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Fantasy & Reality: Solving the tight end riddle

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Many Fantasy owners are frustrated with how tight ends have been playing this year. One week they're awesome and then the numbers vanish into thin air. In what was supposed to be a year where tight ends continued their rise to domination in passing games across the league, I find myself reminded of a year-to-year stat I uncovered during the draft season. I mentioned it in the tight end tiers and strategies column:

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.

Well, maybe we should have after all. Through nine weeks, we have a grand total of one tight end averaging 10-plus Fantasy points per week in a standard-scoring format. Three average nine-plus Fantasy points, five average eight-plus Fantasy points and seven average seven-plus Fantasy points. More was expected.

At the end of every season I take the Top 12 Fantasy point producers at a position and come up with their cumulative per game Fantasy point average. In a standard format, that average from the Top 12 tight ends through eight weeks is 7.1 Fantasy points. You should be doing cartwheels if the tight end you start gets that many points on a regular basis.

It's time to come up with a plan for finding success from tight ends. It begins by eliminating the must-start tight ends based on performance so far and then evaluating what's left from the group.

Obvious must-start tight ends

Rob Gronkowski, Heath Miller, Owen Daniels, Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten can be started without concern. All five average over 7.1 Fantasy points per week and play a ton in their respective offenses. Aaron Hernandez is also considered a must-start on reputation alone. The fact that he has 25 Fantasy points over 13 quarters of play should be enough for Fantasy owners to lean on him when he is active, which he should be when the Pats come off their bye in Week 10. There's really nothing else to say here other than if you have one of these guys, consider yourself fortunate. If you have the opportunity to trade for one of these guys without hurting your team in another area, it's probably a good idea.

Should-be must-start tight ends

Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates might head to the Hall of Fame some day, but they've already earned a reputation of being great Fantasy stars. Even with Gonzalez's stats waning over his last two games, he's considered reliable. Gates is being questioned as a Fantasy stud for the first time in his career since he has one game with 20 Fantasy points and five games with five points or fewer but everyone recognizes his potential and kind of assumes he'll be better as the season moves along. And because both players carry such a high "brand name" value in the Fantasy world it's hard to acquire them via trade without giving up something significant. You might actually find it easier to trade for Heath Miller than one of these guys and Miller is averaging over four more Fantasy points than Gates and has been as productive as Gonzalez.

The tight end waiting room

Everyone else not listed above has a production problem. Maybe they're not as involved in their offenses as they should be, maybe they're underperforming or maybe they're on a hot streak right now and should be used while they have a hot hand. These are the players to really dig into. I have them listed in the order I'd want them on my Fantasy team.

Vernon Davis, 49ers: You might think Davis belongs in one of the first two categories, but he's on a five-week skid where he's had three or fewer Fantasy points in four games. His targets are in the garbage; he had seven in a nice Week 5 game vs. the Bills and had seven in the three games following, including a targetless game against the Seahawks. Admittedly, the matchups have been challenging, but he's been more of a decoy and less of a threat and it's worked out fine for the Niners' offense. He might not be reliable to start until Week 12 at New Orleans, and even then that's against a defense that has done well at taking away tight ends.

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals: Big physical target on a team bereft of a No. 2 receiver and a quality running game. He has 43 targets on the year and two games with double-digit Fantasy points but really underwhelmed in his last game (vs. Pittsburgh). Gresham has a nice matchup this week against a Broncos defense that doesn't really do well against tight ends and could be utilized if Andy Dalton leans on him. The key here is that Gresham is a big part of the Bengals offense and should remain that way.

Dustin Keller, Jets: Like Gresham, he's essentially the No. 2 receiver on the Jets. But he's come through in his last two games for seven catches in each for 160 yards and a score. After missing much of the first chunk of the year with an injury it seems fair to analyze him based on these last two games and correlate that he'll be a nice part of the Jets' offense moving forward. Hopefully Tim Tebow won't be because that could be very bad for his production.

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions: He is who we thought he was: A big, slow magnet for catches and little else in a dynamic Lions offense. He's averaging a cool 9.8 yards per catch and has yet to get more than seven Fantasy points in a standard league. Obviously he's more valuable in PPR formats and might even be a must-start in those leagues, but for the most part he's an underwhelming player who will at least deliver some points per week.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings: A hot start has been replaced with a cold reality: Not all tight ends are on the field to catch passes and dunk footballs over the crossbar. The Vikings like Rudolph for his ability to block just as much as his ability to catch passes in the red zone. Of his five games with six Fantasy points or more, four came against teams without a stellar pass rush (he amazingly caught two passes against the 49ers in Week 3). The funny thing is that in the Vikings' last two games, Christian Ponder has been sacked three times each and Rudolph has 17 yards on two catches combined! The sooner the Vikings find ways to deploy Rudolph more effectively the faster he'll be a must-start Fantasy tight end. The matchup this week against the Seahawks is one where he might need to block more.

The line to get into the waiting room

If you can't get one of those tight ends, this is your list to pick from. Players with great size or good roles in their offense but just can't put together quality games on a consistent basis. It's safe to call them matchup tight ends.

Greg Olsen, Panthers
Scott Chandler, Bills
Martellus Bennett, Giants
Brent Celek, Eagles
Jared Cook, Titans
Brandon Myers, Raiders
Jermichael Finley, Packers
Dennis Pitta, Ravens
Dwayne Allen, Colts

The plan

If you can or have access to any of those first eight tight ends, buckle them up in their car seat, hit the gas and don't let those babies go. Trust me, you do not want the headache of having to juggle tight ends.

For everyone else, that juggling headache belongs to you. Don't rule out the idea of platooning two tight ends, preferably from "the waiting room" category, and using whichever tight end has the better matchup. I realize it's not ideal to carry two tight ends but at this point in the season most Fantasy owners know who most of their starters are -- including their quarterbacks -- and might be able to free up roster space by slicing off an extra quarterback or a player who's hurt and might not play anytime soon (think Greg Jennings or Pierre Garcon).

The nice perk of juggling tight ends is that if one pushes his way into must-start status you have a problem solved without a big trade or sacrifice. It's just a waiting game for that to happen.

Fantasy & Reality

Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) from around the league.

Fantasy: Reggie Bush is a sure-fire Fantasy starter for the rest of the season. Bush began the season with 241 rush yards, 71 receiving yards on nine catches and two touchdowns in his first two games. In the five games since he has 252 rush yards 75 receiving yards on nine catches and one touchdown. It appeared in Week 3 that Bush suffered a serious knee injury but managed to play in the weeks following. However, he has just one game with over 4.0 yards per carry since the injury and we've seen Daniel Thomas assume a role as a goal-line back -- and then some. After Bush fumbled late in the third quarter last week the Dolphins didn't use him again, giving Thomas the ball eight times for 23 yards. Hopefully Bush gets going -- the Dolphins play the Colts this week followed by great matchups against the Titans and Bills before an ugly three-game stretch against the Seahawks, Patriots and 49ers. Thomas looking over Bush's shoulder and taking goal-line opportunities is a real problem.

Reality: Larry Fitzgerald concerns me. It looks like the non-concussion Fitzgerald suffered against the 49ers last week won't hold him back this week at Green Bay, but everything else about the Arizona offense might. The Cardinals' offensive line is worse than bad -- they've allowed more sacks than anybody. And behind that line is quarterback John Skelton, who connected with Larry Fitzgerald in bunches in 2011 but has yet to find him in the end zone in 2012. Defenses are keying in on Fitzgerald and taking their chances with other Cardinals receivers, kind of like how defenses are playing the Lions and Calvin Johnson. The net result is some weak stats and that's not a lock to change against the Packers, who have allowed one touchdown to a wide receiver in their last three games.

Fantasy: Josh Freeman and Doug Martin won't be impacted at all by the loss of Carl Nicks. Anytime a team loses its best offensive lineman it impacts the offense a little. But when a team loses three starting offensive linemen before the halfway point of the season there could be trouble. The roster shuffle for the Buccaneers isn't crystal clear but guard Ted Larsen, who was benched earlier this season, is expected to step up. I wouldn't call the loss of Nicks a death sentence for Freeman and Martin's stats, but there will be plays that could have been bigger with Nicks on the line.

Reality: The matchup at the Browns will be tough for the Ravens. We all know Joe Flacco isn't nearly as effective on the road as he is at home. This week he'll take on a Cleveland defense he hung 356 yards and two total touchdowns on back in Week 4, but it's not the same defense. The Browns didn't have cornerback Joe Haden in that game and he's resumed his role as a shutdown defensive back, and they'll get defensive tackle Phil Taylor back on the line to push around the Ravens' linemen. Over the last three weeks the Browns have allowed 24, 17 and 6 points against the Bengals, Colts and Chargers -- not exactly wimpy offenses. Tack on the Baltimore run defense being soft and Trent Richardson running hard and this could turn into a win for the Dawg Pound.

DST sleepers for Week 9

All of our DST sleepers are owned in 50 percent of CBSSports.com leagues or less.

Last week's DST sleepers: Dolphins (20 Fantasy points), Raiders (17 points), Lions (six points) and Chiefs (four points). LOL on the Chiefs pick.

Buccaneers (at Raiders) ... Three of the last four DSTs to play the Raiders have posted 10 or more Fantasy points. Bucs have scored 13 or more Fantasy points in two of their last three.

Raiders (vs. Buccaneers) ... Riding a hot waiver-wire hand. The Raiders have posted 11 or more Fantasy points in each of their last three games. The bad news is that the Bucs have scored 28-plus points in each of their last three games, but there could be an adjustment period to their reconfigured offensive line.

Saints (vs. Eagles) ... Basically a kamikaze DST because the Saints have been horrible defensively. But Michael Vick is known to turn the ball over now and then and all but two DSTs to play Philadelphia have posted at least 11 Fantasy points. This is a better option than the rest of the junk at the bottom of your waiver wire if only because Vick has been sacked three times in each of his last three games.

Two more things

• Andy Reid did the smart thing by keeping Michael Vick as his starting quarterback. Why was it smart? Because turning to rookie Nick Foles with zero NFL snaps under his belt wasn't a really good option. Yes, the Eagles offense has averaged 18.25 points per game over their last four, but the defense has been even more at fault with what's been on the scoreboard over the last three weeks. Vick has completed at least 60 percent of his passes over his last four games and has a great matchup against the woeful Saints' secondary. With Foles, the Eagles would have no chance in this game. With Vick, the Eagles have some chance. And for Fantasy owners, Vick should be counted on this week and again in two weeks when the Eagles play at Washington.

• I came away mostly unimpressed with Cam Newton after taking on the Bears last week. Now sure, he took on a Chicago defense that's been outstanding through much of the season, but he still doesn't seem to have the kind of consistent accuracy you expect out of a passer at the NFL level. The bigger concern is his rushing workload. Over his last two games he has just 11 carries, a two-game career low! The Panthers seem to think running the football with their running backs will help the offense out and it could, beginning this week against the Redskins. But without Newton running wild like he did last year, Fantasy owners are left to lean on his passing production. This week it should be positive against the Redskins, who have allowed 299 or more passing yards in all but one game and have yielded two or more touchdowns to all but two quarterbacks. If Newton can't figure it out here, Fantasy owners should lose faith.

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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