Tight end has become almost a glamour position in the NFL these days, as more and more of these inline receivers put up numbers that work for fantasy owners.
There have been at least six tight ends with a minimum of 800 receiving in each of the past three seasons. In the previous seven seasons, there was one season with more than five 800-yard receivers at the tight end position. More passes are being thrown in the NFL and tight ends are included in that aerial expansion.
The best of them is a guy who spent his offseason trying to shed the tight end label. The Saints' Jimmy Graham was angling for wide receiver money after New Orleans hit him with a franchise tag, but all was eventually sorted out once Graham inked a new deal. He's coming off a season in which he accumulated 1,215 receiving yards and a league-high 16 receiving touchdowns. Over the past three seasons, there have been four tight ends with at least 2,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns; one (Tony Gonzalez) has since retired and there is no one in Graham's stratosphere. That makes Graham a first-round value in most formats.
If there is one tight end who might compare with Graham, it's New England's Rob Gronkowski, who has averaged more yards and touchdowns per game in the past three years, but Gronk has had problems staying on the field, playing 34 out of a possible 48 games. He's an incredible talent, a difference-maker, when healthy, but his value for fantasy purposes is diminished somewhat by his propensity for injury. Back and forearm issues have plagued Gronkowski to this point of his career, but he's only 25. Usually the wear and tear comes a little further down the road.
A safer pick than Gronkowski might be Denver's Julius Thomas, who emerged as a big-play target for Peyton Manning last season, scoring a dozen times while catching 65 passes for 788 yards. That was the first regular playing time of Thomas' career, so if he can build upon those results, he has a chance to join the elite at the position.
While we're looking at potential, Washington's Jordan Reed showed some flashes in nine games last season, gaining 499 yards with three touchdowns. Project that over a full season and Reed could go for 800-yards-plus.
The Carolina Panthers have a patchwork receiving corps, so veteran tight end Greg Olsen, with back-to-back seasons of more than 800 receiving yards, ought to be a prime target for quarterback Cam Newton.
One of last year's big breakouts came from Browns tight end Jordan Cameron, who had 917 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. There may be uncertainty at quarterback in Cleveland, but suspension of Josh Gordon leaves Browns quarterback with few solid receiving options, making it all the more likely that Cameron puts up big numbers again this season.
With a bolstered receving corps in San Francisco, maybe Vernon Davis won't be used as much as he was last season, when he tied a career-high with 13 touchdowns, but he's also been held under 790 receiving yards once in the past five seasons.
Davis is now 30-years-old, but he's not the only veteran that still produces enough to have fantasy appeal. Antonio Gates only had four touchdowns for the Chargers last season, his fewest since his rookie year in 2003, but also had 77 catches for 872 yards, his most since 2009.
Dallas' Jason Witten is another in the over-30 brigade who still puts up big numbers and Witten has consistently been one of Tony Romos' favourite targets for a long time. Witten's 851 receiving yards last season counted as his lowest since 2006, but he hasn't missed a game since 2003 and last year's eight touchdowns counted as the second-best total of his career.
Beyond that group, the options start to open up a little more.
Charles Clay had a breakout year (759 YDS, 6 TD) in Miami last season and second-year tight ends Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz have potential to do big things in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively. Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph (nine touchdowns in 2012) and San Diego's Ladarius Green (376 YDS, 3 TD last season) are a couple more possible breakout candidates.
There are a couple of good options coming off injury-plagued 2013 seasons. Baltimore's Dennis Pitta had 669 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012 before managing just four games last year, and Indianapolis' Dwayne Allen had 521 yards and three scores as a rookie in 2012, before getting hurt in Week One last season.
Among the darkhorse candidates, to consider for deep leagues, Kansas City's Travis Kelce appeared in one game last season, but his last year in college, at Cincinnati, was productive (722 YDS, 8 TD, 13 GP) and he's expected to have a regular role in the Chiefs' offence.
Lions rookie Eric Ebron was a force at North Carolina (62 REC, 973 YDS, 3 TD as a junior last season), so he offers a new dimension for a Detroit passing game that is already one of the league's most prolific.
As you can see, beyond the first eight or ten, the field opens up with lots of potential, but there is reason to secure the guys at the high end. Even as the field of talent gets deeper, the guys at the very top are creating big enough gaps to retain value.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
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