by Russ Bliss (7/1/11)

 

Injuries to the Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, and Jermichael Finley derailed what was supposed to be a stellar 2010 crop of fantasy TE's. Assuming each comes back healthy in 2011, and we'll again have a TE crop that has some solid star power and is very deep. In looking over this list, it pains me to think I am omitting veteran guys like Tony Gonzalez and Chris Cooley, not to mention two up and coming talents in Brandon Pettigrew and Jermaine Gresham, but that just goes to show how deep the well at the TE position is this season. As we near the end of the lockout and our fantasy football software can start analyzing exactly where each free agent ends up, and what free agents end up impacting the projections for all the TE's, it will be very interesting to see the rankings at this position, and how the Tiers fall together in our fantasy football draft analyzer. This could well be a year where, because of the depth at the position, you can wait until the mid-late rounds to grab your TE if you don't get one of the top 5. In my own thinking, if I were to create a fantasy football cheat sheet for these top 10 TE's, I would say Gates is alone in Tier 1, Witten, Clark, Finley, and Davis are all in Tier 2. Graham and Daniels would be in Tier 3, while Gronkowski, Miller, and Lewis would all be in Tier 4.


1) Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers. Gates was on pace for his best season ever in terms of yards and TD's before a foot injury ended his season after only 10 games. But in those 10 games, he caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 TD's. Some may be getting concerned after the injury last season and the fact that Gates will be entering his 9th NFL season in 2011, but until last season he had only missed 2 games since 2004. And since 2004 he's never had fewer than 700 receiving yards or 8 TD's in a season. That shows a history of elite consistency and easily why Gates is the number 1 ranked fantasy TE.  


2) Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys. 2010 was a great year for Witten. He led all TE's in receptions (94), yards (1,002), and his 9 TD's were 1 shy of being tied for most receiving TD's by all TE's. After having caught 90 passes or more, for 1,000 yards or more in 3 of the last 4 seasons, the only thing Witten has lacked in his stat line is a lot of TD's. He's been very inconsistent in TD production since 2004 catching 6 or more in 4 seasons while having 4 or fewer in 3 seasons. But when you look at his seasonal average since 2004 (83 receptions, 946 yards, and 5 TD's) and realize that more than half the time he has more receptions, yards, and TD's than this average, you start to see why I consider Witten to be one of the more underappreciated elite TE's. If not for a really weak (by Witten standards) 2006 season, his average stat line since 2004 would be 86-977-6. Witten is unlikely to be the second TE drafted in any leagues, but when he slides into round 5, you need to take advantage of it.  


3) Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts. Clark was well on his way to having another great season when a wrist injury ended it after only 6 games. In those games though Clark caught 37 passes for 347 yards, and 3 TD's. Prorated for an entire 16 games that would have been 99 catches for 925 yards and 8 TD's. Even though Clark's backup, Jacob Tamme performed very well filling Clark's role in the offense, Tamme isn't as fast, or as big a threat as a receiver as Clark and therefore Clark shouldn't have to worry about any decrease in production providing he is healthy. That's the problem though: we don't know for sure how well Clark's recovery from the injury will turn out until he starts catching passes again. But given all reports have been favorable, and that until the injury Clark was close to duplicating his tremendous 2009 season numbers, I expect Clark to be one of the top TE's again in 2011.


4) Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers. Many are going to like Finley more than me, but he has yet to prove he can stay healthy. There's no doubting that he has tremendous talent, as his 21 receptions, for 301 yards, and 1 TD in only 4 games last year showed (his official stat line says he started 5 games, but he was injured in the 1st quarter of game 5 and I don't count it), but if he can't stay on the field that talent doesn't deserve being ranked higher than the other 3 guys I listed in front of him. Everyone forgets that Finley also missed 3 complete games with a knee injury in 2009 and that along with his knee injury in 2010 causes concern. I do not doubt that if Finley stays healthy he could compete with Gates to be the top fantasy TE. He'll even be extra motivated to stay healthy in 2011 as it is also the final year of his original rookie contract. But until he proves he can, I can't say I feel better about drafting him over the other proven options ahead of him.


5) Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers. Davis stands an excellent chance of competing with Gates and Witten for the top TE spot in 2011. New head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to have his TE's be a big part of the passing game and Davis has proven over the last 2 seasons he can be an elite weapon when used correctly. His stats in 2010 (56 receptions, 914 yards, 7 TD's) weren't as good as his 2009 stats (78-965-13), but were still good enough for him to rank 10th in receptions, 2nd in yards, and 5th in TD's of all TE's. If the 49ers WR's (Michael Crabtree especially) start to produce and take some of the attention Davis commands from opponents away, Davis could be in line for a huge season. But the lack of a star caliber QB hurts him enough to prevent Davis from ranking higher on this list.  


6) Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints. Taking over as the starting TE in New Orleans with the departure of Jeremy Shockey, Graham is a huge target who seemed to really come at the end of the 2010 season. In the last 8 games, he caught 26 passes for 307 yards and 5 TD's. That's even more impressive when you consider that he only started 4 of those 8 games. Graham had already supplanted any other TE as the primary red zone target and now that he will be the full time starter, you can expect his receptions and yards to rise. With questions surrounding how long Marques Colston's knees can hold up, whether Lance Moore leaves in free agency, if Robert Meachem will finally stay healthy, and if Devery Henderson will be returning, Graham is a lock to be one of the top 3 reads on almost every passing play. While he is still only in his second season, Graham is primed to be a top fantasy football sleeper for finishing in the top 5 at the position in 2011.


7) Owen Daniels, Houston Texans. Daniels literally limped thru 2010 coming back too soon from a torn ACL suffered in 2009. He also battled a hamstring problem throughout the season as well. But after the Texans finally sat him down for a stretch of 5 consecutive games in the middle of the 2010 season, the injuries appeared to get better and in the last 4 games of the season Daniels was pretty much back to his old self catching 22 passes for 271 yards and 2 TD's. Daniels historically has been a good ppr TTE catching quite a few passes for a lot of yards, but his highest TD production for a single season has only been 5. With him another year removed from his torn ACL, it's a safe assumption Daniels will get back to being a solid fantasy TE again. But whether those TD numbers come up above 5 is in question.  


8) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots. I'm going out on a limb here as the Patriots have 2 excellent TE's in Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but Gronkowski was the clear favorite in the red zone, and even though Hernandez is viewed as the more vertical TE, Gronkowski had the better yards per catch average between the 2. In the last 10 games, Gronk caught 4 or more passes 6 times, had 50 or more receiving yards 4 times, and scored 7 TD's. For the season he finished tied with Gates and Marcedes Lewis for most TD receptions by a TE with 10. There's a bit of a risk with Gronkowski as Tom Brady likes to spread it around, but he is also a QB who really likes to spread it around to his TE's. And when they get near the goal line, Gronk is the guy Brady likes to throw it to. I believe Gronkowski is going to be able to increase his receptions and yards in 2011 over his 2010 stat line (42-546) to the point where his TD's will push him into the top 10 fantasy TE's in 2011.


9) Zach Miller, FREE AGENT (Oakland Raiders). While we don't know for sure where Miller will end up playing in 2011, it's a fair bet that entering his 5th season, he's going to have a large role in whatever offense he ends up in. Likely he will stay in Oakland, and while that team lacks a superior QB, it has for the previous 4 seasons when Miller was putting up solid quality fantast stats. In the last 3 seasons, Miller has caught 182 passes for 2,268 yards, and 9 TD's. His TD numbers don't average out well, but he had a career high 5 in 2010 and considering the pitiful state of Raiders WR's not providing any help, it's pretty amazing Miller found a way to get open for TD's that often last season. Even more amazing is that he only missed 1 game due to a sever foot injury. Even though he missed only 1 game, he was severely limited in 4 others. His stats in the remaining other 11 games was 55 catches for 657 yards and 5 TD's. Prorated to 16 games that would have been a career best stat line of 80-956-7. I expect he'll be back with Oakland and I also expect Jason Campbell to develop into be a stabilizing force at QB for the Raiders. If the WR's can show any improvement, there's an excellent chance Miller can have the best numbers of his career in 2011.


10) Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars. Count me as one those who did not buy into Lewis last season until it was too late. Maybe it was the fact it was a contract year for him? Maybe it was that the Jaguars finally started throwing him the ball more often? Maybe the light bulb finally came on for him in 2010? Whatever the reason his 10 TD's in 2010 were 3 more than the previous 4 seasons of his career COMBINED, and he also set new career highs in receptions (58) and yards (700). The Jaguars have one of the most suspect WR corps in the NFL therefore it's a good bet that Lewis will get plenty of passes thrown his way again in 2011. I'm always dubious of chasing a player's career season, especially when it comes in a contract year and that player had never shown any signs of being more than mediocre, but Lewis is entering what should be the prime of his career and given the situation he has in Jacksonville, his own complacency is the biggest obstacle to overcome for him to be a new name in the top 10 fantasy TE rankings for the next few years.

 

check out Russ's 2011 Top 10 Fantasy Quarterback Rankings


check out Russ's 2011 Top 10 Fantasy Running Back Rankings


check out Russ's 2011 Top 10 Fantasy Wide Receiver Rankings