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2014 Draft Prep: Tight end tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Quarterback tiers | Running back tiers | Wide receiver tiers

Some Fantasy owners want a difference-maker at tight end -- and are willing to step up on Draft Day to get one. Some want a player with breakout potential or a long track record of success. Some want a bargain. Some want to gamble on a sleeper when the draft is half-over. And some see the position as a necessary evil and will take whatever's left at the end of a draft.

Which owner are you? If you know already, then you probably know when you'll draft a tight end and maybe even who it will be. But if you don't know which kind of owner you are, you won't be lost for much longer.

This year, the tight end tiers pretty much dictate your possible strategies.

Early birds

If you want a difference-making stud, it'll mean spending a Top 40 pick, if not Top 30. But you should get what you pay for.

Jimmy Graham is the king of tight ends right now, especially since he's officially been classified as such (appeal pending). Last year he overcame a bad (for him) 2012 to finish with 10 or more Fantasy points 12 times in 16 games. Keep in mind that eight Fantasy points for a starting tight end is considered good. In fact if we lower the bar to eight-plus Fantasy points then he's accomplished the feat 22 times in his last 31 games. He's a unique breed of player at the position and one that can make a weekly difference for your Fantasy team. That's why he's at the top of the food chain -- and why he'll cost a first-round pick. Maybe he'll slide to early Round 2 in smaller standard leagues but when owners are looking for a sure thing in Round 1, Graham is it.

Julius Thomas and Rob Gronkowski will be the next two tight ends taken in every draft, though the order will vary depending on Gronk's health. After taking forever to come back from a nightmare forearm injury last year (and a back problem, too), Gronk played in almost seven games before tearing his ACL. That happened in December, meaning he'd have slightly less than nine months of recovery time and rehab if he were to play in Week 1. He's risky not only to be effective right away, but to stay healthy for 16 games. That's why a lot of people would rather get Thomas, who broke out for the Broncos a year ago and could be in store for even more stats now that he has a year of great experience with Peyton Manning under his belt.

Thomas will get nabbed anywhere between the end of Round 2 and the end of Round 3. Gronk's a wild card who could go ahead of Thomas or a full round after him. But by the end of Round 4 these guys will be ancient history.

Remember, the point of taking one of these guys is to have a stable rock on your roster. If you draft one of them, you won't need to draft a backup since you'll never sit your superstud. And while you might come up light at another spot (like No. 2 running back or No. 2 receiver) on Draft Day, all it will take is some suave roster maneuvering to improve. There's more reward than risk, a rarity in Fantasy.

In the middle

The next group of tight ends have the potential to dominate but is more likely to be closer to seven or eight points a week rather than over 10. But they shouldn't require a pick any higher than late Round 5.

Vernon Davis is on the fence between these tiers, not quite a lock to have another big year statistically but not quite a lock for "just" eight points per week. The biggest factor is his status -- if Davis isn't in training camp anytime soon then his entire season is at risk since most players who miss camp struggle. He also has to keep up his torrid touchdown streak with Kaepernick: 15 touchdowns in 18 total games last season. We always expect a regression in touchdowns after a big year, particularly when a quarterback's favorite target returns to take red-zone looks away (in this case it's Michael Crabtree). But there's no denying Davis' abilities or role as the predominant game-wrecker in the Niners offense, which is expected to become more pass-heavy this year after averaging 26.0 attempts per game last year. But he must improve on his receiving yardage after averaging just 50.2 yards per game over 18 games. That number dipped a smidge to 43.9 yards per game in eight with Crabtree on the field, and the Niners bulked up at receiver this offseason. So consider Davis appropriately -- a sixth-round pick is fair.

The tight ends who will follow Davis off of most draft boards in some order are Jordan Cameron, Jason Witten, Greg Olsen and Dennis Pitta. You can almost count on these four being selected within a 20-pick span of each other to make up a tight end run of sorts. We've seen these runs begin in late Round 6 through late Round 7 as owners want to get a safe player with a track record of success. Cameron and Olsen stand to be the top receiving threats for their team, Pitta should be in line for a solid year now that he's healthy and in a tight-end-friendly offense and you can set your watch to Witten's stats as he's been Top 8 or better at the position in each of the last seven years.

Getting late, getting great?

The remaining tight ends that will get drafted as starters are players who could develop into top-tier tight ends ... or fall on their faces and frustrate you. The risk involved with these guys varies but the reward stands to be juicier than those of the previous tier.

Zach Ertz, Kyle Rudolph and Jordan Reed are young, prominent members of their offenses. All three are in systems that should pass a good amount (Rudolph and Reed's offenses should pass more than Ertz's though). And two of the three (Ertz and Rudolph) have the potential to finish as high as second on the team in targets (Reed should finish third behind Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson). They're all mismatch nightmares like Graham, too. But each have their flaws: Rudolph doesn't have blazing speed and will need those targets along with touchdowns to string together a big year. He's also battled injuries, as has Reed (multiple concussions last season, which is scary). Ertz is healthy by comparison and is a size-speed monster but the Eagles offense has many receiving threats and there could be some games where Ertz just isn't a big part of the game plan.

A lot of Fantasy owners like the idea of skipping over the second-tier tight ends and focusing on this trio because they carry as much if not more upside and can be had as soon as Round 8. That means you can shop for other positions before getting to a tight end.

Wait ... how many tight ends is that?!

So far we've successfully sorted through 11 tight ends. If you play in a league with 10 owners or less, assume that everyone will get a nice starter, making the position relatively deep. Nice!

But if we're in a league with 12 teams or more (and tight ends are mandatory) then there's a wee bit more pressure on owners to come up with a valid starter.

If you're in the position of being last to draft a starting tight end, shoot for the moon. Find a list of tight ends that have the potential to shatter expectations. And this year, that list should begin with a rookie.

Eric Ebron was drafted in Round 1 by the Lions, a total luxury pick given the state of their defense. They'll have to justify the selection by using him in the offense more than just a couple of times per game. But the excitement is in the details: Ebron is 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, runs very well and will play the "Jimmy Graham role" in the Lions offense. He also won't see anything better than single coverage since the Lions also have Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and their running backs for defenses to worry about. Now if that doesn't make your mouth water a little bit, I don't know what will. Just know that it's been a long time since a rookie tight end made a big splash in Fantasy Football (Gronk and Aaron Hernandez cracked the Top 12 as rookies in 2010).

Another young tight end with big size, good speed and an offense with a flair for the aerial attack is Ladarius Green. Chargers coach Mike McCoy lamented this offseason about how little he wound up using Green and all signs point to him being more involved in the Bolts' offense. One theory is that he'll actually play more as a receiver and less as a true tight end, thus putting him and veteran Antonio Gates on the field at the same time. Gates isn't a terrible Fantasy play, either, but it feels like he's at the end of his career and might finish, at best, 10th at the position. Green's the one with the upside.

But it's one last veteran who carries some supreme value and potential this summer -- Heath Miller with the Steelers. A long-time dependable target of Ben Roethlisberger, Miller should see a ton of targets as Big Ben works with a receiving corps that's undergone some turnover. He's caught at least 50 passes each of the last three years and will help make up for the losses of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery around the goal line.

Not moonshots: Martellus Bennett, Delanie Walker, Charles Clay, Dwayne Allen. No doubt, these are good NFL tight ends. They just don't have solid track records for helping Fantasy owners. If you're in a pinch on Draft Day, these guys are good to roll with to begin the season, Bennett especially given his September track record. Just don't hesitate to punt on any of them for someone on waivers since there is a lot of inconsistency expected from this foursome.

Do you need more than one tight end?

Naturally, if you're in a league that requires two tight ends, you'll draft at least two. But most leagues demand one starting tight end, so most owners draft one and deal with the bye weeks later on. And most leagues that have a starting flex spot will allow a tight end to fill it if need be.

Before you daydream about dominating in a two-tight end formation, remember that a good week for a tight end is eight Fantasy points. Running backs and receivers can hit eight points with more frequency than most tight ends, plus there are more decent running backs and receivers to pick from than tight ends. So taking multiple tight ends isn't a must.

Unless ...

-- One of the tight ends from the top two tiers happens to fall in your drafts and right into your lap. In that rare instance, go for it. Value's value.

-- You aim to take one of the big three tight ends early on and swipe one of the risk-reward tight ends in Round 9 or later once you have your remaining roster spots settled.

Just keep in mind that the best plan of all could be to draft one tight end and wait for a breakout that we're not even thinking about (Jace Amaro? Timothy Wright?) to come available on waivers. Then you'll drop some mope for him and enjoy the benefits of having two tight ends. Won't cost you anything on Draft Day to do that!

Tiers

Frankly, I'm listing the tiers for those who were too lazy to read the article. Because if you did read everything above you'll know exactly who will go where. By now, everyone should know what kind of a tight end drafter they are. I don't mind aiming for one at the right price in the first three or four rounds, but if I whiff I'm aiming for one in Round 9 or later. I like Ertz a lot as a sleeper.

And it's worth mentioning that the whole point of tiers in the first place is to have a sense of when a group of players with a similar expectation is either readily available or getting thin.

Elite Tier Second Tier Third Tier Shoot for the moon Fifth Tier
1,000+ yards, 9+ TDs 850+ yards, 6+ TDs 700+ yards, 6+ TDs    
Jimmy Graham Vernon Davis Zach Ertz Eric Ebron Martellus Bennett
Julius Thomas Jordan Cameron Kyle Rudolph Ladarius Green Delanie Walker
Rob Gronkowski Jason Witten Jordan Reed Antonio Gates Charles Clay
  Greg Olsen   Heath Miller Dwayne Allen
  Dennis Pitta      

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Player News
Report: Quad injury won't keep Falcons' Steven Jackson out Week 17
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(9:21 am ET) The quad injury Falcons running back Steven Jackson suffered in Sunday's 30-14 victory over the Saints in Week 16 is not believed to be serious, reports Vaughn McClure of ESPN.

Jackson left the game in the second quarter and was ruled out early in the third. He finished with four carries for 9 yards and one catch for 14 yards. Although coach Mike Smith didn't share many details on Jackson's injury, McClure reports that the veteran back will return to the starting lineup come Week 17 against Carolina.

Atlanta is currently a 3 1/2-point home favorite against Carolina, according to Vegas Insider. The winner will advance to the postseason.


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(2:13 am ET) The Cardinals DST scored just one Fantasy point in standard CBSSports.com leagues Week 16 against Seattle, interrupting a stretch of 10 games in which it averaged 15.1, and the Cardinals' offensive woes may have had something to do with it.

Specifically, they've been unable to find a decent quarterback since losing Carson Palmer to injury in Week 10. Backup Drew Stanton at least mounted some kind of threat, but with him sidelined by a sprained knee in Week 16, the Cardinals had to turn to third-stringer Ryan Lindley. He turned the ball over twice without once leading his team into the end zone, completing less than half of his passes in the process.

The quick trips back to the sideline gave the Seahawks more chances to pile up points and yards, and they did, finishing with 35 and 596. Only one other time have the Cardinals allowed more than 30 points in a game, and the 596 yards were a season high. Worse yet, they were lacking in big plays, recording one sack with no takeaways.

Fortunately, the Cardinals will take on a struggling 49ers offense in Week 17, so even if Lindley is back under center, the DST at least has a chance of a respectable performance. Still, if you've been relying on it all season, you might want to make sure there isn't an appealing matchups play on the waiver wire.


Seahawks DST can't be stopped
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:04 am ET) The Seahawks DST had another dominant performance Week 16 at Arizona, continuing a nine-week run that has made it once again arguably the top unit in Fantasy. During that stretch, it has averaged 16.2 Fantasy points, allowing 11.9 points on 231.3 yards.

It allowed only six points on 216 yards in Week 16, recording four sacks and one interception. Of the Seahawks' 33 sacks this season, 20 have come in their last five games.

Clearly, they had a favorable matchup in this one, but they also shut down the Eagles in Week 14. You don't have any reason to shy away from the Seahawks DST against St. Louis in Week 17.


Kenbrell Thompkins comes out of nowhere
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:58 am ET) After making only modest contributions since coming over from the Patriots in Week 6, Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suddenly emerged as quarterback Derek Carr's favorite target Week 16 against Buffalo, catching five passes for 90 yards. He hadn't caught even one pass since Week 13, and his previous high in yardage was 47.

Of course, you should know how this goes by now. Fellow wide receivers James Jones and Andre Holmes have both had their stretches of Fantasy relevance this season, as has tight end Mychal Rivera. The Raiders have a multitude of viable receiving targets, but their roles aren't so clear, which makes the task of picking the most impactful from week to week next to impossible.

In other words, you'd need to play in an especially deep league to take a flier on Thompkins for the season's final week.


Latavius Murray trustworthy up to a point
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:51 am ET) If his 23 carries Week 14 against San Francisco didn't convince you, Latavius Murray's 23 carries Week 16 against Buffalo should make the message loud and clear: He is the Raiders' top running back, and they're putting more faith in him than they ever did Darren McFadden.

Granted, it hasn't translated to much production yet, but the 49ers and Bills are two of the toughest defenses against the run. Unfortunately, Denver, the Raiders' Week 17 opponent, is ranked even higher at both.

Can you trust Murray to get his carries? He's gotten them two of the last three weeks, so most likely, yes. And with 20-plus chances, there's always the chance he breaks a long one. But the matchup will make it difficult.

You'd like to start him given his ever-increasing role, but you shouldn't force him into your lineup if you have two (or maybe three) respectable running backs already.


One way or another, Fred Jackson gets his
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(1:44 am ET) Trailing early Week 16 at Oakland with their playoff hopes on the line, the Bills didn't stick with the running game for long, attempting only three runs in the second half. But in a way, that worked to running back Fred Jackson's advantage. He's such a good pass-catcher out of the backfield that he still topped 100 total yards, doing so for the first time since returning from a groin injury in Week 12.

Even with the return of C.J. Spiller from a long-term shoulder injury, Jackson still led the Bills in carries, but with only six for 10 yards. He also led the team in catches with nine for 93 yards. He had 10 catches just two weeks ago, so clearly, he's a PPR stud.

Is he worth starting in standard leagues as well? Well, he's also gotten 20 carries twice in five games since returning. He hasn't been as effective on the ground as through the air, but yards are yards, however he gets them.

Their matchup Week 17 at New England will probably force the Bills to go pass-heavy again, so unless you're stacked at running back, you can find a spot for Jackson in your lineup.


Desperation fuels Kyle Orton's performance
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:35 am ET) Bills quarterback Kyle Orton didn't have the most efficient day throwing the ball Week 16 at Oakland, but from a Fantasy perspective, it was a productive one. He threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns but also had two interceptions.

What's crazy, though, is that 196 of those yards came in the second half. The Bills were trailing a winnable game with their playoff hopes on the line, and their desperation showed. Unfortunately, that desperation also contributed to the second of Orton's interceptions.

The Bills have been eliminated, so no matter how much they're trailing Week 17 at New England, they probably won't be quite as desperate. You can expect more typical numbers from Orton -- maybe about 250 yards with one or two scores -- even if the matchup appears to be a favorable one, making him a player better left for two-quarterback leagues.


Kenny Britt clearly better with Shaun Hill
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:27 am ET) Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt caught a season-high nine passes on a season-high 11 targets Week 16 against the Giants, but his 103 receiving yards actually weren't a season high.

That's because he had 128, along with a touchdown, Week 11 against the Broncos.

That was Shaun Hill's first game back under center. Week 16, obviously, was his latest one. In the six games since Hill reclaimed the role, Britt has averaged 3.8 catches for 66.3 yards. In the nine games before then, he averaged 2.3 catches for 34.7 yards.

Britt has been especially good lately, averaging 73.3 yards in his last three games. Hill has also been fond of Stedman Bailey, but he doesn't seem to have a clear preference for one or the other.

Of course, the Rams passing attack isn't prolific enough to sustain both, so if you're going to target Britt or Bailey off the waiver wire, make sure it's in a deeper league. You wouldn't want to roll the dice on either in the season's final week if you can help it.


Andre Williams showing more ability
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:19 am ET) Carrying the load for the third straight game with Rashad Jennings sidelined by an ankle injury Week 16 at St. Louis, Giants rookie running back Andre Williams delivered his second 100-yard effort during that stretch, picking up 110 yards on 26 carries. Of course, just like in Week 14, it wasn't the steadiest performance. He had a 50-yard run in that one en route to a career-best 131 yards. He had a 45-yard run en route to his 110 yards in this one.

But that's true for most 100-yard rushing performances. The best backs break long runs occasionally, which makes up for all the 2- and 3-yard gains in between. It's easy to discount Williams' performance because of a long run here or a long run there because he's been so bad on a per-carry basis this season (take that 45-yard run away, and he averaged only 2.6 yards per carry -- oh noes!), but the fact is those long runs count, too. And he barreled over a couple of tacklers to complete it, which was nice to see.

Because Williams is short on receiving ability, his numbers don't look so great when he doesn't break a long run, but with all the carries he's getting now, his chances are better than not of breaking one. He's worth starting in standard leagues Week 17 against Philadelphia.


Rueben Randle not overshadowed for once
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(1:08 am ET) Since the emergence of rookie Odell Beckham in Week 9, and especially since his even bigger emergence in Week 12, wide receiver Rueben Randle has been an afterthought in the Giants passing game, averaging 2.3 catches for 31.8 yards in the four games leading up to Week 16 at St. Louis. But quarterback Eli Manning finally had enough yards to go around in that one, delivering Beckham his usual eight grabs for 148 yards and still finding Randle on six passes for 132 yards.

Randle even caught a touchdown pass, his first since Week 5. Of course, Beckham caught two and is now up to eight in his last five games, averaging 9.6 catches for 131.4 yards during that stretch.

You see the problem here, don't you? Manning was able to sustain both Beckham and Randle in this one, but that's only because he threw for a season-high 391 yards. If he regresses to a more modest total Week 17 against Philadelphia, we all know Randle is the one taking a back seat. Beckham has other-worldly talent, and Manning is smart enough to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

Of course, the Giants will probably have to throw a lot to keep pace with the Eagles, which bodes well for Randle, but you should still treat him as no more than a No. 3 wide receiver in Fantasy.


 
 
 
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