As the NFL continues to march towards the regular season, fantasy football players across the globe are preparing for their respective drafts. Plenty of things can happen throughout the course of a season that require roster moves being made, but having a good draft can springboard any team to a fantasy championship.
Over the past couple weeks we’ve been posting our NFL fantasy rankings to help you get ready for your drafts. So far we’ve covered the Top 20 Fantasy Quarterbacks, Top 20 Fantasy Running Backs and Top 20 Fantasy Wide Receivers. Next up are the tight ends.
1- Jimmy Graham
There haven’t been many tight ends over the years that have produced the way that Jimmy Graham does. He’s good enough to play wide receiver but being a tight end Graham gets the added bonus of being covered by generally slower linebackers a good amount of the time. However, regardless of whether it’s a linebacker or a defensive back, Graham’s 6-7, 265 pound frame is going to be a mismatch for whoever may be trying to cover him. He’s a key member of the Saints offense that finds consistent success in the passing game and is Drew Brees’ favorite target inside the red zone. Graham led the league in receiving touchdowns last season and was one of just seven players (and the only tight end) to eclipse the 100-yard mark in six games. He also was the only player in the league to have at least five games with multiple receiving touchdowns. This is a tight end that’s worth a first round pick.
2- Julius Thomas
While he isn’t quite in the league of Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas is another converted college basketball player that is seeing great success as an NFL tight end. He finally broke out in his third year as a pro and flourished in the Broncos high-powered offense. While he’s got the size that you want to see from an elite tight end (6-5, 250), Thomas also has some speed which is evident from the 74-yard touchdown he scored last year, the longest for any tight end. With so many weapons on the Denver offense, Thomas doesn’t get that many red zone targets. He only had 12 of the 55 touchdown passes thrown by the Broncos in 2013, and if Peyton Manning ‘slips’ down below 40 touchdowns, Thomas could see his scoring numbers drop as well.
3- Rob Gronkowski
When healthy, Rob Gronkowski is the only tight end out there that is comparable to Jimmy Graham. He missed the first six games of last season recovering from back and forearm surgeries and then missed the final three weeks of the season after tearing his ACL and MCL. The Patriots are hoping that Gronkowski will be ready when they open the season at Miami, but it’s unknown how long it could take before he is producing like his normal self. Even after he returned to the lineup last season, Gronkowski only caught 59 percent of the passes thrown his way, a far cry from the 71 percent he caught during his first two seasons. We’ll just have to wait and see when he is able to resume is normal dominance but there are so many capable tight ends this season that even if Gronkowski is taken early in a draft, it will be easy to pick up someone in the later rounds to fill in until he is ready.
4- Vernon Davis
No tight end is more of a downfield threat than Vernon Davis. He’s probably the fastest tight end in the league and the 49ers use him accordingly, sending him out on vertical routes and using him to stretch the field. Davis averaged 16.3 yards per catch last season and had three touchdowns that were over 50 yards. San Francisco is a run-first team but they make sure to keep Davis a high-priority target in their offense. He was targeted 84 times last season which accounted for 23.6 percent of the teams passes, third most among all tight ends. Davis also had 10 catches of at least 25 yards in 2013, second only to Jimmy Graham who had 13.
5- Jason Witten
One of the most consistent tight ends of this generation, Jason Witten has put up solid numbers year in and year out. The one knock on Witten is that he doesn’t score a lot of touchdowns. He caught eight TD’s in 2013, the second-highest total of his 11-year career, but in the five previous years he only eclipsed five touchdowns once. What he lacks in scoring Witten makes up for with receptions and yards. He’s surpassed 1,000 yards in four of the last seven seasons and came away with 952, 942 and 851 yards in the other three years. During that span Witten had at least 94 receptions four times, including 110 in 2012. One thing to keep in mind though is that he only caught 73 passes last season, his lowest total since 2006, and it would’ve been much had he not come away with 12 receptions in Week 17.
6- Jordan Cameron
It didn’t take long for Jordan Cameron to enter the ranks of the elite tight ends in the NFL. He ranked second in the league in both receptions and yards in just his third season in the league, coming away with 80 catches for 917 yards. He also added seven touchdowns, all while playing for a below-average Browns team that struggled to find the end zone in 2013. Cameron has some of the best hands in the league, dropping just two of his 118 targets last season, good for third-best drop rate in the NFL. The Browns have a new coaching staff and will likely run the ball more in 2014 than they did last year. He also faces the added challenge of dealing with defenses that will be game-planning against him, which is a trend that started early on last season. After breaking on the scene with 30 catches and five touchdowns in his first four games, Cameron suddenly became a focal point for opposing teams and came away with just 50 receptions and two touchdowns in his final 11 games.
7- Greg Olsen
While he isn’t the flashiest of guys, Greg Olsen has been quietly productive over the past two years in Carolina. The Panthers are another run-first team that loves to hand the ball off inside the red zone (they threw the ball only 40.1 percent of the time inside the 20 last season, the third-lowest total in the league) but when they do call passing plays, Cam Newton knows he has a reliable pass-catching option in Olsen. He’s been a big part of Carolina’s offense over the past two years, averaging 71 catches and 830 yards during that span. Additionally, only three tight ends in the league have more yards and receptions than Olsen during those two seasons. One thing that has not been an issue for him is durability; he’s played in 110 consecutive games since starting his career in 2007.
8- Dennis Pitta
If not for a hip injury that kept him out of the first 12 games of last season, Dennis Pitta could very well have been a top five tight end. He’s a trusted target of Joe Flacco and gets plenty of action down the field. Pitta lined up in the slot 74 percent of his snaps which led the NFL for tight ends. Over his last 16 games, Pitta has 65 receptions for 625 yards and nine touchdowns. It’s no coincidence that Flacco only threw 19 touchdown passes in 2013 as Pitta has been one of his favorite red zone targets. Baltimore has a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak and he’s expected to open up an offense that was very bland a season ago. The Ravens added wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels in the offseason which could cut into Pitta’s targets.
9- Jordan Reed
Entering his second season in the NFL, Jordan Reed is looking to pick up where he left off last season. A concussion limited him to just nine games in 2013 and of those he only started four as Washington had Fred Davis as their top tight end when the season began. Reed still managed to have solid numbers, finishing the year with 45 receptions for 499 yards and three touchdowns, and over half of his yards came after the catch. He has great hands, catching a league-leading 75 percent of the passes thrown his way. Washington has a new offensive-minded head coach in Jay Gruden and several weapons in the passing game with Pierre Garcon being joined by new additions DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. That should help open up the field for Reed who caught six of his seven red zone targets last season.
10- Kyle Rudolph
After a Pro Bowl year in 2012, Kyle Rudolph had a rough go of it last season. He suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 9 and the Vikings had Christian Ponder as the starting quarterback for all but one of Rudolph’s games. The one game that Matt Cassel started where Rudolph was healthy, the fourth year tight end caught nine passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. During Rudolph’s Pro Bowl season he was a beast in the red zone, catching 9 of the 10 passes thrown his way inside the 10-yard-line, all of which went for touchdowns. The Vikings added Norv Turner as their new offensive coordinator which should bode well for Rudolph. Over the years, Turner has utilized his tight ends and gotten a lot of production out of the position.
11- Martellus Bennett
The Chicago Bears have one of the better passing offenses in the NFL but with so many weapons to choose from, Martellus Bennett tends to get lost in the shuffle. The good thing is that the Bears are one of few teams that only uses one tight end so even while they aren’t projected to have huge numbers at the position, everything will go Bennett’s way. He led the league with an average of 6.2 yards after the catch but curiously got very few looks in the red zone. As potent as the Bears offense can be, it’s very possible that Bennett’s numbers could increase from a season ago.
12- Charles Clay
A preseason injury to Dustin Keller thrust Charles Clay into a starting role last season and the Dolphins have to be pleased with how that turned out. Clay essentially came out of nowhere to be one of the league’s top tight ends in 2012 and there is no reason to think that he’ll slow down this season. Miami has a new offensive coordinator in Bill Lazor who has opened up a Dolphins offense that’s struggled putting up points over the past few years.
13- Zach Ertz
Following a solid rookie year in which Ertz came on strong during the second half of the season, the former second round pick will get a lot more looks in the Eagles offense in 2014. Ertz is a quick receiver that runs crisp routes and is a mismatch for whoever covers him considering his combination of size (6-5, 250) and speed. Even with Brent Celek still in the fold in Philadelphia, look for Ertz to be utilized more on downfield routes and get a few more targets in the red zone.
14- Delanie Walker
New Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt is expected to make Tennessee’s offense a bit more potent and tight end-friendly. After spending the majority of his career as Vernon Davis’ backup in San Francisco, Delanie Walker had a solid first year with the Titans despite the team having a very vanilla offense. At 6-feet tall Walker is the shortest tight end in the league.
15- Heath Miller
A favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Heath Miller always manages to put up solid numbers. He spent the early parts of 2013 recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery during the offseason and ended up with a career-low 10.2 yards per catch. The Steelers lost Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders to free agency and the pair combined for 11 touchdowns inside the 10-yard-line. Look for those targets to go back to Miller, who has always been a red zone threat in Pittsburgh’s offense over the years.
16- Eric Ebron
While he’s just a rookie, selected tenth overall in this year’s NFL Draft, Eric Ebron should be a big part of the Lions new offense. They hired former Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi as their new offensive coordinator and we all know how much New Orleans liked to get their tight end involved. Ebron should get the majority of the tight end work for the Lions and with his combo of size (6-4, 245) and speed (4.6 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine).
17- Ladarius Green
It may seem a little odd seeing a Chargers tight end not named Antonio Gates inside the top 20, but Ladarius Green appears ready to take on the role of that his predecessor has held for the past decade or so. He averaged 22.1 yards per catch, the highest by any tight end in the last 20 years, and 12.5 yards per target, both good for tops in the NFL last season. Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said during the offseason that he should have used Green more in 2013 so look for him to rectify that in the upcoming season.
18- Jared Cook
After a great showing during Week 1 of last season in which he had seven catches, 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Jared Cook quickly came down to earth as opposing teams realized that the Rams had very little to offer in the passing game and focused their energy on the tight end. The addition of Kenny Britt and a healthy Sam Bradford should help open things up for Cook, who has plenty of speed but not the best hands. He dropped six passes in 2013, two more than any other tight end in the league.
19- Coby Fleener
The Colts offense is expected to be among the better ones in the NFL this year and that should give Coby Fleener a great opportunity to have a breakout season. Entering his third year in the league, Fleener needs to find a way to get more involved in the passing game and make things happen when the ball is thrown his way. He’s caught just 58 percent of the passes thrown his way over the past two years.
20- Garrett Graham
When Owen Daniels broke his fibula in Week 5 of last season, Garrett Graham suddenly found himself as an NFL starter for the first time in his four-year career. He put up career numbers, 49 catches for 545 yards and five touchdowns, despite the Texans having serious quarterback issues throughout the season. Now Daniels has moved on to Baltimore making Graham the main guy in Houston’s offense, run by new head coach Bill O’Brien.
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