all points on the field, a critical portion of Gronkowski's worth lies in his blocking ability. When he and Aaron Hernandez were together on the roster, it was Gronkowski often tasked with setting one end of the line as the H-back-like Hernandez shifted around the formation. A fully healthy Gronk is one of the top two or three TEs in this league, hands down.

1. Jimmy Graham, SaintsGraham may argue that he belongs on our list of the league's best receivers, but in accordance with an NFL arbitrator's ruling he lands here instead. He'll have to take it ... along with the four-year, $40 million extension that came along after said arbitrator deemed Graham a tight end. 

“I think we can all agree that Jimmy is the best tight end in the league right now, so you always want to make sure that you hold yourself to those standards," ex-Saint Jonathan Vilma, who worked out with Graham during this offseason, told John DeShazier of the team's website. "You work out, you do what you have to do to remain the best tight end in the league. ...

“The guy, he’s a phenomenal, freak athlete. His ability is through the roof."

Hard to argue, especially coming off a season that saw Graham haul in 86 passes and score 16 touchdowns as Drew Brees' go-to target. Graham did take 67 percent of his snaps from either the slot or lined up wide (hence his argument against being labeled a tight end), so blocking is far from his No. 1 priority. It is an area in which he probably could stand to improve, if the Saints ever asked him to take on more of an in-line role. 

There's little reason to do so at the moment, though. The 6-7 Graham is one of the most dominant pass-catchers in the league, no matter how he is labeled. 

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