Tight End Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
September 1st, 2011

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and its rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It will help you make good strategic decisions during your draft, by keeping you on the right side of runs or highlighting positions that may be sloughed a round longer than you thought or that you should target early than you expected. Testing your tiers in a few mock drafts will leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position, including the major defensive position, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered installments

  • Quarterback
  • Running Back
  • Wide Receiver
  • Defensive Line
  • Linebacker
  • You'll be faced with a tough decision this year at the TE position. The elite tier of tight ends carries a high ADP, but boasts a handful of players with WR1-like upside. The next two tiers are packed with a mix of high floor options and high upside plays, and both groups include players with very attractive ADP values. What you choose to do at this position will depend on whether you must have an upper tier RB2 option or think it worthwhile to take your pick of the second tier quarterbacks in the third or fourth round.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Platinum

  • Antonio Gates
  • Jermichael Finley
  • Dallas Clark (PPR+)
  • Vernon Davis
  • Jason Witten
  • Owen Daniels
  • Gates still leads the way, but the foot concerns loom and you have to have a plan B if you make him the first TE off the board. The nice thing is that, as you'll see, tight end has unprecedented depth this year, so there will be many opportunities to select a quality backup in the draft or snag one on the waiver wire. Finley's upside is tantalizing, he could easily finish as the #1 TE if he plays in all 16 games... which he hasn't yet in his career. Clark has a small asterisk because of Peyton Manning's neck concerns, but in PPR leagues, he has extra oomph. Davis will be held back by the 49ers offense and QB play, but last year showed us that his floor is still very,very high. Witten is overrated across the board, Kitna leaned on him and Romo just does not look his way in the red zone. He is a high floor TE like Davis, but he'll go too high because of his #1 finish last year. Oh look, it's Owen Daniels! I love the idea of waiting until everyone has drafted a TE to take one, err, two or three this year, but if you are going to take one in the mid-rounds, Daniels is your man. He should finish at or close the average numbers put up by this tier this year as the #2 option in a good pass offense. He was back at his typical top 5 pace last year once he got completely healthy in December.

    Jene Bramel

    I'm not ready to put Davis in this tier, which I'm reserving for those with 90 catch upside (and 1000 yards or 8+ touchdowns). It boggles the mind that the Niners have weapons like Gore, Edwards, Crabtree and Davis and will start Alex Smith at quarterback. West Coast offense or no, that limits Davis upside too much for me to put him in the same tier as players I'll consider in the fourth round of my drafts. I have him sixth. I'm with Sig on Daniels. His ADP has finally come up to this level, but it wasn't there much of the offseason. He's healthy, in a premier offense, with a quarterback that trusts him. He's at least as valuable as Witten and could be Schaub's version of Clark.

    I like Finley over Clark and Gates here, with Witten fourth narrowly over Daniels. Strategically, I've been targeting one of the top three (a potential WR1 at a WR3 price) in the late third – late fourth round. If not, I'm usually grabbing Daniels in the sixth.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Shiny, but which metal?

  • Jimmy Graham
  • Aaron Hernandez
  • Pass catching talent? Check. Great QB and passing offense? Check. Large role, opportunity and emphasis in the game plan? Check. Jimmy Graham is poised for a Jermichael Finley-esque breakout this year, he just needs to seal the deal. Dustin Keller reminds us that not every receiving TE who flashes in his rookie year successfully builds on that year two (or three), no matter how much his team wants him to. Graham is as talented as the players in the tier above him, but will he be consistent enough to turn that into production to match? The hype has died down a bit, so if you can get him a round or two after Daniels and there's a QB/WR/RB that you have to have instead, it's worth the roll of the dice. Hernandez, like Graham, has the talent and QB/passing game to be a top five fantasy TE. His role fluctuation from game-to-game was maddening, but if his game has grown, he can easily pull away from the pack of players being considered after the top six TEs are gone.

    Jene Bramel

    Knowing how often Bloom has drafted Gronkowski this summer, seeing Hernandez in this tier shocks me. I have the relative values the same. The second TE tier for me includes Davis, Graham, Hernandez, Winslow and Gronkowski. I think some of focusing too much on Hernandez' snap count and not enough on his targets and role in the offense. When he's in the game, which is often enough, he's at worst the second option in Tom Brady's progression. Depending on his red zone usage, he could add 7+ touchdown upside to his 70-80 catch upside. Yes, there'll be variance in weeks he sees six targets and catches only two. But the big numbers he'll put up during his strong weeks makes this variance risk a good one. I also like Winslow this year. Lots more red zone looks during the second half last year and a near 80 catch pace. If you like the Bucs' offense this year, it follows that Winslow is a strong option after the elite TE group goes off the board.

    Sigmund Bloom

    18k Gold

  • Marcedes Lewis
  • Rob Gronkowski
  • Kellen Winslow
  • All of these TEs are going to finish in the top 12-15, but they won't threaten to break the top five in any scenario. They are sturdy and strong, and both Lewis and Gronk are red zone monsters, making them much more valuable in non-PPR. Still, it seems like a losing proposition to take them as your #1 when there are numerous options with just as much upside available later.

    Jene Bramel

    I seem to be mostly in the minority, but I don't like Lewis much this year. I'd rather have the upside of Jared Cook or Jermaine Gresham than Lewis. That's a tough argument to make when Lewis has already proven himself. But that proof was a career year in which he put up numbers way above any reasonable expectation based on his previous three year trend. It's an outlier I can't ignore.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Upside Plays

  • Jared Cook
  • Lance Kendricks
  • Greg Olsen
  • Jermaine Gresham
  • Brandon Pettigrew
  • Tony Moeaki
  • All of these players are on the upside of their career curve, and they all should have the largest role in the passing game that they have ever had. If you don't get Hernandez at a major value, taking two of these guys and seeing what happens is a fine plan B for waiting as long as possible at TE. Cook has Finley-level talent catching the ball. Kendricks was hand-picked by McDaniels in St. Louis and should be heavily involved right away. Olsen was given 10 million and Carolina surrendered a third-round pick to secure his services. Gresham is two years removed from an ACL tear now and in an offense that will emphasize the short and intermediate passing game. Pettigrew wasn't nearly as involved when Stafford was in last year, but he did catch touchdowns in both of the games Stafford played most of. Moeaki has the talent, but needs to stay healthy.

    Jene Bramel

    I love Cook and Gresham this year. Both are sneaky 100-110 target type players who could get heavy red zone usage. Though they don't have a season-long track record to tout, both have shown flashes of their single game potential. I'm not certain what to think of Kendricks, Olsen or Pettigrew, but I agree this is the time to take a chance on them. I'd add Dustin Keller to this tier, supported by the arguments I've made in favor of the Jets' offense when discussing Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes earlier in this series. And I'm warming to the possibility that Visanthe Shiancoe could be an early season upside target.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Set Them Free

  • Brent Celek
  • Heath Miller
  • Todd Heap
  • Zach Miller
  • All of these veterans have the talent to break back into the top 10 fantasy tight ends, but any and all of them could end up marooned at the line of scrimmage more often than not to help their weak offensive lines. Celek and Miller were both part of efforts by their team to be used more in the passing game, so at least the desire is there. Heap's QB, Kevin Kolb, loved to throw to Celek back in Philadelphia, the old man just needs to stay healthy. Zach Miller is part of a trio of talented passcatchers that we are mourning in Seattle, but you never know... ok, I think we know. Seattle's passing game is going to suck, but hey stranger things have happened. Miller could have value if someone surprises at QB or some wideouts get hurt there. Potential starters here, but the odds aren't great.

    Jene Bramel

    Four guys I like on the field, four guys I can't get behind as fantasy targets unless you miss out on all the upside plays on your draft list.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Is this the year?

  • Dustin Keller
  • Tony Gonzalez
  • Chris Cooley / Fred Davis
  • That question means two different things. For Keller, it is whether this is the year he starts delivering on his first-round pick pedigree. If Plax can't stay healthy and Derrick Mason has lost a step, the Jets might need to be a major part of the passing game. As it stands now, he is not trustworthy. Gonzalez is a hall of famer, but perhaps the clock on his eligibility should have started already. He looked feeble vs. the Steelers in the preseason. Cooley, like Gonzalez, might be in that slow swirl down the drain for fantasy, which could allow Davis to be a surprise TE1 this year, but he has to be out, not just weakened, for that to happen.

    Jene Bramel

    I'd absolutely take Gonzalez if he continues to slide toward a TE2 ADP and noted my interest in Keller above. I don't like what I'm reading about Chris Cooley and keep inching Davis up my draft board, though not yet far enough to make him a Cook/Gresham like priority upside TE2.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Waiver Wire Watch List

  • Kevin Boss
  • Ben Watson / Evan Moore
  • Visanthe Shiancoe / Kyle Rudolph
  • Ed Dickson / Dennis Pitta
  • Travis Beckum
  • Julius Thomas
  • Tony Scheffler
  • Jacob Tamme
  • John Phillips
  • Boss has the role to catch 60 balls, but he needs to get over a knee injury. Which CLE, MIN, and BAL TE will emerge from the pairs, or will there even be one that is clearly ahead of the other? Beckum and Thomas are natural passcatchers, but will their teams give them the chances to be fantasy relevant? Scheffler, Tamme, and Phillips could rocket to prominence with injuries to the #1 TEs ahead of them.

    Jene Bramel

    I think there may be more to Julius Thomas than there appears. Our good friend and Denver insider Cecil Lammey often cites the decline of Wesley Walls as evidence that John Fox kills TE value. But Walls spent just one year under Fox in Carolina and was 36 years old. I agree that Fox made a blocking TE more of a priority in his run first offense, but there's still reason for a little optimism when a committee of guys like Dante Rosario, Kris Mangum, Gary Barnidge and Jeff King had seasons with 80-100 targets combined. If Thomas can establish himself, there might be some TE2 value to be had by year's end.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. We'll be rolling out the final one (DBs) as soon as possible. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by email at bloom@footballguys.com or bramel@footballguys.com. You can also follow our active Twitter feeds @SigmundBloom and @JeneBramel. Thanks for reading.

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