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Offseason Extra: TE tiers for 2012

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Dave Richard's tiers and strategies: QB | RB | WR

I know you want to read about how great tight ends are going to be in 2012, but let's start with an unsettling trend.

In 2007, tight ends "broke out" with six players racking up at least 100 Fantasy points (actually, all six had at least 120 points). In 2008 that number shrunk to four with only one getting over 120. Then in 2009 we saw 10 tight ends top 100 Fantasy points (four over 120 points), only to see the number yo-yo back to five hitting the century mark and three exceeding 120 points.

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Last season was obviously an up year: we had 10 tight ends get over 100 Fantasy points -- four over 120 and two over 175! But if the trend continues and defenses go back to the drawing board and find a way to contain tight ends, we'll see those numbers shrink in 2012.

But who needs substantiated trends anyway?! The tight end revolution is here thanks to the new prototype for the position.

You can ask any offensive coordinator in the league and 30 of 32 of them will tell you that they'd like to find the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. They're not even really tight ends, they're offensive monsters: Gigantic athletes with good speed and hands matching up with smaller linebackers and defensive backs, dominating opponents week in and week out. Defenses were powerless: They were too big and strong to jam at the line of scrimmage or box out for a jump ball in the end zone, and too fast to cover with marginal defenders. Assign two guys to one of them and you'd get burned by receivers on their teams. It's a no-win situation for defensive coordinators, which is why every team wants to get in on the action and find a dominating tight end.

Every team would kill to have one, and as such, every Fantasy owner wants to have one. Some might even reach for one.

Consistency Counts
The average Fantasy point total per game among Top 12 TEs was 7.9 (standard scoring). Here's who had at least eight Fantasy points in 40 pct. or more of games played.
Player No. of
8+ FPTS
Player No. of
8+ FPTS
Jimmy Graham 75% Tony Gonzalez 44%
Rob Gronkowski 69% Jason Witten 44%
Fred Davis 58% Vernon Davis 44%
Aaron Hernandez 50% Brandon Pettigrew 44%
Antonio Gates 46% Jermaine Gresham 43%

Paying up

It will take an unprecedented draft pick to land an elite tight end in 2012. This is the direct result of the record-breaking seasons by Gronkowski and Graham. They finished as the top receiving tight ends in NFL history last season, and in Fantasy they finished third and sixth overall, respectively, among non-quarterbacks. If you want one of them, you're going to have to be prepared to spend at least a Top 25 pick.

If you buy into the whole 'supply and demand' thing, the price tag is idiotic. There are 32 teams and they all have tight ends of varying productivity. Moreover, most Fantasy leagues have 10 or 12 owners, certainly a select few have more than 14 owners, so there's plenty of tight end talent to go around. Supply outweighs demand, so why spend a high pick for one when you can get one later?

But if you buy into the whole 'Fantasy points are good for my Fantasy team' thing, the price tag is actually reasonable. Gronkowski averaged over 14 Fantasy points per game in standard formats and Graham had over 11 per week. Not only were they mostly consistent and productive in 2011, but they both were on the map as rookies in 2010, making it impossible to call them one-year wonders. Plus they are young, their quarterbacks are pretty darn good, and their targets (124 for Gronkowski, 149 for Graham) aren't going to dwindle.

Aside from supply and demand, there are two valid arguments to passing on them: One, defenses could catch up with them, as evidenced by the trend we led off this story with. Any drop-off in production might still make these guys good starters but not at the second-round price tag. Two, by taking a tight end with a Top 25 pick, you're probably leaving some really good talent on the table, and with tight ends fairly deep, you don't have to spend a pick that early to get a no-brainer starter.

So here's your pre-draft task: Make a separate list of the players you wouldn't hesitate to take before Gronkowski or Graham. If any of those players are there when you pick in Round 2 and beyond, take them. If they're not there but Gronk or Graham are staring you in the face, then go with one of the tight ends. Not everyone's lists will be the same because not everyone values these guys the same. Let your list dictate how you go about drafting these tight ends.

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What if your league doesn't require drafting tight ends, meaning that tight ends are eligible as wide receivers? The answer is simple: They're still Top 25 picks. That's an example of how valuable these two have become -- they're right on-par with the elite tier receivers out there.

Quantity of quality

Not everyone can get a piece of Gronkowski or Graham, and not everyone wants to. The depth at the tight end position is good, and with so many players capable of helping out Fantasy owners from week to week, there doesn't have to be a mad rush to get one in your draft.

So now is the perfect time to rehash the 'You Reach, You Lose' strategy from 2011: Assuming you do not take Gronk or Graham, take your time to pick a tight end from the second tier below. The difference between a guy like Aaron Hernandez and Fred Davis is very negligible. For example, Hernandez scored 37 more Fantasy points than Davis, but played in two more games. What's more, six tight ends finished within that 37-point span between Hernandez and Davis in 2011, so there's not a lot of difference between these guys.

Keep in mind, the tight ends we're talking about are pretty much on par with Gronkowski and Graham as far as role in the offense and a mismatch waiting to happen. These aren't jabronies who will give you two or three Fantasy points every week. Getting them as late as possible while collecting good talent at other positions is a really good plan of attack.

Once the top two tight ends are gone you might not see a tight end get picked until Round 5, and that's a good time to consider taking someone like Hernandez or Antonio Gates (who, with all his troubles, averaged 0.3 fewer points per game than Hernandez in 2011). And remember to draft smart -- if you're up to pick but the owners picking after you already have tight ends covered, you can probably wait a round before getting yours. No one should take two tight ends within the first 10 rounds of a draft unless tight ends are eligible as receivers.

Winning the waiting game

There will be two types of people in 2012 drafts: Those who purposely wait to draft a tight end late, and those who just happen to wait to draft a tight end late. You either refuse to buy into the position and will just take a good player with upside starting in Round 8 or 9, or you miss out on the top-two tier tight ends because other owners draft them, leaving you with what's left.

This isn't necessarily a recipe for failure. The types of tight ends who are left -- guys like Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller and Jermaine Gresham -- still have those fine qualities teams are looking for. They just don't have the same expectations, which does not mean that they can't reach them.

So here's an idea: Instead of settling for one of these tight ends in the middle-to-late rounds of your draft, take two. Give your roster two shots at unearthing the next Rob Gronkowski, who was picked on average in Round 9 last year. And the best part is that maybe half of the owners in your league would consider taking two tight ends -- everyone who takes a tight end in the early going won't need to draft another. The quality of talent left toward the end of a draft won't be phenomenal, but it will be plentiful.

This transitions nicely to ...

Tight end tiers

Putting tight ends into tiers might not be as important as doing so for other positions because of the limited number of tight ends expected to go in every draft. So feel free to borrow ours, maybe make a change or two based on your own preferences, and be done with it. Also, don't forget to make that rank list of players you want before Gronkowski and Graham in drafts -- it will save you a lot of headache during your drafts this summer.

Elite Tier Excellent Tier Great Tier Good Tier
Rob Gronkowski Aaron Hernandez Brandon Pettigrew Dallas Clark
Jimmy Graham Antonio Gates Dustin Keller Greg Olsen
  Jason Witten Jared Cook Kellen Winslow
  Tony Gonzalez Jermaine Gresham Owen Daniels
  Vernon Davis   Ed Dickson
  Jermichael Finley   Kyle Rudolph
  Brent Celek   Scott Chandler
  Fred Davis    

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 .

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