“Fantasy Tight Ends.” It’s not a phrase any of us feel comfortable saying, even if we’re not talking about Brad Pitt or Thomas Mapother IV. I know that, but let’s get our chuckles, giggles, snickers and chortles out of the way up front and get to work. After kicker, tight end is the least sexy of the position players in fantasy football. It’s a position more on the nuts and bolts side of the game, but important nonetheless.
For the most part, tight ends aren’t fun to draft, own or start each week. They’re an annoyance. Sure, there are a select few who might be drafted in the first six or seven rounds. However, most of these guys are simply powerful, muscular men whose job a good portion of the game is to joust with powerful, muscular linebackers that want nothing more than to wrestle them to the ground and force them into submission. Men like Mr. Cooley, featured in the photo. There’s nothing sexy about that. Nothing at all. Let’s get to it.
1. Antonio Gates, San Diego Thunder Bolts: Peyton Manning, Ladianian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates: that is the Holy Trinity of fantasy football greatness. Each is so far ahead of the other players at his position that it’s nigh impossible to make an argument for anybody else. Gates is the only TE I would consider taking in the first five rounds of a draft, and he’s a solid selection anywhere after the early picks of the third round. In drafting you don’t consider how many total points a player will produce, you consider how many more he will produce than the average opponent’s player at that position. Gates is an order of magnitude ahead of anybody else on this list.
2. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: A curveball, I know. I’m likely the only guy who has Davis this high, but after Gates there’s no TE out there who’s prospects excite me like Davis’. This is a good time to point out that all of these rankings are based on projected output and not necessarily listed in suggested draft order. Strategically, you can wait on Davis until after the bigger names like Heap, Shockey and Gonzales are off the board. He’s going to be in the 6-10 range among TEs, but Davis has more sheer talent than anybody at the position: he’s a 6’3″, 253 lbs man who runs a 4.3 40 with excellent hands and open-field moves. Alex Smith is developing nicely; Frank Gore, Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie are solid but there’s a dearth of big playmakers and Smith is going to need a dump off option often. Davis has the skills to turn any short pass into a big play.
3. Todd Heap, Baltimore Ravens: Heap is a very solid pick anywhere after the sixth round. He’s had back-to-back seasons of 70+ receptions, 750+ yards and 6+ TDs, which is a rarity at the position. Steve McNair didn’t even know the playbook last season, but they appeared to have a decent connection and the addition of Willis McGahee is an upgrade for this offense.
4. Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City Chiefs: It wasn’t that long ago that Gonzo was the Antonio Gates of fantasy football. No longer. Still, his body of work and skills make Tony an attractive option that you can simply plug in every week and forget about. He’s only two seasons removed from a 102 catch, 1,258 yard, 7 TD campaign. If Brodie Croyle is named the starter Gonzo’s value takes a hit. Once you get a few more spots down this board you’ll be in the dregs of the TE kingdom and have to use an add/drop roster spot many weeks to play matchups, so there’s value in getting a guy this capable who you can count on in the seventh round.
5. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys: Obviously, I’m trying to mix it up a bit with these rankings. Witten will be the 5th TE taken in very few drafts, but I love his skills and situation. Terrell Owens is always going to command a ton of attention outside, and Romo is another developing QB who will need to dump it off with regularity. Witten is a strong, athletic kid that can get open and break tackles, and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is supposed to be one of the sharper young coaches in football. 2006 was a disappointment, but I’m projecting something equal to or greater than 2004’s season numbers as a real possibility (87 receptions, 980 yards and 6 TDs). He’s a great upside pick anywhere after the 8th round as one of the few tight ends who’s capable of putting up WR2-type numbers.
6. Chris Cooley, Washington American Indians: A trend is developing here: young and inexperienced QBs often need safety blankets. They don’t read defenses well, they lack pocket presence and poise and they often panic. Jason Campbell is an especially raw starter, and outside of Santana Moss the big signings in the receiver corps have been busts (Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd). Expect Ladell Betts to vulture a lot of touches in the short passing game this year though.
7. Kellen Winslow, Cleveland Turds: These rankings are obviously very early in the fantasy season, and this ranking is dependent on early indications that the surgically repaired knee will be fine week 1. Keep an eye on the news and notes; Winslow has the talent to be a top-three fantasy TE, but health (physical and mental) is a major concern right now. It’s probably irrelevant who ends up winning the QB battle, the Browns will ride Winslow if he’s on the field.
8. Jeremy Shockey, New York Giants: Jeremy Shockey is a jackass. I say that because it’s a serious concern for me personally on draft day. Do I want to tune in and root for him every week? Do I want to delight in his triumphs? If there’s good money on the line, absolutely. If not, absolutely not. Word is Shockey has showed up to camp at a hefty 265 pounds, heavier than in any previous season. It could help him spar with opposing LBs or it could put his weight-bearing joints at further risk of injury. Shockey is a skilled athlete, and if Eli Manning ever gets over his ‘Aw Shucks!’ defeatist attitude, Shockey will produce like a top-five TE.
9. Randy McMichael, St. Louis Rams: This is the guy I’m targeting if I miss Gates, Davis and Witten. Incidentally, those are my four value picks at the position. Everybody knows that this offense is going to produce in 2007, but the athletic McMichael still isn’t getting much love on draft day, usually falling out of the top ten tight ends selected. He’s never had a season with more than 5 TDs or 791 yards, but that’s going to change this year. McMichael showed flashes of brilliance, but he was undervalued and misused in Miami, often the victim of terrible quarterback play and poor game planning. In the St. Louis attack he’s no better than the 3rd option on offense, but there’s still enough production there for Randy to set new career highs in every category.
10. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers: Miller is a guy you throw out there most weeks knowing that it’s very likely you’ll get a TD or nothing. Over his first two years in the NFL 15% of his total catches have been in the endzone, so you know Roethlisberger feels comfortable with him in the red zone. At just 24-year-old and developing a nice chemistry with the QB, it’s very likely we’ll see new career highs for Miller as well, something like: 50 receptions, 700 yards and 7 TDs.
Best O’ the Rest:
Owen Daniels, Dallas Clark, Tony Scheffler, Benjamin Watson, Daniel Graham . . .