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2011 Draft Prep: Tight end tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Dave Richard's Strategies and Tiers: QB | RB | WR | K & DST

Let's start here: Everyone's going to have a startable tight end to begin the Fantasy season. On Draft Day, everyone will not only wind up with a good pick, but they'll be happy about where they got him. There won't be an unhappy Fantasy owner in the world when it comes to this position.

How we feel about tight ends after the season remains to be seen. We're coming off a year where three of the most sought-after tight ends in Fantasy ended up on injured reserve and seven of the Top 15 finishers at the position were in-season waiver-wire pickups.

The new reality in the NFL is that offensive coordinators are constantly looking for mismatches on the field. Hand in hand with that is the rise of big-bodied athletes who can run fast and catch consistently. It used to be that teams that could find big targets who gained the confidence of their quarterback while providing headaches to opposing defenses were ahead of the game. Now you're way behind if you don't utilize the tight end.

End result? Everyone's got matchup-breaking tight ends in the Antonio Gates mold (minus the Antonio Gates ability in most cases, of course). For Fantasy owners, that means a grand array of players to choose from for the tight end slot in starting lineups. And with most people starting only one tight end, there's plenty of talent to go around.

If you reach, you lose

So because the supply of attractive tight end talent is deep and the demand for it is generally small, especially compared to other positions, no Fantasy owner should reach for a tight end in standard-scoring or PPR leagues. The drop-off last year from top-producing tight end Jason Witten to sixth-best Chris Cooley was 50 points (3.12 points per week) and the drop-off from Cooley to Todd Heap (14th-best) was 13 points (0.81 points per week). You can do better with a Top 40 or 50 pick -- don't draft a tight end until you recognize that you're getting a good value for him.

What constitutes a good value? Let's begin with the assumption that the first tight end taken in drafts, be it Gates or Dallas Clark or Witten, goes in Round 4. Any elite tight end that goes after Round 4 is good value. Any tight end in the second tier that goes in Rounds 6 or 7 is good value. Any tight end in the third tier that gets picked in Rounds 8 through 10 is good value.

And the longer you wait to take a tight end, the more likely you'll land a whopper. Most Fantasy owners don't draft a backup to their starter, so the talents available in the third tier will be around for a while and give your team a starter when most owners are drafting backups.

Elite Tier Very Good Tier
140+ FPTS 110+ FPTS
Round 5 Rounds 6-7
Antonio Gates Owen Daniels
Dallas Clark Jermichael Finley
Jason Witten Greg Olsen
Vernon Davis Kellen Winslow 
Upside Tier Sleepers
95+ FPTS  
Rounds 8-10 Rounds 11+
Rob Gronkowski Chris Cooley
Tony Gonzalez Zach Miller
Marcedes Lewis Brent Celek
Brandon Pettigrew  
Jimmy Graham  
 

They're predictable, too

If we know Gates, Clark and Witten are destined to be taken between 40th and 55th overall, we can pencil in Vernon Davis to come off draft boards no later than 65th overall. Jermichael Finley will probably end up in that range too. From there, expect Owen Daniels to land around the 80th pick and the rest of the tight end class to fall in line thereafter, albeit not at a break-neck pace.

Now then, if we know that there are lots of good tight ends and we know that four of five owners will commit to them early, it only makes sense that Fantasy owners pay attention to which of their rivals draft them. For example, if I'm in a 10-team league and my pick is coming up in Round 7, but the teams behind me already drafted tight ends, I know not to take one in Round 7. I'll wait until I'm up again in Round 8, assuming an attractive one is available (here's the example). Kind of sounds obvious, and if you're not paying attention in drafts you deserve to get whooped, but by simply tracking who's got a tight end and who doesn't you'll be able to pull off an even better steal.

Studs and duds

No one's getting any help here if we tell you that Antonio Gates is phenomenal or that Jason Witten is good. Let's focus on some players who could do well and some who might struggle this season.

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Jermichael Finley: Finley's an injury risk, so falling in love with him and drafting him within the Top 60 picks on Draft Day is a mistake. He already got off to a slow start in camp. That said, his upside is through the roof playing in a Packers offense that passes the ball quite a bit. We know Aaron Rodgers cannot wait to throw to him in games, but if Finley's knees don't cooperate, Fantasy owners will be left in a lurch.

Owen Daniels: Speaking of knee injuries, Daniels has battled back from his own torn ACL. He's healthy now, and if the end of last season means anything (22 catches, 271 yards, two touchdowns), he's ready to get back to where he was when he initially got hurt in 2009. The Texans have their big-play guy in Andre Johnson; Daniels could fill in as a No. 2 receiver of sorts. We know Matt Schaub has no problem targeting him.

Kellen Winslow: All K2 has done is catch 143 passes over the last two seasons, and he hasn't missed a game. He's kind of like Daniels in that he's on a team without an established No. 2 receiver, so he serves as the De facto No. 2 receiver. I like him in standard drafts, love him in PPR drafts, and he should easily be a solid Draft Day value choice. And FYI, he hasn't missed a single practice in training camp -- he's healthy.

Greg Olsen: Olsen has transcended sleeperdom (is that a word?) and has become the hot non-elite tier tight end of the season. He's an excellent receiver, he's the perfect kind of short-area target for Cam Newton to throw at and he's close with Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Tack on the lack of reliable receivers in Carolina after Steve Smith and he's got a shot at over 60 catches. Fantasy owners are drafting Olsen to start and backing him up with another good tight end just in case he struggles, but so far this preseason the results have been excellent for him.

Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski is a great all-around tight end, and he's a big guy. Several times last season we saw him "post up" like a basketball player at the goal line and fall into the end zone after making a catch. We also saw him break out when defenses couldn't find an answer for him (Week 10 last year ring a bell?). He's a good player, he's always going to be on the field and he'll always be a prime target for Tom Brady. Tough to stumble with those things going for you.

Marcedes Lewis: Many folks think Lewis will be a one-year wonder. But with minimal receiving threats for the Jaguars, Lewis is going to have to continue on as a primary target for David Garrard/Blaine Gabbert. He goes against everything you look for in a Fantasy option -- he just got paid, he's on a weak passing offense and he had been useless until last season. But the targets are going to be there, and if he's thrown at a lot, he'll put up some stats. He's another tight end to consider late; if he stinks early on you can cut him for someone else.

Jimmy Graham: Graham is like Gronkowski in that he'll be a dynamic red-zone threat on a strong passing offense. But there's no guarantee that he'll be on the field every down for the Saints like Gronkowski. Otherwise, he's your typical second-year stud tight end with Antonio Gates expectations. You could do worse.

Zach Miller: We're happy for Miller that he got paid for his hard work in Oakland by the Seahawks, but we can't stand his new quarterback. Moreover, the Seahawks' offensive line is not off to a good start this summer and Miller might be asked to block more and catch less (we hear that's called John Carlson-ed in the Pacific Northwest). Miller won't break out this season.

Lance Kendricks: If Olsen is a sleeper, then Kendricks is a deep sleeper; a guy we like but not enough to draft. Kendricks is already working with the Rams' first-team offense and is lining up in several spots on the field like Dallas Clark does with the Colts. You know that Josh McDaniels offenses put the ball up in the air a lot, and Kendricks is not a pure blocker and has even impressed teammates on seam routes. Here's a guy for everyone in dynasty/keeper leagues to drool over.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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