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The Gut Check No. 263: Milk Carton Men-Tight Ends

The Milk Carton Men series profiles players who went missing last season. Any information leading to their whereabouts may prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason.

These players went missing last season. Any information leading to their whereabouts could prevent future crimes in the fantasy preseason. 

Intro

If you're old enough, you'll remember when photos and basic information about missing children took up real estate on the backs of milk cartons. According to an April 20th article in Slate about the National child Safety Council's decision to take this route to inform the general public, this practice ended in the late 1980s "after prominent pediatricians like Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton worried that they frightened children unnecessarily."

Slate reported that this measure of plastering photos on milk cartons, pizza boxes, grocery bags, and junk mail never yielded data that showed it was effective. Considering that the only subject in football approaching this level of gravity is head injuries, I thought I'd take the milk cartons out of retirement for our purposes. Hopefully, prominent Footballguys pediatrician Dr. Jene Bramel doesn't worry that this will frighten fantasy football owners unnecessarily.

Then again, a photo of a player with the phrase "Have You Seen Me?" should scare you. I'm profiling players at each position this month who mystified their fantasy owners last year when their starter production disappeared - perhaps never to be seen again.

The series began with two quarterbacks that got lost in the fantasy wilderness and their whereabouts are unknown at this time. Part Two continued with three runners that got lost between the parking lot and the stadium. Part three profiled three receivers last seen at the fantasy pre-game parade seated on a float entering a tunnel. 

The series concludes with a foursome of tight ends who may be feared missing after not making their expected box score deliveries in 2012. All four area capable of TE1 fantasy production.

Dustin Keller has moved to a new team while Brent Celek - at least judging by OTAs - has watched a new team move into his facility. Jermichael Finley and Antonio Gates were once considered elite options, but the "elite" portion of their games was last seen getting into a stranger's car and fantasy police fear the worst. 

Dustin Keller: Will Ryan Tannehill Lead a Successful Search Party?

AFC East. Promising young quarterback. Free agent deep threat acquired from Pittsburgh. Potential feature back.

Dustin Keller has experienced this dynamic once before in New York with Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes, and Shonn Greene. Keller produced two top-10 fantasy seasons with at least 100 targets and 5 touchdowns, but the Jets offense progressively got worse. Now in Miami, Keller is paired with Ryan Tannehill, former Steeler Mike Wallace, and up and coming talent Lamar Miller.

Just as New York hoped, Miami wants to use its big-play receiver and runner to place safeties in a double-bind and provide its quarterback lots of room to find the tight end in the middle of the field. The plan is good, but can the Dolphins execute it better than the Jets?

I think so.  

The reasons begin with a quarterback situation that doesn't appear much different on the surface, but should play out as a greater advantage for the Dolphins. Tannehill and Sanchez had nearly identical production as rookies, but the Miami starter was more judicious with the football and demonstrated greater poise in the pocket.

Tannehill also has a better supporting infrastructure in Miami than Sanchez does in New York. The Dolphins' coaching staff has more offensive savvy and it fit Tannehill into a scheme that is the pro version of his college offense. It allowed Tannehill to learn about NFL defenses through a familiar lens and set a good foundation for eficient growth.  

What the Dolphins offense does to accommodate the addition of Keller - a move tight end with more speed to stretch the field and agility after the catch than Miami had with Anthony Fasano - could elevate the unit's production. However, many writers and fans see the Dolphins' decision to draft Michigan State's Dion Sims as a negative for Keller.

It might be a poor assumption. 

Sims is a promising run blocker with the tools to develop into an excellent in-line tight end. He'll provide the Tannehill a big target with the fluid athleticism to generate big plays if he gets free up the seam. Sims' skill at the line of scrimmage will also allow the Dolphins to use Keller as its primary receiving tight end and move the veteran around the formation as an H-back.

Like the Patriots of recent seasons, the Dolphins aren't flush with wide receiver talent. Brian Hartline proved that he is a capable player, but I think it's still safe to say that there are 16-20 teams with a better all-around wide receiver corps.

Miami's tight end upgrade is the big move for the offense. Defensive coordinators have gone on record that 12 personnel (two tight end) sets pose a lot of problems because of its inherent versatility. Does a defense cover a tight end with a linebacker, safety, or corner? Whatever the answer, there's a run/pass mismatch available for the quarterback to exploit.

Keller may not be Aaron Hernandez in talent, but he is Hernandez-like in skill set and this is a technical (if not physical) upgrade to Charles Clay. The addition of Sims is a potential long-term upgrade to Fasano and it frees the Dolphins to use Keller as the unit's Joker

Tannehill targeted Fasano 68 times last year, but only found the tight end in situations where yards after the catch were either hard to exploit or Fasano's skill set could be in decline (8.1 yards per catch average - down from 14.1 in 2011 and 13.5 in 2010). Although I believe Keller's receiving skills as a pass catcher, route runner, and ball carrier offer the best combination of Fasano and Clay, I think Tannehill's lack of NFL experience and most of all, the loss of Brandon Marshall were the real culprits for Miami's decline in tight end production.

Mike Wallace's gifts are the polar opposite of Marshall, but both command attention from multiple defenders and this will return the tight end to prominence in the Dolphins offense. History tells us that rookie tight ends rarely have strong fantasy production. Combine that with the strengths and weaknesses both Keller and Sims possess and I think Keller is a value as TE21 in 2013 fantasy drafts because the opportunity to have a 100-target season is better than some may realize. 

It won't be a stretch for Keller to approach that total of looks in this offense. Tannehill attempted 484 passes last year, 17th among NFL quarterbacks. There's room for growth and typically, teams allow its second-year passers to throw the ball more. I'd expect another 80-100 attempts from Tannehill this year. 

Anthony Fasano earned 68 targets last year and Clay earned 33 looks. If we use a similar distribution between Keller as the primary option and Sims as the secondary, another 80-100 attempts could mean a 16-20 percent increase in targets for the tight end position. Based solely on last year's distribution, Keller could expect to see 78-81 targets. If Keller catches these targets at the same 60 percent rate as Fasano, we're looking at close to 50 receptions. 

Because Keller has better skill after the catch and more speed, I think his athleticism and reasonable improvement from Ryan Tannehill could translate to a yards per catch average of 14-15 yards. Let's be conservative and use 12 yards per catch, which is roughly the tight end's career average. To maintain the conservative estimate, give Keller four touchdowns and the Dolphins tight end would have a 50-catch, 600-yard, 4-score, 133-point fantasy year in 2013 - good enough for top-15 production. 

Conservatively speaking, getting top-15 value from the 21st tight end off the board is good value. With an upgrades to wide receiver and projected improvement at quarterback, I think 60 catches, 650 yards, and 5 touchdowns is still as reasonable expectation - top-12 production by 2012 standards. 

Right now, most fantasy owners can wait (at least) until the 12th round to acquire Keller. In terms of value, Keller might be the best of this offensive unit. 

Brent Celek: "We didn't land Chip Kelly; Chip Kelly landed on us!!!"

It's how I imagine the veteran tight end must feel after the Eagles hired the Oregon coach with the fast-paced, multiple tight end offense. For the past four years, Celek has delivered reception and yardage totals commensurate with a fantasy starter. However, his red zone production has been the tipping point between fantasy option and also-ran. 

The introduction of Kelly's offense further complicates Celek's fantasy outlook, because most people assume Celek will earn the primary blocking role and James Casey and Zach Ertz will cut into his targets. Kelly already stated that Ertz will be a big part of the offense, but post-draft proclamations are a lot like post-coital declarations of love. Considering that Kelly and Ertz are first-year personnel and tight ends don't have a strong history of fantasy production as rookies, I'm thinking there was some post-draft, 'connubial bliss' entering the equation. 

It's also worth noting that one could define 'a big part of an offense' as a role that doesn't translate into a high volume of targets. It's possible all three tight ends have defined roles and targets that would equate to elite fantasy production if concentrated to one player.

However, it's more likely we'll see the productivity evenly distributed among at least two of the Eagles' three tight ends. It's why I have a difficult time maintaining confidence in Ertz, Casey, or Celek as potential values in fantasy leagues until waiver wires open in September. 

In addition to a new offense, coaching staff, and changes to the tight end depth chart, the quarterback position is in flux. Michael Vick has deficiencies that are unlikely to change and the team has been infatuated with Matt Barkley since the end of 2011. It could make Nick Foles an early factor as a way to move away from the Vick era and transition to Barkley. With the two passers splitting reps 50-50 in OTAs,  it will be difficult to project tendencies and rapport. 

Even so, one of the great things about an up-tempo offense is how it forces defenses into situations where the quarterback can read a minimal number of looks and respond accordingly. The scheme also forces defenders into errors, creating open passing lanes for easier plays. I don't care if Ertz is an overrated athlete and tight end in my book, he still has the hands and wheels to work the seam in this offense. 

Casey is the player I like the most as an athlete and receiver, but there is a good chance he could play fullback in this offense. Ertz's presence may also foil any opportunity for Casey to earn that wing back spot in two tight end sets where he get the deeper targets.

Beginning to see how the tight end depth chart could amount to interchangeable parts when it comes to targets? Each player may have a specific role as a receiver, but the frequency and fantasy value of each role may not be strong enough alone to make any of these three players great options unless one earns significant red zone looks. 

If I were to bet on one of this trio to earn this red zone role it would be Ertz and I'd be more inclined to think Foles or Barkley would be on the passing end of the equation. This too makes the situation high-risk to make an Eagles tight end a draft-day priority. 

The ADP for Celek (TE25), Ertz (TE29), and Casey (TE30) is indicative of this uncertainty. It's a fantasy situation ripe for big winners and big losers, which makes it worthwhile in a deep draft to take flier on one of them late, but avoid in drafts with 20 rosters spots or less. 

My advice: call off the search party on Philadelphia tight ends - especially Celek - until mid-September. 

Jermichael Finley: A Ferrari in manhattan Traffic?

If there's a player in fantasy sports who attracts his share of writer and fan enablers it's Finley. Greg Jennings' move to Minnesota has some predicting the Packers tight end will rebound to top-five fantasy production. It's a deceptive statement, because his top-five season in 2011 was his first and only starter-worthy season in 12-team leagues during his five-year career.

The logic is centered around Finley's top-shelf physical talent and working with a great quarterback. In some people's minds, the only thing holding back the Packers tight end has been the competition for targets. They neglect to talk about his dropped passes, his disappearances during games [when asked about Finley's lack of targets, Aaron Rodgers has responded that he throws to whoever is open], and his and his agent's whining about said lack of targets.

Like a high-test sports car, I agree that Finley has the talent to make fantasy owners happy. But I disagree that Jennings' move to Minnesota provides clear road for Finley to open up the engine in 2013. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones will all have a say - even if Green Bay doesn't deliver three, 1000-yard receivers in the process. 

I think many people are writing off Jones because they see his 784-yard, 14-touchdown production of 2012 and have decided that Finley will at least earn half of whatever Jones had last year. If they are correct, Finley's production could reach top-five heights once again, but should we really expect that production to go to Finley or the ground game?

The Packers tight end has only two seasons with more than two total touchdowns and his eight-touchdown total in 2011 was the same year Nelson had 15 scores; Jones had 7; and Randall Cobb was a rookie. Moreover, the Packers haven't had an above average ground game since Ryan Grant left and a good one since Ahman Green lit up Lambeau Field.

Nelson, Jones, and Cobb are all entering their prime and the addition of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to the ground game makes it difficult for me to believe that Finley not only becomes a priority red zone option, but also continues to earn 600-800 yards receiving. It's either one or the other if these five players are healthy in 2013. 

Finley is the 12th tight end off the board in most fantasy drafts. He looks like a potential value, but looking at the surrounding talent and Finley's career production, I think the optimism is based on Aaron Rodgers and Finley's physical upside.

To offer some perspective, Jared Cook has physical upside but without a quarterback or a system matching his talents he has been a dud.

Finley's top-five upside requires too many pieces to fall into place. A lack of consistent red zone production makes him capable of disappointing fantasy owners yet again.

I don't see many Ferrari's in high-density, urban traffic. When I do, it's sad sight to see them at a crawl. The spirit of the machine is absent in that setting. Don't expect to find that Ferrari zooming through bumper-to-bumper passing lanes when it's the wide receivers holding the E-Z Passes.

Antonio Gates:  A Ferrari in manhattan with roads closed to the General public? 

Gates had his worst season since his rookie year and he was still the 12th-best fantasy tight end (14th in PPR leagues) in 2012. That's "good downside" if you ask me.

Sure he's old and injuries have supposedly taken a toll. All I know is that Finley is younger, a better athlete at this point, and playing with a better quarterback, but it is the Chargers tight end who never fell out of the top-10 despite his injury woes.

At least until last year.

Some characterize Gates' 2012 as a disappearing act, often occurring in the second half of games.  A deeper look reveals that Gates still demonstrated starter skills, but the quality and frequency of targets didn't match previous seasons. Philip Rivers played behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league without a strong ground game to complement him. Danario Alexander posted WR1 production in the second half of the season and Malcom Floyd was workmanlike as a top-40 receiver. 

Gates may have been "no better than the third option" in this Chargers offense, but defenses didn't play him that way. Alexander routinely faced the weakest defensive back on the opposing team while Gates was the focus of attention. Yet, Gates still offered starter production despite a disastrous year where little worked for the San Diego offense. 

Vincent Brown is healthy this year and the addition of Keenan Allen will provide the Chargers enough threats to open the middle of the field for Gates. This may sound like my supporting argument for Gates is heading down the same road as the opposing tract I took against Finley. The difference is the track record of a Gates-Rivers connection and the youth of the receiving corps. 

Rivers has demonstrated a penchant for throwing the ball up for grabs when he spots a physical mismatch. Rodgers may deliver well-timed, back-shoulder fades, but the emphasis is on timing and placement rather than getting the ball in the general area and relying on the receiver to win the rebound.

Other than these fades, Rodgers leans more on finding the open man rather than the man-to-man mismatch. This is why the Gates-Rivers connection has yielded more production than the Finley-Rodgers tandem.

Where I think Finley's teammates will take targets away from the Packers tight end, the Chargers receivers will only enhance Gates' opportunities. Unlike Finley, whose touchdown totals have consistently been among the worst of fantasy tight ends, Gates' seven touchdowns in 2012 was still fourth among tight ends.

Despite the disappointing season, Gates remained one of the best end zone tight ends in the league. The addition of receivers who can get open and catch the ball against quality defenders (Brown and Allen) will open the field for Gates.  I think it's enough to help Gates earn another reception per game. 

If Gates builds on his 2012 reception total while maintaining his touchdown sum and career-low 11 yards per catch average, his production will be top-5 at his position. I think it's easier to project a reception more per game (Gates) than an increase of five touchdowns (Finley). Where the Packers skill players are crowding the road for their Ferrari, the Chargers are acting as motorcycle escort for theirs.

I also don't buy the Gates "isn't what he used to be" story line. I have no doubt he's lost some of his athleticism and stamina as he's aged, but not enough to see his effectiveness drop off a cliff. Opposing teams don't put their worst coverage guy on Alexander if Gates is no longer a top-end player. And from what I saw, opposing defenses didn't assign their best to Floyd.

The OTA reports in San Diego indicate that Gates looks good. As the TE10 with an ADP in the range of rounds 8-10, I think Gates' ceiling is still as high as Finley's with a much higher floor. I won't say Gates is a value at this range as much as he is worth the selection.

Good enough for me.


More from Matt Waldman:

Gut Check No.321: Boobie and Bryce - October 21
Gut Check No.320: Fantasy Mid-Season Review - October 14
Gut Check No.319: Emergent(cies) - October 7
Gut Check No.318: ADP vs. End of Season - September 30
Gut Check No.317: Week 3 Is No Time to Panic - September 23
Gut Check No.316: Week 2 - Sifting Through The Wreckage - September 16
Gut Check No.315: Week 1 - Straight, No Chaser - September 9
Under The Microscope: Ravens RB Lorenzo Taliaferro - September 8
Gut Check No.314: 2014 Fantasy If . . . Then - September 1
Gut Check No.313: Waiver Wire Prep - August 25