Let’s consider washing your socks on a Saturday morning. Not exactly unpleasant, but something you have to do, and can just get done without worrying your hangover by thinking too hard.
Just like drafting one of the stalwart big-name tight ends, Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, or Jason Witten, used to be in fantasy football. The benefit of taking one of these guys early wasn’t just locking down a top producer at the position, it was not having to spend any more time thinking about tight ends. Not having to talk yourself into Dustin Keller, or taking Tony Gonzalez on legacy, or trying to breathe life into the raggedy corpse of Jeremy Shockey’s once blue-chip potential, or hey, didn’t Anthony Fasano catch a bunch of touchdowns a few years ago? Maybe he’s still out there…
I’m happy to say, though, that things are changing. Not only are there red flags around some of the old guard at the top of these rankings, there is an infusion of new blood and new athletic talent at the position that is making the position almost exciting to think about. Or at the very least, something to take your mind off that pile of dirty socks in the corner.
Let’s look at the next generation of tight ends, all of them under 25 years old, emerging as dynamic threats on the football field, fantasy and otherwise.
The next elite: Jermichael Finley (4th year pro)
Finley is a part of the next generation of tight ends in the Antonio Gates mold – raw athletes with basketball backgrounds who stepped up their physical game to put on the pads and bang about with 250-lb linebackers in the open field. Not all of these experiments pan out – see his college b-ball teammates Martellus Bennett and Fendi Onobun – but Finley happens to play for the next emerging elite quarterback on the Super Bowl champion Packers.
Yahoo! Sports’ Andy Behrens points out that “Jermichael Finley is healthy at the moment, and he was an almost impossible cover before the knee injury last year,” leading the Packers in receiving during his four weeks of healthy football.
There’s no need to try and expose any new angle on Finley here – he’s already being drafted among the elites as one of draft day’s favorite gambles. Now he just has to pay off.
The deep sleeper that everyone seems to know about: Jimmy Graham (2nd year pro)
First, a caveat: you never know which receiver Drew Brees and Sean Payton are going to build their gameplan around in any given week. And they like it that way. But if you’re going to take a flyer on one of these weapons, better to do it in a low-risk, high-reward position. And if you believe the projections from ProFootballFocus.com’s Mike Clay, or look at his 5-catch, 73-yard performance in one half against the Raiders this preseason, it’s a high reward indeed.
@PFF_MikeClay: I’ve been on the Graham train since late 2010 season. He’s going to be a huge force. A solid TE1 option”
PFF projects Graham with equivalent targets, catches and touchdowns to known weapons Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis, with the possibility of surpassing both and knocking on the door of top-5 status at the position. And camp reports suggest that Brees is intentionally feeding Graham lots of looks in practice, “to build confidence in the connection between the two” after the departure of the target-poaching Jeremy Shockey.
It’s not too late to learn his name now, so you can say “I told you so” to your friends when Graham’s face gets plastered all over SportsCenter.
The dynamic duo: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (both 2nd year pros)
Perhaps the only thing keeping Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez from both threatening top-ten status as tight ends is that they play for the same team, and often line up as receivers in the same formation. But if you’re going to steal targets from each other, better to do it from one of the largest and richest piles of targets in football, the prolific output of Tom Brady’s golden arm.
ESPN film analyst Matt Williamson explains, in a conversation with Matt Waldman, how these two products of the 2010 draft fit into an emerging trend of “hybrid offensive players’ that can’t be accounted for in traditional defensive schemes, and how they immediately changed the Patriots offense:
“The Patriots take it to a new level. Look at their tight ends. To me Aaron Hernandez is equal part wide receiver and tight end. Rob Gronkowski is a pure tight end. Alge Crumpler is the opposite though. He’s as much offensive tackle as he is tight end. What’s insane now is that Tom Brady can go out there with those three tight ends, Danny Woodhead, and Wes Welker and go empty! Or, [depending on the defensive package on the field] he could bring those three guys to the line of scrimmage and hand the ball to Woodhead and blow defenses off the ball.”
While the Randy Moss circus threatened to derail the Patriots’ offense last year, Brady calmly refocused and began carving up the soft interior of opposing defenses with his triple threat of slot options, Welker and the two tight ends. The three combined for three touchdowns in the opening game of the season, and both Gronkowski and Hernandez had multiple-TD games last season.
Despite being the “pure tight end” of the two, Gronkowski seemed to earn Brady’s trust over the second half of the season with slightly softer hands, and is currently projecting as the better of the two. But neither can be ignored.
The rookie to stash: Lance Kendricks (1st year pro)
You can’t talk about the Patriots and their tight ends without a head nod to “Hoodie Junior,” new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the emerging offense in St Louis being built around Sam Bradford. The Rams bucked the widespread expectation that they needed a “#1 receiver” this offseason, but they just may have found him a new number one target in the draft.
Reports from Rams camp say that while multiple receivers have rotated in and out of the lineup, no player has gotten more reps than Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks, who led the team’s receivers in the preseason with 11 catches, 155 yards, and three touchdowns. These weren’t garbage time stats, either – all of those passes came from Bradford in the first-team offense.
While preseason stats have to be heavily discounted, the chemistry between young quarterback and young tight end has been growing since the first days of camp. McDaniels’ offense mirrors a lot of concepts from the spread offense that Bradford ran at Oklahoma (and made TE Jermaine Gresham into a star), and Kendricks has been fitting right in. Early in the preseason, Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks was part of the media horde making the rounds and the rookie immediately caught his eye:
@DonBanks: “At Rams camp, where rookie tight end Lance Kendricks is off to a star-of-camp start early on. The 2nd-rd pick is going to be a weapon.”
The breakout, interrupted: Tony Moeaki (2nd year pro)
No one knows exactly what to expect from the Chiefs offense in 2011. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis came to down, Matt Cassel suddenly became a fantasy-worthy quarterback with a 27-7 TD-INT ratio, and then Weis departed for the University of Florida.
One expectation that will have to be revised: Tony Moeaki (ACL injury – placed on injured reserve) will not become the second coming of Dallas Clark, the way Peter King predicted.
“One can see how much Cassel gravitates to Moeaki. He’s Dallas Clark. The way Peyton Manning flexes Clark tight and wide and in the slot is the way Kansas City wants to use Moeaki, who had 47 catches a year ago but could have 80 in this offense if he stays healthy. ‘You can make Moeaki whatever,’ said Todd Haley. ‘You can make him Wes Welker if you want.’ “
It could still happen. Next year.
Potential waiver wire gold: Evan Moore (3rd year pro)
Okay, I had to break my “25 and under” rule to squeeze this guy in. But Moore is a dynamic and intriguing player stuck in Cleveland, or “flyover country” as far as fantasy football is concerned.
With a very underwhelming group of wide receivers in orange and brown, Moore might have been the best pass catcher on the roster. Averaging more than 20 yards per catch, he was certainly the most explosive. And new coach Pat Shurmur’s brand of west coast offense is very friendly to tight ends, with more than 100 targets per year spread among a mélange of players in his time in St Louis.
Moore is a tight end in name only, as the stats tracked by ProFootballFocus have him split out wide almost exclusively. Despite a low snap count, count Jim Day of TwitterFantasyFootball.com among those intrigued by his potential.
@Fantasytaz: “I like his ability, just not sure they know how to use him. If they figure a way to get him more touches he could have nice value. If Jordan Norwood doesn’t work in the slot, I would love to see them use him there…”
As Cleveland brings along Colt McCoy, expect the Browns to find a way to give him plenty of friendly targets inside, and build chemistry with his tight ends, Moore and Ben Watson. A friendly schedule could make Moore a guy worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.