August 16, 2012

In today's Twitter-dominated, nanosecond-length attention span news cycle, we have a tendency to engage in hyperbole and superlative. The most immediate event we just witnessed was either the greatest of all-time or the worst of all-time with no in between. It often dumbs down sports discourse and completely ignores the historical perspective we have gained over the years.

However, that doesn't mean that the most recent wasn't also the best, capably illustrated by the overall performance of NFL tight ends in 2011. Last season was, without a doubt, the greatest season for tight ends in NFL history. Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints rewrote the record books, with the former coming out just ahead. Gronkowski's 1,327 receiving yards were the most by a tight end in a single season. Graham's 1,310 came in a close second. Gronkowski also set the single-season record for most touchdowns by tight end with 18. No doubt Ben Coates was nodding in approval all season long.

But it wasn't just Gronk and Graham laying down a marker for the tight end position. Seven tight ends caught at least 75 passes last year, with Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez, Jason Witten and Kellen Winslow, along with Gronkowski and Graham. Seven tight ends racked up at least 800 receiving yards (five of the seven above, with Dustin Keller and Brent Celek replacing Pettigrew and Winslow), and Hernandez, Gonazlez, Antonio Gates and JerMichael Finley joined Gronk and Graham to give the position six guys with at least seven touchdowns. And remember, Finley and Gates were considered disappointments last year, and we haven't even mentioned Vernon Davis or Owen Daniels, the latter of whom lost most of the season to injury. Simply put, coupled with the dominance of the passing game in the NFL, we're smack dab in the middle of the Tight End Gilded Age.

What was once unthinkable is now a certainty for the 2012 season. We will have two tight ends off the board in the first 15-20 picks. Depending on your league, Gronkowski or Graham could go in the first round. The first 60 picks of an average draft -- that's just five rounds in a 12-team league -- could feature as many as six or seven tight ends. Just five years ago, basically everyone's draft strategy for tight ends was, "I'll just wait unless I get Gates or T-Gon." Now half your league will have their starting tight end among their first five picks. With all due respect to Bob Dylan, the times aren't a-changin.' They have a-changed.

We break down the tight end position in depth here, including the top 25 by tiers below:

Fred Davis, Redskins -- Davis still seems like a young player in terms of experience, but the USC product is entering his fifth season in the league, and at 26-years old, appears primed for a breakout. Having spent his entire career thus far with the Redskins, he'll team up with easily the best quarterback he has had as a pro when Robert Griffin III makes his NFL debut. Even while dealing with supposed quarterback play from Rex Grossman and John Beck last season, Davis was well on his way to a monster year. In 12 games, he caught 59 passes for 796 yards and three touchdowns, but he lost the last four games of the year to a drug suspension. He fits the mold of the Gronkowski/Graham new-age tight end, coming in at 6-4, 258, with speed to burn. He's the fourth tight end on my board behind the elite options at the position and the next guy on the list.

Jermichael Finley, Packers -- If the football gods wanted to build a tight end from scratch to dominate the NFL in 2012, whatever they built would probably come out looking a whole lot like the 6-5, 247-pound Finley. It's not often that a tight end can catch 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns and have that seen as an underachieving season. In fact, before last year it was impossible. But those are exactly the numbers Finley posted in 2011, a year most observers would say he left something to be desired. There's no doubt Finley is a freakishly talented athlete who has the ability to be an unstoppable force in the red zone, so long as he can cut down on his drops. It doesn't hurt having the league's best quarterback on your team, as well as weapons outside like Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson to help keep the middle of the field open. Finley will split out wide his fair share, forcing teams to shift alignments or double, as a cornerback just can't handle his physicality. I'm expecting Finley to post numbers similar to Graham's 2011 season.

Jacob Tamme, Broncos -- During Peyton Manning's last season as the starter in Indianapolis, a virtually unkown tight end stepped up alongside Dallas Clark to catch 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns. That tight end was Tamme, whose fortunes disappeared along with Manning's presence last year. The two have teamed up again in Denver, and they appear ready to pick up where they left off in 2010. Manning has always fed his tight ends well his entire career, and while Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have both already become the objects of desire for plenty of fantasy owners, Tamme could make just as great an impact, relative to the rest of the players at his position. He remains largely unknown, and will likely remain on the board while some of his counterparts with more recognizable names, less talent and dimmer prospects for this season hear their names called. By season's end, he'll be comfortably in the top 10 at his position.

Kellen Winslow, Seahawks -- Winslow remains a tantalizing talent with just the type of recognizable name that could get someone unjustifiably taken in front of Tamme. Coming of a 75-catch, 763-yard campaign, Winslow might appear to be back among the weekly starters at the position. Don't believe what those numbers suggest, though. Winslow is likely starting the downside of his career, and he's in a situation in Seattle that is unsettled, at best. While he caught 75 passes a year ago, only two of them resulted in scores. Moreover, his 10.2 yards-per-catch was the second lowest of his career in a season when he played more than 10 games. Seattle has two unproven options at quarterback -- Matt Flynn, getting his first crack at a starting gig, and rookie Russell Wilson from Wisconsin -- and one proven bust in Tarvaris Jackson. There's not a lot to get excited about from the team as a whole or Winslow individually, yet his name will likely lead someone to counting on him as a starter at the beginning of the year. Make sure that someone isn't you.

Tony Gonzalez, Falcons -- If you've been reading my football columns, you know that I'm not exactly bullish on the Falcons this year. You know that I think they will miss the playoffs, and that it will have a negative impact on the numbers of everyone on the offense, other than Julio Jones. Considering the name at the top of this paragraph is "Tony Gonzalez" and not "Julio Jones" you can see where we're headed. Gonzalez had a great year at the age of 35, catching 80 passes for 875 yards and seven touchdowns. It's certainly possible he keeps on rolling right until the day he retires, but I think he'll be part of the collateral damage in Atlanta this season. Given the fact that the tight end crop is as deep as we've ever seen, Gonzalez won't justify being drafted as a top-eight tight end when we look back on the 2012 season.

Lance Kendricks, Rams -- Last year around this time, most of the football-savvy world was in the tank for the Rams, proclaiming them the clear favorite in the NFC West. Then they spent the first six weeks of the season reminding us why they're the Rams, en route to a 2-14 season. Around the same time the NFL world was anointing them division champs in August, I was writing about Kendricks and his sleeper potential as a rookie tight end. Needless to say, that didn't exactly pan out. However, I think we can chalk that up to a lost season in St. Louis, not a lack of ability from Kendricks. The talent that made him one of college's best tight ends at Wisconsin and a chic sleeper pick last year is still there, and with a better year from Sam Bradford (how could it be worse?), I believe that potential will manifest itself in the form of results on the field this season. Like many of the guys listed above, Kendricks is a catch-first tight end with great size, checking in at 6-3, 247 pounds. He's admittedly a deep sleeper, but if you miss out on all your earlier targets, he's a great fallback option for one of your last couple picks.

Coby Fleener, Colts -- The rookie landed in a great spot, at least in terms of familiarity, as he'll get to keep on catching passes from college teammate Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Luck and Fleener made for one of the most prolific quarterback-tight end duos in the NCAA a year ago, with Fleener earning All-America honors after catching 34 passes for 667 yards and 10 scores. While there's a sense of excitement around the Colts this year, the team won't be much better than the squad that went 1-15 in 2011, and they'll be all about making Luck as comfortable as possible from day one. That likely will include a featured role in the offense for Fleener. He makes a great target in deep leagues.

Here is how we should tier the tight end position heading into the preseason:

1. The elite -- You can't get into this class until you rack up 1,300 yards in a season. As such, there are only two guys in it.

2. Every-week starters -- This tier is as deep as it has been in recent years, and includes mainstays such as Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis. With this tier as deep as it is, don't fret if you miss out on Gronkowski or Graham.

3. Fringe starters -- Realistically, some of these guys will jump up into the second tier during the season, but they don't yet feature the consistency to be thought of as an every-week starter. This tier also includes some of the most intriguing guys at the position, such as Jared Cook and Jermaine Gresham.

4. Unknowns -- There is plenty of potential in this tier, but you shouldn't go into the year with any of these guys as your top option at the position unless you're in a very deep league. You'll recognize our sleepers in this tier.

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