As the passing game continues to explode, tight ends have become significantly more important in both fantasy and professional football. In 1990, the top TE gained 133 fantasy points (0.1 points per receiving yard, 6 points per receiving touchdown, 0.5 points per reception). In 2011, the 11th best TE had 142.1 fantasy points. As recently as 2002, the top fantasy tight end had just 153.6 fantasy points.
Last year, Rob Gronkowski shattered the previous mark for fantasy points by a tight end with 279.7 fantasy points (and that doesn't even include his rushing touchdown). Jimmy Graham also scored 246.5 fantasy points, second highest by any tight end in league history. Even as tight end production increases across the board, the top tight ends have become even more valuable. Gronkowski scored 153 more fantasy points than the No. 12 fantasy tight end last season, making that differential equivalent to what Todd Heap produced as the top tight end in 2002.
On the other hand, maybe last year was a fluke. For example, the VBD for the No. 1 tight end in 2010 was only 75 points; in 1991, the top tight end had a VBD of 85, and in 1992 the top tight end had a VBD of 65. In 1994, the top tight end had a VBD of 132, the second highest mark behind 2011 of the last 20 years.
So was last year a fluke? In terms of tight end value, the answer appears to be yes (with a caveat). If we look at the VBD for the No. 3 tight end, there is no pattern of increasing value among the elite tight ends. In fact, three of the last four years has seen the No. 3 tight end have less VBD than the man that finished third achieved, on average, from 1990 to 2007. Tight ends are scoring more points, but as long as 12 tight ends are scoring more points, it doesn't necessarily make the position more valuable. Sure, Aaron Hernandez and his 173 fantasy points as the No. 3 tight end last season is much more impactful as a player than Jay Novacek and his 120 fantasy points in 1991. But consider that Fred Davis was the No. 12 fantasy tight end in 2011, and he had 127 fantasy points! In 1991, Brent Jones had 27 catches for 417 yards and no touchdowns and was the No. 12 fantasy tight end.
Even if Fred Davis scored more fantasy points than Jay Novacek, that's not the point. In 2011, Hernandez had a VBD of 45; in '91, Novacek had a VBD of 65. A rising tide does indeed lift all ships, and you don't need to go early in your draft if there are 15 tight ends capable of big numbers.
Of course, there is a caveat. Gronkowski and Graham were far, far ahead of the pack last season. The difference between Gronkowski and Hernandez was 107 fantasy points; the difference between the top tight end and the third best tight end was 20 and 14 fantasy points in 1991 and 1990, respectively.
The closest any tight end has come to dominating his competition was Tony Gonzalez in 2000. Gonzalez had 221 fantasy points, and no other TE had even 150 fantasy points. And while Gonzalez was again the No. 1 tight end in 2001, his VBD dropped from 144 fantasy points to just 78.
Let's be clear - Gronkowski was incredibly valuable last season. Only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Ray Rice, and Calvin Johnson were ahead of him in VBD last year, and only Brees, Rodgers and Brady had more than 10 points of VBD more than Gronkowski. The Patriots tight end was certainly worth a first-round pick last season; then again, so was Jordy Nelson, who finished as the No. 2 fantasy wide receiver.
If you fully believe in Gronkowski, he simply can't be drafted too high; after the top six or seven players are off the board, Gronkowski is a justifiable choice based on VBD. But it would seem to be chasing last year's stats to do so, much like those who drafted Peyton Manning in 2005 or Tom Brady in 2008 or Chris Johnson in 2010. Historically great years are just that, regardless of the position from which they come.
I think the market generally undervalues tight ends, not recognizing how successful Gronkowski was last season. On the other hand, the market doesn't fully integrate the concept of regression to the mean, which overrates Gronkowski. He currently has an ADP of 13, which will surely scare off a handful of owners. Gronkowski's value will be tied to his touchdowns, and therein lies the issue. He caught 17 last season and three more in the playoffs. But he will be more boom or bust than most high draft picks, and fantasy owners need to be aware of that.
Gronkowski has been a touchdown machine so far in his career, but touchdowns by their nature are rare plays. I'm more likely to pass on Gronkowski because I think the pie in New England will be spread more evenly this season than by any antiquated notion that a tight end can't be worth a first round pick.
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