Draft rankings preview: Tight ends

Draft rankings preview: Tight ends

Published May. 13, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

The evolution of the tight end position continued unabated in 2010.

The position proved particularly deep, as owners who lost Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark or Jermichael Finley were able to find a capable replacement on the waiver wire. Naturally, owners weren’t going to make a one-for-one replacement for Gates’ frequent touchdown celebrations, but Jacob Tamme certainly did a fantastic Dallas Clark impersonation.

The 2011 season will undoubtedly produce a new series of twists and turns. In addition to a fresh spate of injuries, owners will need to contend with erratic quarterback play, red zone snubs and the potentials rise of “committee”-like situations. How much will we see Tamme, Joel Dreessen or Kyle Rudolph in 2011? Will the workload split in New England remain the same?

We’ll begin to dig through the noise once the lockout lifts and make the necessary tweaks to the list. In the interim, Antonio Gates continues his rein at the top of the heap.

1. Antonio Gates, San Diego

Gates did his best to gut through the pain of toe and ankle injuries and a raging Plantar fasciitis on his right foot. He appeared in 10 games, producing 50 receptions for 782 yards with 10 touchdowns. Gates scored in eight of the 10 games in which he appeared.

In the seven seasons since his breakout 2004 campaign, Gates has averaged 72.1 receptions, 945.1 receiving yards and 9.6 touchdowns.

2. Jason Witten, Dallas

Witten ended the 2010 season with frequent visits to the end zone (scored six touchdowns in his final five games). He caught three or more passes in 15 of his 16 games, including seven games with at least seven receptions. Interestingly, Witten only eclipsed 60 receiving yards on six occasions.

In the past four seasons, Witten has averaged 91.3 receptions and 1,032.3 yards. He’s caught 94 passes in back-to-back seasons and was targeted 128 times. He may be Tony Romo’s favorite target, but Jon Kitna certainly didn’t forget him.

3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis

Clark was off to his usual brilliant start, registering 37 receptions for 347 yards and three touchdowns in six games prior to sustaining a season-ending wrist injury. The longtime fantasy hero was on pace to essentially match his 2009 brilliance (100 receptions), and the entire cast returns for another run. Jacob Tamme, who performed brilliant in Clark’s absence, will have some role in the offense, but Clark remains Peyton Manning’s sit-down security blanket and sneaky downfield threat down the seams.

4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco

As expected, Davis’ touchdown total took a hit in 2010 (from 13 in 2009 to seven in 2010), but the overall inconsistency in the maddening San Francisco offense could not have been anticipated. Davis recorded two 100-yard games and topped 70 receiving yards on nine occasions. Unfortunately, Davis also produced seven games with 36 or fewer receiving yards.

The 49ers appear set to enter 2011 with Alex Smith under center. Colin Kaepernick is going to work with former Jim Harbaugh protégé Andrew Luck to accelerate the learning curve. Smith’s return as the starter portends to another big workload for Davis, who has logged 134 receptions in his past two seasons.

5. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay

Finley recently Tweeted that his surgically-repaired knee “feels brand new.” Green Bay fans and fantasy owners anticipated huge things from Finley following his strong 2009 campaign (had 55 receptions for 676 yards and five touchdowns). He started the season well, producing 21 receptions (had four or more in each contest) for 301 yards (two 100-yard efforts) and a touchdown. Finley returns to the top of the pack as a potential monster in the explosive Green Bay offense.

6. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta

Gonzalez is one of the most intriguing players at the position for 2011. His personal production, in terms of receptions and receiving yards, dipped for the third consecutive season. Gonzalez’s total of 70 receptions was his lowest output since 2002 (63). His average of 41 yards per game was his lowest since 1998, his second season in Kansas City.

Gonzalez stands to benefit immensely from the arrival of speedy wideout Julio Jones. Jones’ presence opposite Roddy White should create space down the middle.

7. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit

The second-year tight end saw his role expanded in 2010. Pettigrew caught three or more passes in 12 of the Lions’ final 15 games. He eclipsed 60 receiving yards on six occasions, including his 108-yard performance in the Week 2 shootout against Philadelphia. The lone knock on his season was that Pettigrew didn’t factor into the red zone offense as frequently as anticipated (with four touchdowns). A healthy Matthew Stafford returns to command a potentially explosive offense. Nate Burleson and Titus Young offers support to Calvin Johnson on the edge, thereby opening the middle of the field for Pettigrew. He’s not a sleeper after his 71-reception season, but he may still slip in drafts.


8. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville

I called for Lewis to break through for a couple season in Jacksonville. It finally occurred in 2010 when the fifth-year tight end out of UCLA worked down the seams and dominated the red zone. Lewis established new career marks across the board with 58 receptions, 700 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught multiple passes in every game in the 2010 season, but eclipsed 60 receiving yards only three times.

The Jacksonville receiving corps is in flux. Mike Sims-Walker has already been released. Mike Thomas is the lone veteran option alongside Lewis. If Blaine Gabbert ends up under center, Lewis becomes that much more integral to the offense.

9. Dustin Keller, New York Jets

Keller started the season with a bang, producing 115 and 98-yard performances in the Jets’ first three games. He added a four-catch, two-touchdown effort against the Bills in Week 4 to complete a fabulous first quarter. Unfortunately, Keller’s red zone dominance ended in Buffalo (he didn’t score again) and he topped 40 receiving yards only five times in his final 12 appearances.

There will likely be a shake-up in the receiving corps, with some combination of Brad Smith, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards departing for new teams. Keller remains as a primary target for Mark Sanchez and could approach his 2010 numbers (his 55 receptions and 687 receiving yards established new career marks). I don’t believe he shatters those marks with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson seeing the bulk of the red zone love.

10. Zach Miller, Oakland

Miller has become a consistent contributor in the Oakland offense despite being surrounding by continually moving parts. He’s averaged 60.7 receptions and 756 receiving yards in the past three seasons. Miller caught a career-high five touchdown passes in 2010. With Jason Campbell under center, Miller remains an integral part of the offense among a sea of speed wideouts.

11. Chris Cooley, Washington

Cooley rebounded nicely from his injury-ravaged 2009 season with his second-highest reception total (77) and matched his career-high yardage count (849). Unfortunately, the sputtering Washington offense did not afford Cooley many red zone opportunities and he finished with just three touchdowns.

The offense doesn’t figure to be any better in 2011. Donovan McNabb, who loves the tight end position as much as anyone, will likely depart Washington, leaving John Beck and Rex Grossman (if he returns) to battle for the starting role. That portends to a huge role between the 20s for Cooley, but I don’t suspect that it translates into additional red zone looks.

12. Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati

Gresham caught three or more passes in 10 games last season and made occasional appearances on the fantasy radar. He logged 52 receptions and 471 yards with four touchdowns. Gresham caught four or more passes in five of the Bengals’ first six games.

The Bengals’ presumed move to Andy Dalton under center would elevate Gresham’s status. He’s a borderline back-end TE1 and a potential red zone terror.

13. Kellen Winslow, Tampa Bay

Winslow caught 66 passes for Josh Freeman in his second season in Tampa Bay. He stayed relatively healthy for a full 16-game slate, the fourth time Winslow has done so in the past five years. Winslow matched his career-high mark with five touchdown receptions with 730 receiving yards (four games with at least 65 receiving yards). The Tampa Bay offense continues to grow under Freeman in 2011. Winslow returns as the veteran leader for the youthful corps, though rookie Luke Stocker from Tennessee may work his way into the rotation.

14. Owen Daniels, Houston

Every write-up of Daniels is required to use “if healthy.” He entered the year with injury concerns and took quite some time to ramp up. Daniels ultimately missed five games in the middle of the season before finishing with a flurry. Daniels closed the season by catching 22 passes in the final four weeks, including touchdown receptions in Weeks 16 and 17. His ability to run down the seams and create mismatches made him a fantasy hero.

These injury concerns push Daniels down to a TE2 slot in the initial rankings.

15. Aaron Hernandez, New England

Hernandez established himself as a PPR beast early in 2010 before a hip injury that later required surgery derailed his rookie season. He caught 33 passes in a seven-week period from Week 2 through Week 9, including three efforts with at least 61 receiving yards.

Hernandez is expected to be ready for the start of the 2011 season, although we never receive definitive injury information from the New England camp. He’ll remain an integral part of the offense between the 20s as the team develops a No. 2 option opposite Wes Welker. For now, Hernandez represents that second receiver.

16. Brent Celek, Philadelphia

Celek set the fantasy world aflame in 2009 with his 76-reception, 971-yard brilliance. Fantasy owners anticipated a huge follow-up campaign, but he spent much of the year blocking and never rose to the top of Michael Vick’s options. He finished the year with 42 receptions for 511 yards. Ten of his receptions came in Week 16 against the Vikings, long after fantasy owners had returned the top-5 pick to the waiver wire. He’ll likely start 2011 as a TE2 or waiver-wire spot play.

17. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans

The third-round selection out of Miami stopped in nicely for the oft-injured Jeremy Shockey last season. He caught three or more passes in seven games (31 overall) for 356 yards with five touchdowns.

Drew Brees’ propensity to spread the ball around lowers his ceiling overall, but he’s definitely a strong TE2 option in the prolific New Orleans offense. He caught 31 of the 44 passes thrown to him.

18. Visanthe Shiancoe, Minnesota

Shiancoe’s baseline stats didn’t change overall. He caught 47 passes for 530 yards in 2010, totals in line with his previous two seasons. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Shiancoe was a non-factor in the red zone last season as Brett Favre’s turnover count climbed. He finished the season with two touchdowns after terrorizing defensive coordinators during the 2008 and 2009 seasons in which he scored a combined 18 touchdowns.

The selection of Kyle Rudolph in the 2011 NFL Draft does cast a shadow over Shiancoe’s value. He may still pile up red zone opportunities, but his target count will be impacted. Christian Ponder’s insertion under center would bode well for the potential two-tight end set.

19. Rob Gronkowski, New England

Gronkowski figured to be a monster in the red zone. The 6-foot-6 second-round pick out of Arizona didn’t disappoint, as he hauled in 10 touchdowns. He quietly amassed seven catches of at least 25 yards, demonstrating a fantastic ability to shake coverage at the second level and run the seam. Gronkowski caught multiple passes in eight games as a rookie.

20. Tony Moeaki, Kansas City Moeaki appeared on the fantasy radar by scoring twice in the first three weeks. He caught three or more passes in seven of the Chiefs’ first eight games. Moeaki registered three or more receptions in his final eight appearances. He made one of the top catches of the year, a tremendous leaping grab in the back of the end zone. The arrival of Jonathan Baldwin to the receiving corps helps to create space over the middle for Moeaki to create mismatches.

21. Greg Olsen, Chicago

Olsen was fairly involved in the Chicago offense during the first half of the season, pulling down three or more receptions in seven of the Bears’ first 10 games. Olsen’s role dropped off markedly in the second half of the season. He caught a single pass in four of the Bears’ final six contests.

Olsen has the size, hands and all-around skills to become a dominant tight end. We saw it in spurts early last season, but there’s been no consistency.

22. Benjamin Watson, Cleveland

Watson amassed a career-high total of 68 catches in his first season in Cleveland. In fact, Watson had caught more than 36 passes in a season only once in his six-year tenure in New England. Watson established himself as the safety blanket for Colt McCoy in a growing Cleveland offense. He caught three or more passes in 12 games. Watson will remain the top option in Cleveland while project Jordan Cameron grows.

23. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh

Miller’s production regressed markedly from its 2009 heights. He’d established career marks in receptions and receiving yards during that season, only to produce numbers similar to his 2007 and 2008 efforts last year. Miller missed two games in their entirety and was limited to a single reception in Week 13 against Baltimore. He caught two or more passes in 12 of his other 13 appearances.

Miller is plug-in TE2 option.

24. Anthony Fasano, Miami

Fasano caught a career-high 39 passes on 60 targets in his fifth NFL season. He caught multiple passes in 12 games, and topped 40 receiving yards five times (including 107 yards in Week 10 against Tennessee).

The Dolphins selected Charles Clay from Tulsa in the 2011 NFL Draft. Clay’s versatility may move him to the top of the depth chart and displace Fasano altogether.

25. Jacob Tamme, Indianapolis

Tamme stepped in brilliantly for the fallen Dallas Clark, essentially matching the longtime fantasy hero’s production. He averaged 6.7 receptions and 63.1 receiving yards per game with four touchdowns. Tamme finished seven games with at least 60 receiving yards.

The fourth-year tight end from Kentucky slides back into the second chair (had six receptions in his first two seasons) with Clark’s return. He shan’t be forgotten entirely, but he’s a part-time, infrequent target unless Clark sustains another injury.

26. John Carlson, Seattle

With an inexperienced receiving corps around him, Seattle fans and fantasy owners (and those who listened to Matt Hasselbeck) expected Carlson to produce a huge third season. He caught 13 passes in the Seahawks’ first three games. Carlson tallied only 18 receptions in his final 12 appearances, scored one touchdown (declined from seven in 2009) and topped 48 yards once.

He’d averaged 53 receptions in his previous two seasons. As such, there is a potential for a rebound in his performance depending on the quarterback situation.

27. Todd Heap, Baltimore

The oft-injured Heap posted his best overall season since 2006, producing 40 receptions for 599 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged a career-high 15 yards per reception and 46.1 yards per game in his 13 appearances.

The Ravens have two young tight ends on the rise in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Heap is in the final season of his contract in 2011.

28. Kevin Boss, New York Giants

Boss has become a consistent, reliable target for Eli Manning in New York. He nearly matched his 2009 stat line, catching just seven fewer passes with 36 fewer receiving yards. Boss’ upside is limited given the myriad receiving options available to Manning and the need for an additional blocker.

29. Jared Cook, Tennessee

Cook emerged as a strong option down the stretch for the Titans in 2010. He caught three or more passes in five of the Titans’ final five games. With Jake Locker potentially starting as a rookie, the 6-foot-5 tight end out of South Carolina stands on the precipice of breakthrough season. He has the ability to work the seams and creates mismatches in the red zone.

30. Rob Housler, Arizona

The Cardinals have played without a true pass-catching tight end for some 40 years. At 6-foot-5, Housler has the ability to create mismatches downfield and dominate in the red zone. He caught multiple passes in each of the Owls’ games last season (had 39 receptions and four touchdowns overall).

31. Lance Kendricks, St. Louis

The Rams have a number of receivers and tight ends on the roster, but Kendricks represents a true downfield option and potential red zone beast. He caught 43 passes in his junior season for the Badgers, averaging 15.4 yards per reception with five touchdowns.

Kendricks has the potential to pass Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui on the depth chart to become a safety valve for second-year starter Sam Bradford.

32. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota

Rudolph’s selection in the second round of the NFL Draft was a curious one given the presence of red zone monster Visanthe Shiancoe. He was the top option remaining on the board, a 6-foot-6 downfield threat that caught 90 passes in his Notre Dame career.

If the Vikings move forward with Christian Ponder under center, a dual-tight end set may be a standard package employed by Bill Musgrave.