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2012 Draft Prep: TE tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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• Dave Richard's tiers and strategies: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Kicker and DST

Tight ends are the deepest position in Fantasy this season, which opens the door to some interesting draft strategies. We'll get to that along with the single most important tight end rule to live by on Draft Day, regardless of your overall drafting approach. But first, a disappointing stat that we'll all probably ignore.

Last year wasn't when tight ends "broke out." Back in 2007 we saw six players get over not only 100 Fantasy points, but 120 Fantasy points. We thought the revolution was on! But in 2008 that number slid to four tight ends with 100-plus Fantasy points including one over 120 points. The revolution was off.

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But in 2009 tight ends rose to the occasion again as a whopping 10 had over 100 Fantasy points including four with 120 on the season. Tight ends were back, baby! Or so we believed as the number did a swan dive: Five hit the century mark with three getting over 120 points.

You already know last season was big for tight ends as 10 had over 100 Fantasy points, four had over 120 and two had over 175. But if this trend we've laid out were to continue, tight ends would falter across the board in 2012.

No one is buying this. And no one should.

Every coach and coordinator I spoke to this offseason spoke glowingly about tight ends referencing playmakers like Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and as Colts coach Chuck Pagano put it, those "nightmare" tight ends in New England. They're all enamored with the idea of finding big, physical players with good hands and deceptive speed to line up against smaller defensive backs or slower linebackers. Defenses still have yet to find an answer for corralling these behemoths and quarterbacks love hitting these big targets over and over. With more big tight ends expected to play regularly this season there probably won't be a regression, save for injuries derailing many of these guys.

Every team would kill to have one, and as such, every Fantasy owner wants to have one. Some might even reach for one. That's the urge you must fight.

It's all about value

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There's only one rule you must follow with tight ends this season, and it's applicable in all formats, all league sizes and all other draft strategies. Ready? Here goes: You reach, you lose.

Some secret, huh? You probably didn't need me to tell you to not reach for a tight end. Fine, then take (or leave) my advice: you should never panic on drafting a tight end this summer because no matter when you need a reliable one, one (or two) will be there. It's probably the only position in Fantasy Football we can confidently say that about aside from kickers and DSTs.

To Graham or to Gronk?

The top two tight ends to go off draft boards this summer will be Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, and not necessarily in that order. But what is definite is that it will take an unprecedented draft pick to land one of them. You should expect nothing less after they both set records for the biggest seasons by a tight end in NFL history. In Fantasy, Gronkowski finished third and Graham sixth overall among non-quarterbacks in standard formats. Expecting a minimum of 10 Fantasy points per week from them isn't out of line (Gronk averaged 14 Fantasy points per week last year, Graham averaged 11).

Everyone expects both to continue their dominance at the position in 2012. That's why their average draft position has been between 20th and 25th overall. Are they worth a second-round pick? In PPR leagues and leagues that count tight ends as receivers, most definitely. But in standard formats they might be worth a late second-round pick. What's funny is that their position sort of costs them some value -- most leagues only start one tight end, so there's only so much demand for them. Plus if you're spending a Top 25 pick on a tight end, you're definitely passing up on some great talent at the other key Fantasy positions. You will see others in the league get sick value on tight ends later in the draft, too. The smaller the league and the simpler the format (i.e. no points for receptions or special scoring for tight ends), the less emphasis there is on getting one of them. Remember: You reach, you lose.

Still need some guidance? Do this: Before you go into your draft, make a list of players you wouldn't hesitate to take before Gronkowski or Graham. That way when you're up in Round 2 (or 3) you'll have an idea of whether or not to take a tight end versus another position.

By the way, I'd take Graham over Gronkowski in every format. Gronkowski will remain a huge factor in the Patriots passing attack but expecting him to repeat his 90-catch, 1,327-yard, 17-touchdown effort from last season seems like a stretch even for him. The addition of Brandon Lloyd should take away some opportunities. Graham, meanwhile, could have more opportunities as the Saints have yet to replace Robert Meachem effectively in their offense. He seems to have a better chance to get close to the 99 catches, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns he had last season.

Rest of the best

The smaller the league, the better opportunity you'll have to draft a quality starting tight end at a good value if you pass on the elite two tight ends. That's because the position is considered deeper than ever with talent that should put up stats close to each other.

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Here's an example from last year: Aaron Hernandez finished as the third-highest scoring tight end but was just 37 points higher than Fred Davis, who played two fewer games than Hernandez. Davis finished 10th among tight ends -- six other players scored in-between them. The takeaway is that there's not a ton of difference between this next crop of tight ends, just a matter of personal confidence you have in them.

Remember that we're looking for bargains here. If someone in your league chooses to take Aaron Hernandez or Antonio Gates before Round 4, let them. We've seen Hernandez fall to Round 5 and Gates to Round 6! These guys have 75-catch, 900-yard, eight-touchdown potential. Vernon Davis, Jason Witten and Jermichael Finley are projected to finish a touch south of the numbers for Hernandez and Gates and are accordingly Round 6 or 7 bargains (Witten's spleen might push him into Round 8, which is real nice). They're all very much worth owning but should only get picked up when the time is right.

When waiting is winning

Whether you purposely mean to wait for a tight end or just happen to go round after round without one, you shouldn't be disappointed. Because of the explosion of tight ends last year and the copy-cat nature of the league, there's an absolute slew of players with potential to put up some nice numbers. The types of tight ends who are left -- guys like Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham and Jacob Tamme -- still have those fine qualities teams are looking for from the position. They just don't have the same expectations ... but that doesn't mean they can't outperform them.

In the quarterback tiers and strategy piece I floated the idea of waiting for a quarterback and then taking two in the middle rounds. The thinking behind it is to not only have some flexibility with starters from week to week but buy low on a couple of high-upside passers and hope to strike gold. It's good if you hit on one of them but if you hit on both, you've got some trade bait.

Point is, you can do the exact same thing and give yourself two shots at unearthing the next Rob Gronkowski. Wait and wait for one and then take two. You could even do a combination and go with a "safe" veteran like Tony Gonzalez and pair him with a young budding superstar like Kyle Rudolph. Both can be had with picks starting in Round 9. It's a low-risk strategy in that neither tight end will cost you a valuable pick, not to mention the majority of Fantasy owners tend to draft just one tight end, so there should be plenty of bargains left.

The only catch: It would be a challenge to wait until late on both quarterbacks and tight ends. You're probably better off picking one of the two positions to wait on and splurging on the other.

Tiering the tight ends

Elite Tier Excellent Tier Great Tier Good Tier
1,000+ yards, 10+ TDs 850+ yards, 7+ TDs 750+ yards, 6+ TDs  
Jimmy Graham Aaron Hernandez Tony Gonzalez Brent Celek
Rob Gronkowski Antonio Gates Jermaine Gresham Kyle Rudolph
  Vernon Davis Brandon Pettigrew Jared Cook
  Jason Witten Jacob Tamme Dustin Keller
  Jermichael Finley Owen Daniels Greg Olsen
    Fred Davis Coby Fleener
      Kellen Winslow
     

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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(5:06 pm ET) The 49ers are looking to trade running back LaMichael James in advance of next month's NFL Draft, reports the Sacramento Bee.

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