It seems like only yesterday that the tight end position was one of the deepest in fantasy football. Actually, it was more like two years ago, and things couldn't be more different today with the position getting razor-thin after the top tier. There's uncertainty just about everywhere up and down the rankings, and it has even prompted some to go for broke in auction drafts on premier tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Jason Witten. In snake drafts, arguments could be made to justify a second- or third-round pick for either.
The truth is, several draft strategies can be implemented with the thinness at tight end in mind, but before those could even be explored, it's worth knowing how the options stack up in the first place.
1. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: Last year's top-scoring tight end in both standard and PPR leagues is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of his position going into 2013. Because of this, his average draft position will hover in the early-to-mid second round (has a 2.3 ADP, per Yahoo! Fantasy), but don't be shocked to see him go in the first in some leagues. He will give you a consistent output from week to week, and that's all you can ask for from the tight end position this year.
2. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys: Speaking of consistency, Witten hasn't missed a game since 2003 despite beginning the 2012 season with a lacerated spleen. It clearly hampered his play in the season's first few weeks, but Witten emerged as his usual dominant self in Week 4 with a 13-catch performance. Witten led all tight ends with 150 targets and should continue to see a high volume of passes come his way.
3. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons: He's slowed down a bit according to game tape, but you would never know it from his stat sheet. Gonzalez continues to produce at a high level, and just when you thought he would crash to earth, he pulled a 93-catch season out of his bag of tricks and proved the doubters wrong. His incredible ability to catch the ball in traffic will allow him to continue to be a goal-line threat on an offense that loves to pass.
4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: Which Vernon Davis will you be getting this season? Will you get Regular Season Vernon, who recorded just one touchdown after Week 3 and just six catches in the last six weeks of the season? Or will you get Playoffs Vernon, who recorded nearly half of his entire season total in yards in three postseason games in 2012? The absence of Michael Crabtree and camp reports of Davis being extremely involved in the passing game indicates more than the 61 targets he drew last year are on the horizon, but to what extent? Davis is a risky pick early in drafts, but his high upside makes him well worth a gamble in the middle rounds.
5. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: Assuming that Gronk will be Gronk upon his return, which is likely to be Week 7 or later, he should still place high among the tight end ranks even in an abbreviated season. Tom Brady's arsenal hasn't been this depleted since 2006 with Reche Caldwell and Ben Watson as his leading receivers, and he'll need to lean heavily on Gronkowski assuming he's healthy enough to be leaned upon. That's not to say there isn't obvious risk in drafting a guy coming off of back surgery, but having a potential boom player down the stretch of the season is worth drafting as long as your team has the necessary depth to do so.
6. Owen Daniels, Houston Texans: After injury-marred seasons in 2009 and 2010, Daniels has recovered quite nicely and returned to fantasy relevance. He quietly posted a career-high six touchdowns in 2012. As long as he's been on the field, he's been consistent, and that could be much harder to come by this season than in recent years. He's a good pick for owners who prefer safety over upside.
7. Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers: Under offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, Olsen had a career year, catching 69 balls for 843 yards in an explosive, up-tempo offense. Chudzinski is out of town now, but continuity remains with former quarterbacks coach Mike Shula now taking the reins of the offense. As a result, the Panthers ought to keep Olsen involved in a corps of pass-catchers that quickly gets thin after Steve Smith.
8. Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings: Rudolph was the talk of the offseason in 2012, and although he didn't have the stud season some anticipated, he did not disappoint. His 53 catches for 493 yards that he posted aren't flashy numbers, but his nine touchdowns kept him fantasy relevant. Be cautious of a regression in that regard, but Rudolph is talented enough to bolster his catches and yards statistics if Christian Ponder can consistently get him the ball. That's a big if, though.
9. Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears: After being buried on Dallas' depth chart behind Jason Witten, Bennett had always been a player whose potential was touted rather than his production. With the Giants last season, we finally saw extended production from him, as he logged career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Marc Trestman's offense is up-tempo and pass-heavy, and the Bears aren't paying him $20.4 million to solely block. Don't be surprised if he sets new career highs in 2013.
10. Brandon Myers, New York Giants: Since 2009, the starting New York Giants tight end has recorded at least 531 yards receiving and four touchdowns. That's enough to make them relevant from a week-to-week basis. When you factor in that Brandon Myers is a much more polished tight end than the likes of Kevin Boss, Jake Ballard and Martellus Bennett, he could be in line for much bigger numbers than his predecessors.
11. Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams: Now out of the clutches of a vanilla offense in Tennessee, Jared Cook signed a five-year, $35 million deal to help surround Rams quarterback Sam Bradford with talent. Talent is something that Cook definitely has, but he has still yet to put everything together for a breakout year. That could certainly happen upon reading camp reports of him already forming a great rapport with Bradford. If you see the top tight ends fly off the board, you could do much worse than to take a chance on Cook.
12. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers: With 21 drops over the past two seasons, you would think Finley would be falling out of favor in Green Bay's passing game. But the fact is, he's still absorbing as many targets as he ever had in that offense (88 a season ago, 93 in 2011), and if that trend continues, there shouldn't be any reason to think he wouldn't be in line for another batch of approximately 60 catches and 650 yards. The concern here is touchdowns, which dropped from eight in 2011 to just two in 2012. He has the big frame to catch the ball in a crowded end zone, but it's apparent that Aaron Rodgers has started to look elsewhere for a trustworthy target when the Packers are knocking on the door.
13. Fred Davis, Washington Redskins: After tearing his Achilles tendon midway through 2012, Davis looks to be all systems go this season. And in a Washington offense that freezes linebackers and allows tight ends open along the seams, Davis could explode. Before the game he was injured, Davis was on pace for a remarkable 80 catches and 832 yards, which would have easily put him in the top five at his position in PPR leagues. There are dangers in generalizing from small sample sizes, but the fact that the offense got production out of Logan Paulsen indicates that the aforementioned projection for a talented pass catcher like Davis might not be too far off. His health bears close monitoring this season.
14. Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns: Remember Greg Olsen's breakout season? The man calling those plays, Rob Chudzinski, is now Cameron's head coach. Cameron never saw enough targets to be fantasy relevant in 2012, but he has the tools to put together a solid fantasy season should targets come his way. With a head coach and offensive coordinator who have long histories of involving their tight ends, Cameron will see an uptick in targets.
15. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: Wear and tear have already taken a toll on a Hall of Fame-caliber player in Gates, and his fantasy relevance is hanging on by a thread. It's amazing that he even ranked in the top 12 at his position in standard-scoring leagues a season ago, and if it wasn't for his team-high seven receiving touchdowns, he would not have been anywhere near those ranks. At age 33, and with a fantasy point total that was far-too touchdown dependent, better options at the position can be explored.
16. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions: Behind Calvin Johnson, Pettigrew was the Lions' leading receiver a season ago, but his fantasy relevance was hampered by a lack of touchdowns. You could have said the same for every pass-catcher on the team last season, but amid an offense that threw the ball for a higher percentage than any other team the past three seasons, there's still room for Pettigrew to see better production.
17. Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
18. Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacob Tamme, Denver Broncos
20. Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals
21. Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins
22. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
23. Scott Chandler, Buffalo Bills
24. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: Lots of upside for this moveable chess piece. A good target in the late rounds.
25. Zach Miller, Seattle Seahawks
26. Ed Dickson, Baltimore Ravens
27. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers: The fourth-highest(!) scoring tight end in 2012 gets buried in the ranks due to recovery from an ACL and other ligament tears.
29. Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles: Eagles are hurting for pass-catchers, but he's got talented rookie Zach Ertz breathing down his neck for targets.
30. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
31. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts
32. Anthony Fasano, Kansas City Chiefs
33. Zach Sudfeld, New England Patriots: This rookie certainly has the size of an NFL tight end at 6'7, but how much will Tom Brady trust him?
34. Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets
35. Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
36. Luke Stocker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
37. Matt Spaeth, Pittsburgh Steelers: Will be looked upon to pick up slack for the injured Miller, assuming his own injury allows him to see the field before the man above him on the chart. Definitely more of a blocker than receiver, though.
38. Richard Gordon, Oakland Raiders
39. Tony Scheffler, Detroit Lions
40. Joel Dreessen, Denver Broncos
41. Lance Kendrick, St. Louis Rams
42. Gavin Escobar, Dallas Cowboys
43. Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers: Very athletic mold, could become a favorite target if/when Antonio Gates needs to miss significant time.
44. Kellen Winslow, New York Jets
45. Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers
46. James Casey, Philadelphia Eagles
47. John Carlson, Minnesota Vikings
48. David Ausberry, Oakland Raiders
49. Daniel Fells, New England Patriots
50. Dallas Clark, Baltimore Ravens: Coming off of a forgettable season in Tampa Bay, but could be looked upon to move the chains. Somebody's going to have to catch the ball in Baltimore.