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2013 Draft Prep: Tight end tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Tiers by position: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | K/DSTs

Kind of a quiet offseason for tight ends, no?

I mean besides the infected forearms, surgically-repaired backs, hurt wrists, torn-up knees, unretirements and franchise-shocking releases.And dislocated hips too.

Tight ends haven't exactly been set aside in the news cycle, nor have they been forgotten about by Fantasy owners either. Not by a longshot. A see-saw trend over the last six years saw tight end numbers rise one year, fall the next. Said trend continued last year but the drop-off in stats from 2011 to 2012 was minimal: Only three fewer tight ends had over 100 Fantasy points while the number of tight ends with at least 120 Fantasy points stayed level at four. It's safe to expect those numbers to stay the same in 2013, meaning the position will be top heavy but with a lot of talented threats getting close to that 100 point threshhold.

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It's the biggest threat of them all that has Fantasy owners nervous.

What to do with Gronk?

Rob Gronkowski -- Fantasy's favorite red-zone dominator -- missed all of training camp and all of the preseason on the Physically Unable to Perform list. If he's still on the list come Aug. 31, he'll be out for at least the first six games of the season, a debilitating blow not only for the Patriots but also to the owners who draft him. If the timetable laid out following mid-June back surgery is precise, he'll be ready for football on Sept. 10, two days after the Pats' Week 1 game against the Bills. There's a belief that Gronkowski, who is reportedly rehabbing diligently with the Patriots, will not be on the list come Aug. 31 but could still miss a couple of games to kick off the year. There's also the risk of him re-injuring himself like he did last season when he came back too soon from the first time he cracked his forearm, so there's no push to rush him back.

But the upside in a player like Gronkowski has to be taken into consideration, too. The guy has 38 touchdowns in 43 regular-season games with a 62-yard-per-game average. He had 10 or more Fantasy points in eight of 11 games last year, making him the most consistent player among tight ends and wide receivers. Gronkowski's only 24 and still is a tough mismatch for opposing defenses given his athleticism and toughness.

You'll see and read reports about Gronkowski leading up to your draft. Until you hear something that suggests he will start the season on the PUP list, it should be your goal to pick Gronkowski in Round 4 or 5 assuming you did not draft Jimmy Graham in Round 2 (which is where he'll end up going in most leagues). Putting it simply, Gronk's potential as a fountain of statistical dominance is too rich to pass up with a pick in the 40s. You can't do it.

Does drafting Gronk mean "handcuffing" him to another tight end? I don't think it does. You can actually get away with putting off having a second tight end on your roster until days before your Week 1 lineup is due. There are a number of tight ends that will go undrafted in your league that could have been picked and could easily replace Gronkowski if he's inactive for the start of the year. I love the Week 1 matchups for Fred Davis, Coby Fleener, Martellus Bennett, Tyler Eifert, Owen Daniels and whoever looks to be the top tight end in Philly. Most of those guys will be on waivers. Patriots rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld is another logical player to slide onto rosters.

Prioritizing tight ends

One of the decisions you'll make before drafting is figuring out just how important tight ends are to you. If you're looking for a difference-maker you'll have to spend an early pick on Graham or Gronkowski. If you miss on those guys, or if you just don't want to dedicate a Top 5 Round pick, you should follow this one simple piece of advice on tight ends:

You reach, you lose.

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Yes, it's the same piece of advice I gave last year. Yes, I'm recycling material (would you rather "don't reach or don't whine like a baby?"). But the same theory holds true -- there are just enough tight ends to go around and pulling the trigger for one when you could still draft a potential stud is a mistake. There will always be a good value at tight end on Draft Day. Wait for yours.

The quarterback-tight end dynamic

Because it's a new year, there's a second issue at play that ties into how you draft tight ends, particularly within the first few rounds. It should be considered a mistake to take a quarterback and a tight end within your first four or five selections in a typical snake draft. Both positions are super deep and offer great value while running backs and receivers will run dry. If you dedicate two choices to those spots and neglect starters at running back and receiver you're going to be disappointed when the draft is over.

If you take a tight end early, wait for a quarterback. If you take a quarterback early, wait for a tight end.

It's also not a bad idea to wait for both a quarterback and a tight end. But unless you can stash seven-plus players on your bench, don't take two quarterbacks and two tight ends unless all four players are Top 10 options. It's fine to start a season with one tight end and one quarterback, much less two of one and one of the other.

Four bargains

I'm hitting up Jimmy Graham in Round 2 assuming I land a running back in Round 1 in all of my drafts. But if I can't get my paws on him, these are the tight ends I'm looking for this summer.

Jared Cook, Rams: In Tennessee, Cook wasn't used to the fullest as the Titans leaned toward a seemingly stable ground game for years. This season's St. Louis Rams squad has anything but a stable rushing attack, opening the door for Sam Bradford to be more aggressive in the passing game. Cook fits in there and was paid receiver dough. Sounds like he'll be presented as a mismatch problem along the lines of Jimmy Graham. He should be able to succeed and his late July draft average of about 100th overall makes him a really good low-risk, high-reward Fantasy tight end. Cook will be on several of my teams.
I'm drafting him: Round 8-9

Jordan Cameron, Browns: Take a look at the track record of tight ends under Norv Turner and, by extension, Rob Chudzinski. While not every single guy they've had has produced mammoth numbers, many have caught around or above 50 passes and been otherwise involved in the offense. Cameron gave everyone a taste of how involved he'll be in the offense when he scored two touchdowns against the Lions in the Browns' second preseason game. Everything points to the Browns offense opening up in 2013 and Cameron should be a big part of it -- the simple facts that it will be more vertical and involve the tight end play to Cameron greatly.
I'm drafting him: Round 10

Tyler Eifert, Bengals: I'm drafting Eifert late in all of the leagues I can't get Graham, Gronk, Cook or Cameron in. The guy plays a lot like Rob Gronkowski -- at least he did in college -- and should be in line to be a popular part of the Bengals' offense this season. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden raved over Eifert and compared him to Jimmy Graham -- that's some high praise. The Bengals can become creative with their formations thanks to Eifert and the potential for him to be a fierce red-zone threat is impossible to ignore.
I'm drafting him: Round 13

Zach Sudfeld, Patriots: If there was no Cameron and no Eifert this year, I'd be intrigued by Sudfeld. He developed the chops to play in a pass-happy offense in Nevada, spending six seasons there ... and missing two because of injuries. In fact he had six surgeries in a five-year period. That's risky business but there's no denying his athleticism. He can hit the seam and block fairly well. Save for a fumble against the Lions in a preseason game he's been impressive. Will he stay that way once Rob Gronkowski returns? There's a chance his playing time doesn't decrease much, it'll depend on how well he does and how well other receivers do in the Patriots offense. He's also a fine low-risk late-round sleeper.
I'm drafting him: Round 13

Tight end tiers

Elite Tier Excellent Tier Great Tier Good Tier
1,000+ yards, 10+ TDs 850+ yards, 7+ TDs 750+ yards, 6+ TDs  
Jimmy Graham Tony Gonzalez Jared Cook Greg Olsen
Rob Gronkowski Jason Witten Antonio Gates Kyle Rudolph
  Vernon Davis Jermichael Finley Jordan Cameron
    Kyle Rudolph Tyler Eifert

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