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Trivia time…ready? What do Full House’s Stephanie Tanner, Home Improvement’s Mark Taylor, Saved by the Bell’s Torrey Scott, The Cosby Show’s Sondra Huxtable, and NFL tight ends all have in common? They all have, or had, prominent roles, but are rarely ever talked about because of bigger stars around them. Stephanie Tanner always had that middle child syndrome working for her, in the shadows of older sister DJ and never quite reaching the cuteness level the Olsen twins achieved week after week. Younger brother Mark Taylor couldn’t hold a candle to the popularity of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, more widely known across the teenage girl fan club blogs as “JTT,” on Home Improvement. SBTB’s Torrey Scott came in as the awkward senior year replacement for Kelly and Jesse, failing to deliver as Zack’s new love interest. And eldest daughter Sondra’s prominence through much of the Cosby Show was very inconsistent and largely forgettable, compared to the other Cosby kids.
Similarly, lurking in the shadows of star backs and receivers across the league are the big men that spend the majority of their time in the trenches, creating running gaps and acting as decoys for the long ball. But many of these underappreciated talents are just as worthy of “star status” as other guys in skill positions.
Turning to the fantasy football side of things, choosing the right tight end at the right time in the draft can mean the difference between scoring Charger stud Antonio Gates (a.k.a. feeling like you’re out on a dream date with the Olsen twins… they’re legal now, it’s all good!), or getting stuck with Carolina’s no-name tight end Dante Rosario (a.k.a. having to stomach Stephanie Tanner’s failed attempts at being cute with her annoying, “how rude” quips every five seconds… it wasn’t funny the first time, it’s not funny the seventy-third time!).
So in this week’s edition of “The Starting 11,” we turn our focus to the art of drafting tight ends. So often we’re so focused at building RB and WR depth, that we draft a guy who may see one or two weeks in our fantasy team’s starting lineup, yet we still haven’t thought about filling that TE spot, a spot that you have to fill, whether you like it or not. Top tight ends can earn you just as many points as your receivers do, so why turn a blind eye to a position that can make such a difference?
Now if you think this year’s top running backs group is thin, the number of top tight ends is downright anorexic. Beyond the top four ends on this list, the rest of the bunch are unproven gambles at best. That makes choosing when you draft your tight end that much more important. You don’t want to be six spots away from your next selection when a run of top tight ends come off the board, leaving you with one of those “WTF?” looks on your face come time for your turn. Get your RB and WR studs early, but don’t sit on your hands too long. By the time your draft’s fifth round is near, your buddies will be looking to start the tight end parade, and you need to be at or near the front, leading the band.
So without further ado, I bring you my top eleven fantasy tight ends. (Note: the “tight ends” of the Olsen twins would have made this list, but I’m told that’s not the kind of “fantasy” this site is all about. For those sites, you dirty birds will need to Google yourselves something else to feast your eyes on. After you do that though, come back here and keep reading.)
Kicking off my top tier of tight ends is the big man from San Diego. While Antonio Gates was bitten by the injury bug through much of 2008, with hip, ankle, and toe injuries costing him time on the field, Gates still managed to remain one of the best red zone tight ends in the NFL, grabbing 8 TDs. His overall production may be starting to tail off, coming off a 60-reception, 704-yard season a year ago, but a healthy Gates will be back in ’09, ready to light up the AFC West, arguably the weakest division in the conference.
Two seasons ago, Dallas’s Jason Witten put up monster numbers, nearly eclipsing the 100-reception mark amassing over 1,100 yards through the air. Last season, Witten’s fantasy production took a bit of a dip, mainly due to a laundry list of injuries, the whining of diva Terrell Owens, and a thumb injury that sidelined his best buddy QB Tony Romo for a chunk of the year. But good-bye T.O., hello to a healthy Romo, and welcome back to fantasy stud status, Mr. Witten. With a weak receiving corps in big D, look for Witten’s production to skyrocket.
As a Chief last year, the future hall of famer topped all tight ends in fantasy point production, totaling a position-leading 10 TDs, along with 1,058 yards receiving on 96 catches. This year, after talking his way off of a rebuilding Kansas City team, Gonzalez takes his talents to Atlanta, to join sophomore QB Matt Ryan and fantasy stud rusher Michael Turner. Atlanta’s offensive game plan last year rarely used the TE spot, as Falcon tight ends racked up only 30 receptions all season long, a league-wide low.
While I don’t anticipate Gonzalez seeing only thirty balls coming his way, I do see Atlanta’s offense reigning in TG’s fantasy numbers by a small margin. With Turner and budding star Roddy White already established as offensive threats, look for Gonzalez to contribute to the Falcons’ offense, but no longer as the primary option, as he was through much of his career in KC. Atlanta’s tough schedule may also cause Gonzalez owners headaches in fantasy land. He’s still worthy of a sixth or seventh round pick, but double-digit TDs are unlikely.
With Marvin Harrison now out of the picture in Indy, the Colts’ Dallas Clark may actually build on the career-high marks in targets, receptions, and receiving yards he posted a year ago. While his end zone production dipped a bit last season, 17 TDs in his past two years can’t be ignored. Peyton Manning seems to look in Clark’s direction in most big spots down the stretch, and that should continue heading into what could be a breakout year for the always reliable Clark. Once Gates, Witten, and Gonzo are off the board, grab Clark pronto. The drop-off in talent and reliability from here is a biggie.
Third year tight end Greg Olsen enters this season with that dangerous “P” word following him…”potential.” This guy’s got potential out the ying-yang, and with new QB Jay Cutler at the helm, this is the year where Olsen should shine. After a year where he led the team in touchdown receptions, scoring just five times, Olsen should act as the safety valve on several passing plays for Cutler. The presence of Chicago’s other tight end Desmond Clark may scare you off, but toward the end of last season, it was Olsen who was featured in pass patterns downfield, while Clark saw action more in blocking schemes. If you missed out on snatching up one of the “Fab Four,” roll the dice with the Bears’ Olsen, even if he’s not one of the Olsen twins.
Yards a plenty the past two seasons for Houston’s Owen Daniels, putting up a career high 862 yards through the air last year, but the knock on Big O is his end zone production, having only found the end zone five times since ’07. With a healthy Matt Schaub at quarterback, the downfield options should be plentiful, with double coverage on all-pro WR Andre Johnson should leave Daniels a nice window of opportunity. The fact that Daniels comes into this season with restricted free agency looking him in the face might make you draft him a little earlier as well, as he will be playing with the hopes of long-term deals heading his way by season’s end. A lot of upside with Daniels, but don’t “OD” on O.D., save a pick for him until the eighth round, at the earliest.
Cooley drafters turned into Cooley haters across the nation last season, as his one lone touchdown catch led many fantasy owners to weeks of frustration with the ‘Skins tight end. 849 receiving yards isn’t anything to sneeze at, but to be worthy of a middle round selection, owners need touchdowns. I’m a bit down on all things ‘Skins this year. I have no confidence in Jason Campbell, they have no top talent at receiver, Clinton Portis is aging, and their tough schedule and hard-nosed division lead me to believe Washington fans are in for a disappointing 2009. You can draft Chris Cooley, but he’s a risk. Prepare for him to make you look like a brainiac or a maniac.
Another offseason, another knee surgery for the Bucs’ new tight end, Kellen Winslow. After years in Cleveland, Tampa Bay sent multiple picks to the Browns in exchange for the oft-injured Winslow. On top of that, they then signed him to the richest contract extension for a tight end in NFL history. Needless to say, expectations are high for K-Dub. With new offensive coordinator and former BC head honcho Jeff Jagodzinski calling plays for the Bucs, the new West Coast scheme ought to play right into Winslow’s strengths. They better, at the price they’re paying him. If he can remain healthy, look for Winslow to be a starting TE in every fantasy league out there. He’s worthy of a pick in round 8 or 9, but no sooner.
If you haven’t filled your tight end spot by this time, let the gambling begin. A gamble worth making might be on Seattle’s second year man, John Carlson, who could turn into QB Matt Hasselbeck’s best friend this coming year. Seattle struggled mightily last season, but Carlson shined in his rookie campaign as one of the Seahawks few bright spots, leading the team in receptions (55), receiving yards (627), and receiving TDs (5). With the addition of wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, look for Carlson’s production to possibly take a bit of a dip in his sophomore season, but if you’re at a point where you need to fill your roster with a warm body at tight end, Carlson’s worth a shot in the later rounds.
Right behind Carlson in last year’s tight end rookie ranks was New York’s Dustin Keller, who put up respectable numbers in his NFL debut season. With major questions at quarterback however, Keller’s relevance in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense could be in question. With a solidified QB under center though, the second year man could build on his 48-catch, 535-yard totals from a year ago. Late round sleeper pick, yes. Anything before that, pipe dream.
Boss stepped in and did a respectable job last season for the Giants after the departure of veteran Jeremy Shockey to New Orleans. As the season went along, Boss’s production grew, putting a majority of his 384 receiving yards in his final eight games, becoming a quality target for quarterback Eli Manning. The third year man will have to look over his shoulder however, as the Giants chose to draft Travis Beckum to bolster the tight end talent. Boss is one of the best blockers in the league among tight ends, which should mean he should still earn more playing time than the newcomer, but in passing situations, we may see the rookie Beckum gain playing time as the season goes along. Building on his numbers from a year ago shouldn’t be that difficult for Boss though, so to fill your void, here’s a Boss you don’t have to hate.