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2014 Draft Prep: The TE landscape

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Overviews: QBs | RBs | WRs | Draft Averages | Rankings | Draft Index

There's a reason Fantasy owners can't stay away from Rob Gronkowski on Draft Day. Despite all his injuries, he could be the biggest difference maker this year.

Gronkowski is coming off a torn ACL, and he hasn't played a full season since 2011 because of forearm, back and knee injuries. But when he does play he dominates, and Fantasy owners can thrive with a dominant tight end, especially with his value at No. 33 overall.

Jimmy Graham has become the class of the position because he's not only a force, but he stays on the field. Graham has played through ankle, wrist and foot injuries the past three years with one missed game over that time. And last year, he blew away the field as the No. 1 tight end with 217 Fantasy points in a standard league.

To put that in perspective, Graham was 56 points better than No. 2 tight end Vernon Davis, 77 points better than No. 3 tight end Julius Thomas and 114 points better than No. 10 tight end Martellus Bennett. If Graham was a wide receiver, he would have been No. 4 behind Demaryius Thomas (227 Fantasy points), Josh Gordon (226 points) and Calvin Johnson (219 points).

It will be interesting to see who the No. 1 tight end is this season. The betting money should be on Graham because of health. But the last time Graham and Gronkowski each played 16 games was in 2011, and Gronkowski was better -- by a lot.

Both were dominant that season as Graham was 64 Fantasy points better than No. 3 tight end Aaron Hernandez, who scored 123 points. But that season Gronkowski had 232 Fantasy points compared to 187 for Graham. Gronkowski was 121 Fantasy points better than No. 10 tight end Dustin Keller, and he would have been the No. 2 wide receiver that season behind Johnson (255 points).

I'm excited for Gronkowski this season, and he's expected to be ready for Week 1. If he plays 16 games, he'll definitely challenge Graham for the No. 1 spot, and his value in Round 3 of a 12-team league trumps Graham in Round 1.

The only other contender for the No. 1 spot coming into the season will be Julius Thomas, who was No. 3 last year and gets a boost with Eric Decker gone. But tight end is deep this season, as Davis, Jason Witten, Jordan Cameron, Dennis Pitta, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph and Zach Ertz have plenty of upside depending on where you draft them.

We could also see some young guys like Ladarius Green, Eric Ebron, Dwayne Allen and Travis Kelce emerge. And don't discount veterans like Heath Miller, Bennett, Antonio Gates, Charles Clay and Delanie Walker.

It will be an interesting season at tight end to see if Graham and Gronkowski, assuming he's healthy, run away from the field. Or to see if the pack catches up to the top of the pyramid and makes this a balanced position.

Based on what we've seen in recent years, you want to lock up an elite tight end early because of their dominance. But don't fret if you miss out on Graham, Gronkowski or Thomas because the position is deep. We just hope it's not too top heavy.

We'll give you some tight ends to target based on their Average Draft Position on CBSSports.com. Some of my favorite value picks this year include Pitta, Reed, Rudolph and Ertz, and these are the tight ends I've been targeting if I miss on the top three.

Jimmy Graham, Saints

Average Draft Position: No. 11 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 1
Other players to consider at that spot: Aaron Rodgers, Demaryius Thomas, DeMarco Murray
I wouldn't pass on Graham if you have the chance to draft him toward the end of Round 1. If you're in that spot, Gronkowski won't make it back to you in Round 3 and might be a little risky in early Round 2, so if you're targeting one of those two tight ends then Graham is your guy. And you'll be happy he's on your team. Graham has been No. 1 or 2 in targets at his position each of the past three years, and we don't expect him to slow down this season even after his big contract extension.

Julius Thomas, Broncos

Average Draft Position: No. 31 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 3
Other players to consider at that spot: Alshon Jeffery, Andre Ellington, Randall Cobb
Thomas was No. 3 in Fantasy points last season behind Graham and Davis, and he thrived playing with Peyton Manning in his breakout campaign. He missed two games because of a knee injury last year and finished with 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he played in the other two outings at his averages, he would have finished with 75 catches, 901 yards and 14 touchdowns and would have been better than Davis. We could see a boost for Thomas with Decker gone, so hopefully he continues to improve. He's worth drafting early in Round 3 in all formats.

Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

Average Draft Position: No. 33 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 2
Other players to consider at that spot: Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Bush, Tom Brady
Gronkowski has a lot to prove to Fantasy owners after playing in just 18 games the past two years. It's a gamble you have to take knowing his history, but when he plays, he's been awesome. He had 39 catches for 592 yards and four touchdowns last year in seven games, and if you project that over 16 games he would have finished with 89 catches for 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns, which would have put him No. 2 behind Graham. And that's what you're counting on, if not more, if Gronkowski is healthy all season. I love drafting him toward the end of Round 2 or beginning of Round 3.

Vernon Davis, 49ers

Average Draft Position: No. 50 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 7
Other players to consider at that spot: Roddy White, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick
Davis has proven to be touchdown dependent when it comes to his Fantasy value, and I won't draft him toward the end of Round 4 or beginning of Round 5. He was great last season when he had 52 catches for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns, but in the three seasons prior to 2013 he averaged six touchdowns a year. If that happens again with his similar production from last season, he would finish as the No. 7 tight end in standard leagues. So you can see Davis will still be good. He just might not be great, especially with a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Steve Johnson.

Jason Witten, Cowboys

Average Draft Position: No. 59 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 6
Other players to consider at that spot: Chris Johnson, Michael Floyd, Percy Harvin
Witten is dependable, reliable and you always know where he'll be, which has typically been in the Top 12. This is Witten's 12th year in the NFL, and he's been a Top 12 Fantasy tight end for the past 10 seasons, including a Top 6 option each of the past four years. The stats don't blow you away -- he had 73 catches, 851 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013 -- but his consistency is hard to overlook. And Witten could benefit this season with an improved offensive line, which should allow for less blocking and more route-running. I like Witten as the No. 5 tight end behind Graham, Gronkowski, Thomas and Pitta.

Jordan Cameron, Browns

Average Draft Position: No. 69 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 10
Other players to consider at that spot: Tony Romo, Golden Tate, T.Y. Hilton
I'm curious how Cameron will do this season because while he will be the focal point of the passing game, teams will know that and show him extra attention. He'll also have a terrible quarterback situation with Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, and he was inconsistent last year after a hot start. He finished the season with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, but he had just seven or more Fantasy points seven times. He had just three games with more than six Fantasy points in his final 11 outings. I don't mind Cameron as a starter, but I won't draft him in Round 6.

Dennis Pitta, Ravens

Average Draft Position: No. 78 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 6
Other players to consider at that spot: Jeremy Maclin, Jay Cutler, Marques Colston
Pitta has Top 5 potential this season now that he's over his hip injury and the addition of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. During his time as the head coach in Houston, no one targeted tight ends more than Kubiak going back to 2008. And the Ravens and quarterback Joe Flacco missed Pitta last year as their red-zone production and third-down conversions declined. Pitta had a big year in 2012 when he had 61 catches, 669 yards and seven touchdowns to finish No. 7 in Fantasy points among tight ends, but he should be better this year.

Greg Olsen, Panthers

Average Draft Position: No. 87 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 10
Other players to consider at that spot: Mike Wallace, Robert Griffin III, Maurice Jones-Drew
Olsen appears to be a tight end you settle for instead of target, and I'd rather aim for upside with guys like Reed, Rudolph and Ertz. I'd be OK starting Olsen, but he's not going to excite you. Now, to be fair, Olsen has been a Top 8 tight end each of the past two seasons. And the Panthers should rely on him heavily this season with a revamped receiving corps. But instead of reaching for Olsen in Round 8, let him fall to you in Round 10 or later, especially if Reed, Rudolph and Ertz are still on the board.

Jordan Reed, Redskins

Average Draft Position: No. 88 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 9
Other players to consider at that spot: Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, Fred Jackson
The Redskins look out of sorts in the preseason, and Reed is coming off a concussion-filled rookie year in 2013. There's cause for concern, and it's understandable if you want to look elsewhere for your starting tight end. But just keep in mind that Reed looked legit when healthy last season when he had 45 catches for 499 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. If you project his stats over 16 games, he would have finished as the No. 7 tight end, and we're expecting a better performance as a sophomore. He's a breakout candidate on the rise.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings

Average Draft Position: No. 92 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 9
Other players to consider at that spot: Lamar Miller, Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks
Rudolph should benefit from the addition of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has worked with and helped develop some elite tight ends like Jay Novacek, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis and Cameron. We expect Rudolph to be next in line. He was a Top 10 Fantasy tight end in 2012 before being limited to eight games last year due to a broken foot, but this should be the best season of his career. He could easily emerge as a Top 5 tight end this year if he plays as expected in Turner's offense.

Zach Ertz, Eagles

Average Draft Position: No. 97 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 9
Other players to consider at that spot: Philip Rivers, Eric Decker, Reggie Wayne
The one roadblock for Ertz could be the presence of Brent Celek, who remains the better blocker and thus keeps him on the field. Not that Ertz and Celek are the same player, but Celek will steal a few red-zone opportunities. Ertz could help the Eagles replace the departed DeSean Jackson, and he played well as a rookie last season despite limited chances. He closed the year with 25 catches for 290 yards and five touchdowns in his final nine games, including the playoffs. If you project that over 16 games he would have been the No. 9 tight end in standard leagues, and we think he has more upside than that.

Martellus Bennett, Bears

Average Draft Position: No. 119 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 13
Other players to consider at that spot: Carlos Hyde, Carson Palmer, Anquan Boldin
Once you get to No. 12 on the tight end list it's anyone's guess who will emerge as the best option. Miller is my favorite, but Bennett, Gates, Green, Clay and likely three or four more will be in the mix. Bennett has been a serviceable tight end since getting his first starting chance with the Giants in 2012. He was No. 10 last year in his first season with the Bears, and he should continue to deliver solid production. He's not going to dominate on a weekly basis, but his overall stats at the end of the season won't hurt your Fantasy team.

Heath Miller, Steelers

Average Draft Position: No. 125 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 11
Other players to consider at that spot: Chiefs DST, Matt Prater, Phil Dawson
I usually have a quarterback and tight end I put in the category of break glass in case of emergency on Draft Day. That means once the guys I target are gone then I have a fall-back option I need to draft relatively soon with my next pick or two. The quarterback is Jay Cutler and the tight end is Miller. He was a standout option in 2012 with 71 catches for 816 yards and eight touchdowns, and he was the No. 4 tight end behind Graham, Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez. The Steelers have to replace a lot of production from Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery (113 catches, 1,346 and 16 touchdowns combined), and Miller will play a vital role, especially in the red zone. He has Top 10 ability now that he's two years removed from a torn ACL.

Antonio Gates, Chargers

Average Draft Position: No. 127 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 13
Other players to consider at that spot: Hakeem Nicks, Tavon Austin, Justin Hunter
The next two tight ends are tied together, which limits their upside. And Fantasy owners will have to decide between Gates and Green because this isn't a handcuff situation. Gates will likely have the better season, but Green has the higher ceiling. Gates, despite his struggles in 2013, still managed 77 catches for 872 yards and four touchdowns. Only three tight ends had more catches in Graham, Gonzalez and Cameron, and he was third in yards. The four touchdowns were troubling, but he did score at least seven a year from 2004-12. If he gets back to that level with the catches and yards remaining the same, he could be a steal on Draft Day.

Ladarius Green, Chargers

Average Draft Position: No. 131 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 14
Other players to consider at that spot: Khiry Robinson, Josh Gordon, Darren McFadden
I'm excited for Green's potential, but I hope Fantasy owners don't reach for him. Again, as long as Gates is in the picture, his upside is limited. We got a glimpse of what Green could do last year when he had at least eight Fantasy points in four of his final seven games. In the other three games, he went without a catch. He's not a bad tight end to pair with another starter, especially someone like Olsen, Miller or Bennett. He could end up as a star, or he could be someone you cut if he gets off to a slow start.

Eric Ebron, Lions

Average Draft Position: No. 136 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 15
Other players to consider at that spot: Bengals DST, Christine Michael, Alex Smith
Ebron had a lot of hype after the Lions made a hefty investment in him in the first round of the NFL Draft, but he's struggled in the preseason, lowering his upside. He'll still have his moments, especially playing in an explosive offense for a coordinator in Joe Lombardi, who comes from the Saints. But before we can make any comparisons with Ebron and Graham, we need to see what the rookie can do. He's someone to monitor in re-draft leagues, but he's not worth drafting in the majority of formats.

Charles Clay, Dolphins

Average Draft Position: No. 143 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 14
Other players to consider at that spot: Chris Ivory, Bears DST, Buccaneers DST
Clay had a breakout season in 2013 when he took over for an injured Dustin Keller (knee) and had 69 catches for 759 yards and six touchdowns, and he also added a rushing score. There are some who consider Clay a Top 12 tight end coming into this season, but we're expecting a regression with the Dolphins getting Brandon Gibson back from last year's knee injury and the addition of rookie Jarvis Landry. Knowshon Moreno will also steal some targets, and the Dolphins will move Mike Wallace around, which should also impact Clay. We expect Clay to be solid, but he's not going to replicate his performance as the No. 7 tight end like he did last year.

Delanie Walker, Titans

Average Draft Position: No. 149 overall
Where I would draft him: Round 14
Other players to consider at that spot: Doug Baldwin, Harry Douglas, Adam Vinatieri
Walker turned into a nice Fantasy option last year in his first season with the Titans. He had 60 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns and finished with at least seven Fantasy points in six games. Walker isn't going to help you win a lot of Fantasy leagues, but he's a serviceable backup or bye-week replacement. He could easily replicate last year's production, and he makes for an interesting Fantasy option in 14- or 16-team leagues.

Best of the rest ...

Dwayne Allen, Colts: Allen could be a red-zone beast for Andrew Luck.
Travis Kelce, Chiefs: Kansas City is dying for a weapon of his caliber.
Tyler Eifert, Bengals: He could emerge as the No. 2 target for the Bengals.

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