One of the biggest questions facing Fantasy owners heading into 2012 will be when to draft Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots tight end could have a significant impact on Draft Day.
Gronkowski just finished one of the best seasons ever for a tight end. He had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, which set the NFL record for tight ends, and he added a rushing touchdown for good measure. He now has 28 touchdowns in two seasons and should continue to post outstanding stats in his third year.
But is Gronkowski really worth a first- or second-round pick in standard leagues? That's the decision owners will have to make on Draft Day, especially the aggressive ones who like to be proactive and not follow the formula of taking running backs with your first two picks.
This season, the first tight end drafted was Antonio Gates in Round 4, and that's typically when most tight ends are taken -- when the run starts. Two tight ends were drafted in Round 4 (Gates and Jason Witten) and two were taken in Round 5 (Dallas Clark and Jermichael Finley).
Gronkowski has proven to be an elite Fantasy option, and he had 233 Fantasy points this year. He would have been the No. 5 running back this season based on Fantasy points behind Ray Rice (285), LeSean McCoy (270), Maurice Jones-Drew (249) and Arian Foster (238) and the No. 2 receiver behind Calvin Johnson (254). All of those players are projected as first-round picks in the majority of leagues, so why not Gronkowski?
By taking Gronkowski early -- and the suggestion here is to draft him in Round 2 -- you lock up the best player at his position, and you should dominate the tight end spot every week. Gronkowski finished 46 Fantasy points better than the No. 2 tight end, Jimmy Graham.
But there is some risk involved with drafting Gronkowski early. What if he struggles? Of the Top 4 tight ends drafted, only Finley finished as a Top 5 option. Part of the reason Gronkowski was so amazing was because of his value since he was drafted in Round 9. Graham also was a Draft Day steal since he went in Round 7.
The Patriots could also improve their receiving corps, which would cut into Gronkowski's targets (he had 124 this year). Assuming that Wes Welker re-signs with the Patriots as expected, New England can also add another receiver to upgrade over free agent Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco, who will likely be released.
Tom Brady won't go away from Gronkowski, but with Welker, Aaron Hernandez and another legitimate weapon, Gronkowski might not score 18 touchdowns again, which would hurt his value, especially if he was drafted in Round 1. It's just something to consider.
You can also wait until Round 3 to take Graham, who is only going to improve as well, or load up at other positions and then draft a tight end later. You can take Hernandez or Gates in Round 4 or Witten, Vernon Davis or Finley in Round 5. The choice is yours on how you want to build your team.
As for Gronkowski, he has played himself into first-round consideration. While we don't recommend drafting him in Round 1, don't be surprised when he comes off the board early in Round 2. We just hope he doesn't falter heading into the third year of his career.
Top 12 Tight Ends for 2012
1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
2011 stats: 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns (124 targets); rushing touchdown
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 233 (14.6)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 106 overall (Round 9)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 15 overall (Round 2)
Gronkowski wasn't just good in the regular season, but he was also a star in the playoffs with 17 catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns against Denver, Baltimore and the Giants. His magical season didn't end the way he hoped because an ankle injury ruined his Super Bowl appearance. He had surgery on his injured ankle five days after Super Bowl XLVI, so he should be 100 percent come August. He now has 28 total touchdowns in two seasons and unless the Patriots significantly improve their receiving corps, he should remain a top target for Brady and the No. 1 tight end in Fantasy leagues. He is worth drafting in Round 2.
2. Jimmy Graham, Saints
2011 stats: 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns (149 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 187 (11.7)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 84 overall (Round 7)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 26 overall (Round 3)
Graham was a star this past season with double digits in Fantasy points in 11 games, and he led all tight ends in targets. He might present great value on Draft Day since most owners will reach for Gronkowski in the early part of Round 2, and Graham will be there for you most likely at the beginning of Round 3. To give you an idea, Graham would have been the No. 5 receiver this season based on Fantasy points behind Johnson, Jordy Nelson (210), Welker (206) and Victor Cruz (198). Graham could benefit greatly if Marques Colston and Robert Meachem both leave as free agents, but even if they stay we know Drew Brees will continue to look for Graham often, which is why he is a star Fantasy option in 2012.
3. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots
2011 stats: 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns (112 targets); five carries for 45 yards; one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 127 (9.1)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 126 overall (Round 11)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 37 overall (Round 4)
Hernandez didn't have the same consistent season this year that Gronkowski or Graham did, but he was still a quality Fantasy option and finished as the No. 3 tight end in standard leagues. We hope Hernandez can remain healthy all year because he has missed at least two games in each of his first two seasons, but he was dominant in the playoffs with double digits in Fantasy points against Denver and the Giants. Like Gronkowski, Hernandez will benefit if the Patriots don't significantly upgrade their receiving corps, but he should remain a favorite target for Brady since he could do so many things, including take carries out of the backfield as a running back.
4. Antonio Gates, Chargers
2011 stats: 64 catches for 778 yards and seven touchdowns (90 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 115 (8.8)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 37 overall (Round 4)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 40 overall (Round 4)
Gates could easily re-emerge as the No. 1 tight end in all leagues, especially if Vincent Jackson leaves as a free agent, but health has been his biggest detractor. He missed three games this season and hasn't played in 16 games since 2009. We hope he will be 100 percent to start the 2012 season, but you never know with his nagging foot problems. If he does play 16 games he will present tremendous value since he's capable of reaching 75 catches, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. And if Jackson is gone, we could see Gates post huge stats since he was a tremendous force in 2010 when Jackson was out for most of the season due to a contract dispute.
5. Jason Witten, Cowboys
2011 stats: 79 catches for 942 yards and five touchdowns (117 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 117 (7.3)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 47 overall (Round 4)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 51 overall (Round 5)
Witten took a step back this season in his production as his catches, yards and touchdowns all declined from 2010 (94 catches, 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns). It could be a result of Tony Romo spreading the ball around to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson, or Witten could be slowing down after nine seasons. We're not concerned about Witten heading into 2012 since he remains close with Romo, and Robinson might not return as a free agent. Witten might not be in the class of Gronkowski or Graham, but he should continue to catch 75-plus passes for 900-plus yards and five-plus touchdowns. That makes him a Top 5 tight end on my board, and I'll be happy to draft him in Round 5.
6. Vernon Davis, 49ers
2011 stats: 67 catches for 792 yards and six touchdowns (94 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 105 (6.6)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 61 overall (Round 6)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 55 overall (Round 5)
Davis was a beast in the playoffs with four touchdowns against the Saints and Giants in two games. It made up for an inconsistent regular season when he had seven games with double digits in Fantasy points and nine games with five points or less. The key for Davis could be who his quarterback is with Alex Smith a free agent. Smith has been good for Davis and vice versa since they are both at their best when he is getting Davis the ball. Still, we'd like to see Davis play with an elite quarterback (Peyton Manning perhaps), and his value could easily surpass Witten on Draft Day. I would move Davis ahead of Witten if he gets an upgrade at quarterback because his play during the postseason was inspiring.
7. Jermichael Finley, Packers
2011 stats: 55 catches for 767 yards and eight touchdowns (93 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (average): 118 (7.4)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 55 overall (Round 5)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 64 overall (Round 6)
Finley's Fantasy value is up in the air since he's a free agent this offseason and could leave Green Bay if he doesn't get the franchise tag. We'd like Finley to remain with the Packers because it's a tight end-friendly offense with a great quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. He could also look to play in Miami with former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, but where Finley ends up will determine how good he can be, as well as his health. He played 16 games this season for the first time in his career and posted new highs in catches, yards and touchdowns as he finished as a Top 5 tight end in standard leagues. If he plays 16 games with any team he should remain a Top 10 option in all formats and is worth drafting by Round 6.
8. Brent Celek, Eagles
2011 stats: 62 catches for 811 yards and five touchdowns (96 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 105 (6.6)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 143 overall (Round 12)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 76 overall (Round 7)
Celek had a revival for Fantasy owners this season after he disappeared in 2010. Michael Vick said before the year he would get Celek more involved, and it showed with five games with double digits in Fantasy points, including three in a row to close the season. He could benefit if DeSean Jackson leaves as a free agent, which would give Celek more targets. He will remain risky since Fantasy owners don't fully trust him after what happened in 2010 and he has to stay healthy after having minor hip surgery in the offseason. But we can see Celek finishing as a Top 10 tight end in 2012, and he's worth drafting with a mid-round pick.
9. Fred Davis, Redskins
2011 stats: 59 catches for 796 yards and three touchdowns (88 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 90 (7.5)
2011 Average Draft Position: Not drafted in the majority of leagues
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 85 overall (Round 8)
Davis is a free agent this offseason, but he's expected to return to the Redskins after he was suspended for the final four games this year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He was off to a great start prior to the suspension with at least nine Fantasy points in seven games. Based on his average, he would have finished with 120 Fantasy points, which would have made him a Top 5 tight end. We're not sure if he can reach that level again, especially if Chris Cooley remains with the Redskins and depending on the quarterback, but he has Top 10 potential and is worth drafting with a mid- to late-round pick as a starter.
10. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
2011 stats: 80 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns (116 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 123 (7.7)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 100 overall (Round 9)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 97 overall (Round 9)
Gonzalez is a tight end I would try to avoid because he's going to be 36 in 2012 and is nearing the end of his career. He was great at times this season with double digits in Fantasy points in five games, but he was miserable down the stretch with a combined 13 Fantasy points in his final five outings. With Roddy White still No. 1 in targets in the NFL, and the continued development of second-year receiver Julio Jones, Gonzalez will be the third option in the passing game. That's not a terrible place to be, especially with Matt Ryan playing well, but don't reach for Gonzalez before Round 8. He is not going to finish as a Top 5 tight end again like he did this season and might fall out of the Top 10 if White and Jones dominate the offense as expected.
11. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions
2011 stats: 83 catches for 777 yards and five touchdowns (126 targets)
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 99 (6.2)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 117 overall (Round 10)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 106 overall (Round 9)
Pettigrew showed that he can be a successful Fantasy option with Matthew Stafford finally staying healthy all year. Pettigrew had at least nine Fantasy points in seven games and he closed the season with double digits in Fantasy points in three of his final four outings. He needs to be more consistent since he had eight games with five Fantasy points or less, and he struggled outdoors with only one game with double digits in Fantasy points in Week 17 at Green Bay. But Pettigrew is worth drafting as a starting option, especially if you wait to select a tight end with a late-round pick.
12. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
2011 stats: 56 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns (92 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 87 (6.2)
2011 Average Draft Position: Not drafted in the majority of leagues
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 112 overall (Round 10)
There are several tight ends who could be drafted in this spot, including Clark, Dustin Keller, Jared Cook, Owen Daniels and Kellen Winslow. But all of them have flaws, while Gresham should continue to improve heading into his third season. He developed a solid rapport with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, and he should be the No. 2 target for the Bengals in 2012 behind receiver A.J. Green. Gresham missed two games due to injury this year, and if he hit his average he would have been the No. 11 tight end. He should finish around the same spot in 2012, but he can improve if he shows more consistency. We expect that to happen, and he's a tremendous value with a late-round pick on Draft Day.