Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fantasy Football Pre-Season Top 10: Tight Ends

It's the time of year where we gamble and bet that we are smarter than the men who are paid fortunes to choose players.

That time of year where our obsession for gladiatorial combat is embossed by an unholy obsession with the numbers that surround that sport because frankly,  that's the closest they'll let us to the field.

It's time for Fantasy Football, and here if the first of my Top 10 lists.

The Tight End is a position that has seen disparate fame and very different forms over the years.  There have been great receiving Tight Ends like Kellen Winslow Sr, and Tony Gonzalez.  There have been second string Offensive Tackles who were tacked on the end of the line to create mismatches, and there have been guys like Mark Bavaro who could do both.

Let's be honest though, we don't care how well they can block when we are thinking FFL.  As long as they can block well enough to be on the field, if their team doesn't split them out, that's all we need.  As has been well documented, the blocking role of the Tight End has become an increasingly smaller portion of the position's role.  More Tight Ends being split out into the slot, like Dallas Clark, or used as an H-Back, like Aaron Hernandez.  They are looking for the freak athlete and they move him around the formation till they find a mismatch.  It really is one of the more interesting trends in football today, but it makes it more difficult than ever to ID the best of the bunch.

Here is my attempt.

"Gronk" is a great example of the freak athlete at Tight End.  The Patriots were lucky enough to get him after an injury in college hurt his draft stock, and they are milking this young talent for all it is worth.  He already owns the single season records for Receiving Touchdowns, Total Touchdowns, and Receiving yards.  He set all of those last year, so there is really no question who is the class of the Tight End crop.  The Patriots have improved their Wide Receiver corp in the off-season.  The question is whether that is going to limit his targets, or just free him up more as defenses have to play more "honest"

Graham was a great find by the Saints.  In college, he played as a enforcer for the Miami University basketball team, with a single season on the football team while taking graduate courses.  At 6'7" 256lbs, with the speed and agility of a forward, Graham is a unique talent to the gridiron.  He is nigh-uncoverable due to his height and ability to "post up".  Those facets, combined with his speed, make him a terror in a passing heavy offense like the Saints run, especially with the accurate Drew Brees distributing the ball.

Finley is one of the difference makers in the Packers devastating passing attack.  He is a polish receiver can block enough to play inline, while being one of the better outside receivers in a well-stocked stable as well.  His statistics could easily best most of the Wide Receivers in the league.  The only concern is how many games you are going to get out of him.

Witten is an example of the traditional Tight End.  He can do a bit of everything, and it a bit more a technician than a freak athlete at this point in his career.  However, do not take that to mean that he cannot overmatch most linebackers who try to cover him.  He is a master at using whichever advantage he has, and has become the most reliable receiver for the Cowboys.  He has had an incredibly consistent career, with at least 64 catches and 750 yards in every years since his rookie year.  This high ranking is dependent on the recent news about his spleen healing on it's own in time for the opening weekend.  If that is not the case, he will drop.

Davis is one of the H-Back style Tight Ends, and probably the best of the lot right now.  He has amazing speed for a Tight End, with a physicality which makes him very hard to deal with once the ball is in his hands.  He is not as tall as the other Tight Ends we have talked about, but a dynamic talent all the same.  He has also grown into a leadership role for the 49ers and can use his sub 4.4 speed to shred defensive game plans.  After all, who on your defense can you put in front of a 250 guy, with that kind speed.  Put a safety in front of him, and he will pancake you as the running back goes by.  Put a linebacker on him, and you better have him bracketed with that safety because there is not a linebacker in the league who can run with this guy down the seam.  The biggest limiting factor for him is the 49ers Run-Heavy attack.

Gresham is a bit, polished receiving threat.  The Bengals picture him as the counter jab to A.J. Greens threat of a haymaker.  He uses his body control, runs good routes, runs well enough to threaten all parts of the field, and has the size to line up inline to keep defenses honest.  The word is that his knee injury is not going to cost him any time.  If that is the truth, then he should absolutely be a starting fantasy tight end.

This is going to look like a leap, with Fleener being a rookie.  I have high expectations for him though.  Fleener was, as we all know by now, the main target for Andrew Luck at Stanford.  Everyone knew where the ball was going, and they couldn't do a thing about it.  Then they get drafted to the same team.  From a fantasy point of view, this is a perfect situation for the Rookie.  Luck will need a comfort zone if he is going to have any success, and Fleener was, and will continue to be, that comfort zone.  Fleener has the potential to be as good an all-around Tight End as the league has.  He is a physical blocker, coming out of a traditional Pro-Style attack who has the height and speed to dominate in the passing game as well.  I was actually tempted to put him higher, but he has to show us some actual work first.  My biggest concern is that Dwayne Allen was drafted to the same team, and make take some of his targets.

I remember thinking when I was watching the Tim Tebow led Florida Gators, that Tebow was not what made the team special.  What I saw as the biggest weapon was their triple option they liked to run with Hernandez and either Percy Harvin, or Jeff Demps flanking Tebow in a kind of shotgun full house backfield.  What made this so destructive was the multi-faceted abilities of all the players involved.  Hernandez is a prototypical H-Back style of Tight End, to the point where there were times that he was probably New England's best running back last year.  He, quite literally, can play any of the skill-positions outside of Quarterback, and do it at a difference-maker level.  The issues, purely from an FFL viewpoint, are these.  First, he is on the same team as the best Tight End in the league.  That he is still on the field so much, says a lot about him, but it still costs him touches.  Second, the Patriots change their attack a lot from game to game and spread the ball around, so his production will vary enough that it makes him a borderline starting Tight End.

Dallas Clark made is trying to revive a career that he built by exploiting linebackers and safeties.  The reports are that he is healthy again for the first time in 2 years, and the Bucs are looking for him to be the security blanket for Josh Freeman.  He has likely lost a step after 9 years in the league, but he knows what he is doing and should have no problem finding holes in defenses.  Worth a pick in deep leagues that require a tight end.

Lewis is a huge man playing Tight End, but he has a surprising agility in the passing game.  Football fans have been waitin for him to show the receiving skills that made him the Mackey Award Winner in 2005, and though he has shows flashes, he has not dominated.  No small part of that has been the lack of an elite signal caller in Jacksonville.  If Blaine Gabbert is truly progressing like has been reported, then Lewis may very well be in line for more targets.  After all, the Receiving corp in Jacksonville is still under construction, and they want to throw the ball.  A 6.7" target with great hands is always welcome when you want to throw the ball.  One that never has to leave the field due to his great blocking ability is even better.
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