One of the most difficult things I face every year in putting together my fantasy football draft board is valuing tight ends properly. Part of this is because of the peculiarity of the leagues I play in. Two of the three leagues include tight ends with wide receivers, and so very few tight ends are worthing of starting in the WR/TE position. But the other league requires a tight end starter.
So I thought I’d go through the top tight ends and compare them as fantasy options using the football relativity scale. On this scale, 10 is a tight end who is an elite fantasy player, and 1 is a tight end who’s only worth owning in leagues of 12 teams or more that require a tight end starting every week. We’ll indicate on the scale the levels where the tight ends are also starters at WR/TE positions and where tight ends are worth owning as backups in WR/TE leagues.
One more note before we begin: you can follow all of our previous fantasy football articles by following the fantasy football category here on the blog.
10 – Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten is a catch machine. He had 81 catches for 952 yards following a 96-catch, 1,145-yard season in ’07. But he had just four touchdowns last year, which was a mid-pack figure for tight ends. But with Terrell Owens gone, Witten is by far the most dependable receiving option in Dallas, and you can reasonably expect that Witten gets some of the red-zone looks that Owens demanded in previous years. That means that last year’s numbers are on the low end of what you can expect from Witten in ’09, and his TD numbers should go up as well. He’s the surest thing among fantasy tight ends in 2009 and should be the first one off the board.
10 (con’t) – Dallas Clark, Colts – Clark has long been one of the best touchdown producers among tight ends, crossing the goal line 30 times in the last five years. He had 77 catches for 848 yards and six scores last year, putting him near the top of the tight end category in terms of catches and yards. With Marvin Harrison gone, you have to figure that Clark will be a little more frequent target for Peyton Manning, and that should help to stabilize his production and make him more valuable as a fantasy option. The only negative on his profile is the fact that he’s been dinged enough to miss games each of the last three years, Still, Clark is one of the top 2 tight ends from a fantasy perspective for 2009.
9 – Tony Gonzalez, Falcons – Gonzalez is an all-time great who might end up being the all-time greatest tight end. He’s had at least 95 catches for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, which shows you that he’s not losing any steam. He also still has great leaping ability in the red zone, as his 10-touchdown ’08 campaign attests. The only question with Gonzalez is what kind of role he’ll find in his new home in Atlanta this year. The Falcons have a stud receiver in Roddy White and a big target in Michael Jenkins, and the two of them may take a play or two away that Gonzalez had gotten in the red zone in his K.C. days. Gonzalez is still a tight end stud and a legitimate starter in WR/TE leagues as well. He just doesn’t quite have the sure-thing quality that Witten and Clark appear to have going into the ’09 season. But if you are the third to take a tight end, you’re still going to be set up for big success.
8 – Antonio Gates, Chargers – Gates has been a fantasy stud for years, but even though he played all 16 games in ’08, he finished with a lower-than-usual 60 catches for 704 yards. He still scored eight touchdowns, which was second among tight ends, but even that was his lowest TD total in five years. His fantasy value is as much from touchdowns as from receiving yards, and with Vincent Jackson emerging, there’s not a need for the Chargers to target Gates every time in the red zone any more. So it seems like Gates’ fantasy impact is starting to wane just a bit. Still, while there are some questions, Gates is still the fourth-best tight end on fantasy draft boards, and he’s still a No. 3 starter at WR/TE in a 12-team league.
*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a starter in 10-12 team leagues with a combined WR/TE position.*
7 – Owen Daniels, Texans – Daniels is the newest guy to break into the ranks of fantasy starters. Did you know that he’s averaged 66 catches and 815 yards in each of the last two seasons? Those are elite numbers. The only negative is his touchdown totals – he had five in his rookie season but just five combined in his last two seasons. Daniels should put up big numbers again in ’08, and if his touchdown numbers inch up, he could truly join the elite receivers. Of course, for that to happen, QB Matt Schaub must stay healthy, which is a question. So for now, Daniels is a supersolid starter as a tight end in fantasy leagues, and he’s a quality backup and spot starter in WR/TE leagues. And if his TD rate starts gaining speed, his value will shoot up.
6 – Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley had a strange fantasy season last year. He had career highs with 83 catches for 849 yards, but he had just one touchdown after scoring at least six in each of his first four seasons. Cooley has surpassed 700 receiving yards in each of his last four seasons, so he’s a safe starting tight end, and if his touchdown total moves back up to five or more, he could pass Daniels and even come close to the four elite tight ends. But I’m a little skeptical about that given Jason Campbell’s uneven performance thus far in his career. The reason Cooley lands below Daniels is that I trust Matt Schaub more than I trust Campbell. Still, Cooley is a starting tight end in all leagues and a worthy backup in leagues with a WR/TE position.
5 – Greg Olsen, Bears – Olsen, a former first-round pick, continued to take steps forward in his career in ’08. He went from his rookie totals of 39 catches for 391 yards and two scores to improved sophomore stats of 54 catches for 574 yards and five scores. A similar gain in ’09 would make Olsen a top-five tight end. A gain is possible, because new Bears QB Jay Cutler is much better than the Bears’ former starter Kyle Orton. But remember that Olsen is sharing TE duties with Desmond Clark, another quality pass catcher, and even though the Bears run a lot of two-TE sets, that still should hold Olsen’s numbers down. We can project enough of a gain for Olsen to make him a sure fantasy starter and a backup in WR/TE leagues. But projecting more right now would be getting your head out over your skis.
*No tight end below this level goes into the season as the equivalent of a fourth or fifth option at WR/TE in leagues without a tight end position. Therefore, they should not be backups in 10-12 team WR/TE leagues.*
4 – Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers – Winslow may be the most physically gifted tight end in the league, and he has been really productive in the last two years. He had 171 catches for nearly 2,000 yards and eight TDs in ’06 and ’07 combined, and in just half a season last year he still had a whopping 43 catches for 428 yards and three TDs. He moves from a pass-first Cleveland system to Tampa Bay, which would seem to be more of a run-first scheme with lesser quarterbacks. So that could cause a dip in his numbers. We still expect at least 500 yards and four touchdowns, which makes Winslow a tight end starter. He also has upside to do more than that. If you’re picking a fantasy TE starter late and Winslow is there, take a shot and hope for the best. But don’t reach for this talent in such an uncertain situation.
4 (con’t) – John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a strong rookie season in Seattle with 55 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns. And he did that with Matt Hasselbeck missing much of the season. Hasselbeck’s returns will help Carlson’s numbers, but the arrival of T.J. Houshmandzedah could hurt a little. So pencil Carlson in for 500 yards and four touchdowns, make him one of the last TE starters picked in your draft, and hope that Carlson exceeds expectations in ’09 like he did in ’08. Carlson is a safe pick with some upside, which is what you want with a late-round pick.
4 (con’t) – Zach Miller, Raiders – There are actually two Zach Millers playing tight end in the league this year, so if you want this Miller, make sure to draft correctly on your computer system. Oakland’s Zach Miller took a step forward in his second season, increasing his catch total from 44 to 56 and his yardage total from 444 to 778. He only had one touchdown, which limits his fantasy value. But Miller probably will pass 700 receiving yards again in ’09, and if he can move his touchdown total up, he’ll move from being a marginal fantasy starter to a solid one. Given the Raiders’ problematic offense, it’s hard to project that TD jump, which is why Miller ranks down here. But he’s the best weapon Oakland has aside from Darren McFadden, and that fact should help Miller’s numbers remain solid.
*No tight end below this level goes into the season as a tight end starter in 10-team leagues. The players below should be seen as backups except in larger leagues.*
3 – Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings – Shiancoe was one of the breakout fantasy players of 2008, as his seven touchdowns and nearly 600 yards made him an elite fantasy tight end. That touchdown total, though, seems a bit out of whack given the fact that Shiancoe had just 42 catches, and so prudency demands we expect that TD total to take a bit of a dive. The Vikings’ unsettled QB situation (obligatory Brett Favre mention) is troubling as well. I can see Shiancoe amassing 400 yards and three touchdowns without a lot of trouble, and he does have the capability to do more. But he’s not good enough to put him in the top 10 at the position in fantasy terms. He misses that plateau, although not by much.
3 (con’t) – Dustin Keller, Jets – Keller, a Jets’ first-round pick in ’08, had a strong rookie season, totaling 48 catches for 535 yards and three touchdowns. If he makes the kind of second-year jump that Greg Olsen and Zach Miller did, Keller would be a fantasy starter. But the fact that the Jets are breaking in a rookie quarterback could hold Keller back just a little. Keller is a talent, and Mark Sanchez has a better arm than Brett Favre had at the end of the ’08 season. But for safety’s sake, we’ll project Keller to match his ’08 numbers and hope for some upside instead of expecting more and getting less.
2 – Heath Miller, Steelers – Miller is a quality tight end who is remarkably consistent. He’s had at least 34 catches but not more than 48 in each of his four seasons; had at least 393 yards but not more than 566 in all four seasons; and had at least three touchdowns every year as well. Miller has shown some touchdown productivity in the past, but he had just three last year, which I think is a sign of things to come because Santonio Holmes has finally emerged as a proven No. 2 receiver for the Steelers. So Miller is a safe backup tight end, but he doesn’t have the fantasy upside that a guy like Keller has. In a huge league, Miller’s an OK starter if you’re among the last to take a tight end, and he’s a perfectly good fill-in if your starting tight end has a bye or gets hurt. But at this point, we know what Miller is – and that’s not an elite fantasy tight end.
2 (con’t) – Jeremy Shockey, Saints – Shockey is a huge talent at tight end, and he has had monster numbers in past year. Last year, despite missing four games, he still had 50 catches for nearly 500 yards. But there are strikes against him. First, he didn’t score a touchdown last year in his first season as a Saint. Second, he is no Saint, as off-the-field problems are frequent enough to make fantasy owners nervous. Third, he is injured often enough – he’s never played all 16 games in a season – that you can’t rely on him. If he played all 16 games in New Orleans, he could be a top-5 tight end. But the chances of that happening are slim enough to downgrade Shockey. He’s a classic boom or bust pick, which means he’s worth taking late but not worth taking early. I wouldn’t rely on Shockey as a starter, but he’s the kind of guy worth having as a backup tight end if your team requires you to carry one. Just be prepared for a roller-coaster if you take him.
2 (con’t) – Brent Celek, Eagles – If there is one tight end who’s going to take a leap out of obscurity in ’09, it’s Celek. He played in every game and started seven for the Eagles last year, totaling 27 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown in part-time duty. Now, with L.J. Smith gone, we can expect Celek to have the kind of season Smith used to have in Philly – something like 300-500 yards and three TDs. But there’s upside for even more production than that here, and that makes Celek an intriguing fantasy backup.
2 (con’t) – Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss replaced Shockey with the Giants last year and had a solid season, catching 33 balls for 383 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a good season for a fantasy tight end, but it’s not enough to pencil Boss in as a fantasy starter this season. His touchdown total is out of whack compared to his catches, which means it’s wiser to expect him to have more like three scores in ’09. He’s a solid backup, but there is more upside with up-and-coming players like Carlson and Keller and Zach Miller that you should opt for before considering Boss.
1 – Tony Scheffler, Broncos – Scheffler has been a fantasy sleeper in his first two seasons, with at least 40 catches and at least 549 yards in each season. He’s also averaged 4 touchdowns a year through his three-year career. But while Scheffler has talent, he is going to be hurt by his situation as much as any fantasy player this year. The departure of Jay Cutler takes away Scheffler’s best friend on and off the field. Moreover, Scheffler’s down-the-field style doesn’t seem to fit the Josh McDaniels offensive system we saw in New England in recent years. Scheffler’s good enough to get 300 yards regardless of system, but he’s a backup until we see him prove that he can thrive without Cutler in McDaniels’ new system.
1 (con’t) – Bo Scaife, Titans – The Titans used their franchise tag on Scaife this offseason to make sure they kept him after his 58-catch, 561-yard season. But it’s hard to see Sciafe matching those numbers in ’09. The Titans drafted rookie Jared Cook, a pass-catching tight end who will take at least a few opportunities away from Scaife. And even with all of Sciafe’s catches, he has never had more than two touchdowns in a season. For fantasy owners, Scaife is just a fill-in. He’s a guy who’s better on the NFL field than he is in fantasy scoresheets.
1 (con’t) – Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was once an elite fantasy tight end, but injuries and changes in Baltimore’s offense have limited his impact. Even though he started every game last year, he had just 35 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Ravens have added L.J. Smith to the roster, which could limit Heap’s numbers even more. It’s hard to see Heap as a fantasy factor this year; we’re including his name here just so you know we didn’t forget.