Tight End Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 27th, 2010

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 the rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, tiering and then running a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will 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 this summer, including IDPs, 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 again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered positions: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Defensive Line, Linebacker

In this installment, we round out the offensive side of the ball, the tight ends.

The tier of tight ends capable of WR2-like production (or better) grows deeper and deeper with every passing season. That's evident again this season. What's notable this year is the number of tight ends with WR1-like (1000+ yards, 8+TD) potential and the number of back end TE1 and mid-TE2 candidates with explosive upside. It's already going to be very hard to not to draft one of the top six tight ends if they slide a round further than expected in your draft, but the depth of the second tier and upside in the TE2 tiers will serve you well if you do.

Sigmund Bloom

The 24K Gold Standard: Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark

If you're going to take a TE in the third or fourth round, it better be one of these guys. Both have elite quality QBs, both are used all over the field, and both will probably be favored once again in the red zone. Gates gets the edge because the absence of Vincent Jackson means he could set career highs in receptions and yards.

14K Gold: Vernon Davis, Jason Witten (PPR+)

Both of these TEs are top-end options, but both have dings on their value that keep them from the uberelite tier. Davis has an uninspiring QB in Alex Smith, a growing talent as a #1 WR to take targets away in Michael Crabtree, and he caught three or fewer passes in seven games last year. Witten should get in the end zone more than two times this year with Cowboys re-committed to using him as a receiver in the red zone, but it's still unlikely that he surpasses six or seven.

Studs in the Making?: Jermichael Finley, Brent Celek, Zach Miller (OAK)

Finley really belongs in his own “uberstud in the making” tier, because he has the chance to be the next Antonio Gates, but in a souped-up passing offense. No one should be shocked if he finishes as the #1 fantasy TE this year, but likewise, no one should be surprised if Finley's knee problems, immaturity, or just the wide range of great targets in Green Bay keep him from being a constant studly presence in the box score. Celek has the benefit of being a great friend of new QB Kevin Kolb, and he should only build on last year's breakout numbers. Zach Miller managed solid numbers with JaMarcus Russell at QB, with an upgrade to a competent QB who is already zeroing in on him in Jason Campbell, 80 catches and 1000 yards are within his reach.

Reliable Every Week Starters: Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Heath Miller, Chris Cooley, Owen Daniels

The fact that all of these guys should be available after at least six teams have taken their starting TE shows you exactly why waiting on the position is the right call this year. All of them are good bets to catch at least 70 balls for 750 yards and 4-6 TDs, and that's just their floor. All are proven passcatchers, and most of them should have the benefit of better QB play than they had last year. Tony Gonzalez might not have top 5 upside anymore, but with injuries stacking up in the Falcons WR corps, he should outperform last year's modest numbers. Winslow had another knee surgery, and his QB has a broken thumb, but the Bucs WR corps has breakout rookie Mike Williams, crafty slot receiver Sammie Stroughter, and not much else to speak of right now. Miller could lead the Steelers in receptions and soak up some of the extra targets Santonio Holmes left in his wake. Cooley is riffing with Donovan McNabb and early expectations by some (including myself) that Fred Davis would be a co-#1 TE aren't coming to fruition in the passing game. Lastly, there's Owen Daniels, whose top 5 production last year makes him the highest ceiling player of this group, but the fact that we still haven't seen him play this summer after his ACL tear means he's the one player in this group that requires a decent #2 TE in reserve just in case. Regardless of who falls to you, being able to pay a paltry price of a pick between the 9th and 12th rounds and still landing one of these proven producers is a no-brainer unless one of the top 5 falls to the sixth round.

Adequate Starters: Visanthe Shiancoe (PPR-), Dustin Keller, John Carlson

Shiancoe is actually a solid starter in nonPPR leagues. Keller should have at least a handful of top 10 TE weeks, but with the Jets likely being at least a little run-heavy with three quality WRs, it will be hard for Keller to be a dependable every-week starter. He's definitely the best bet outside of the top 12 TEs to become one, but I wouldn't draft him before I had my starter. Carlson can only improve from last year's showing, but the entire Seahawks offense is a question mark. A breakout year by Carlson wouldn't be a shock, but more mediocrity from the Seahawks continuing to hold him back wouldn't surprise either.

Good Depth: Fred Davis, Kevin Boss

Both of these TEs get enough red zone looks to be borderline starting options in nonPPR leagues, but it's hard to imagine either rising higher than third in the pecking order on their team for targets, and neither has big play ability.

Upside Bench Plays: Greg Olsen, Tony Scheffler, Aaron Hernandez, Jermaine Gresham

All of these TEs have the talent to be in the top 10 at this position, and there are signs that all of them could have the opportunity this year. Olsen got more targets than any receiver in Chicago's training camp, Scheffler is a quasi-starter as the two TE set will be the base offense for Detroit, Hernandez has been featured in the preseason, and Gresham has also been thrown into the fire right away with good results. Any of these TEs are nice late-round fliers in PPR leagues to hold for a few weeks and see what happens.

Bye Week/Injury Plug-ins: Jeremy Shockey, Todd Heap, Bo Scaife (PPR+), Marcedes Lewis

Shockey and Heap are going to be involved in their offenses... as long as they stay healthy, which is far from a sure thing considered their advanced age and injury histories. Scaife will remain the safety valve for Vince Young that he was back at Texas, and Lewis may finally get a chance to be featured by offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter because of the lack of experience on the Jags roster at WR. Any of these guys could have a nice run of weeks here and there to generate marginal trade value in deep leagues, and they are all good depth in survivor/best ball leagues.

Monitor on Waiver Wire: Brandon Pettigrew, Ben Watson, Jared Cook, James Casey/Joel Dreessen/Garrett Graham, Evan Moore, Daniel Fells, Marquez Branson

Pettigrew will likely take a back seat to Scheffler in the passing game, but could still have value in a high-powered pass offense. Watson is reportedly one of Jake Delhomme's favorite targets and could be worth rostering if he becomes more consistent. Cook's development is stuck in neutral, but he is one of the five most physically talented TEs in the league. The latest news on Owen Daniels is good, but one of the Texans trio of TEs could step into his role if he has a setback with his third ACL tear recovery. Moore is a TE with a wide receiver game as a pass catcher, and both Fells and Branson have come out of obscurity to be the primary pass-catching TE for their teams.

Jene Bramel

Stud TE1 (Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Brent Celek)

There's an argument that the first three players listed have slightly better all-around upside than the last three in the tier, but all six have it all. Strong offensive systems with multiple weapons, opportunity all over the field and the talent to be used as their team's primary pass catcher. It may not break that way for all six, but it could.

Gates is unquestionably the best receiving threat the Chargers have and he's proven he can't be handled without a huge defensive commitment to stop him. Clark might be the most reliable receiver Peyton Manning has if Reggie Wayne continues to look like he did in late 2009. Finley is another Gates in the making and is easily the Packers' best red zone option. There may be legitimate concerns about Alex Smith in San Francisco, but they didn't slow Davis down last year and the Niners' offense looks much better on paper this year. Witten gets knocked for his red zone looks, but he's the most likely to threaten 90 catches and 1200 yards of this group.

I think Celek is arguably both the best possession option, third down option and red zone option in the Eagles' passing attack. He's generally ranked at the bottom of this tier due to the track record and raw athleticism and upside of the consensus top five, but he's got a chance to be a little Antonio Gates, a little Jason Witten, and a little Jermichael Finley combined in the same package. I wouldn't be shocked to see 125 targets, 85 catches, 1100 yards and 8-10 scores and I'd rank him higher if I trusted Kevin Kolb to perform against tougher defenses as he has against the weaker ones his best games have come against to date.

Solid TE1 (Tony Gonzalez, Zach Miller, Kellen Winslow, Heath Miller)

Gonzalez, Zach Miller and Winslow could see as many targets as the group above and are all three capable of converting enough red zone looks and longer routes into scores that all three (especially Gonzalez) may rightfully deserve mention alongside the top six. If you've targeted a top six tight end and miss, Gonzalez is a very strong consolation prize 3-5 rounds after Gates goes off the board. I'd really like to rank Miller higher as I see his profile as similar to that of Celek. But offensive concerns and red zone opportunities have me worried enough to keep him in a tier closer to his floor than his ceiling. The Bucs' offense may be better than many think and Winslow racked up targets last season. He's still a trustworthy TE1. Heath Miller looks like a prime candidate to slip, but his career high in targets wasn't the anomaly it looks at first glance and his red zone chances weren't that out of line with his prior season numbers either. He's a safer pick than he's getting credit for being.

Risky TE1 (Chris Cooley, Owen Daniels, Visanthe Shiancoe)

I'm likely avoiding this group altogether this season, though there are good arguments for any of the three to earn a spot in the tier above. I'm unlikely to roster them because I'll likely have drafted one of the ten players in my top two tiers and I like the upside of a few players in the tiers below that can be had much, much later in the draft. I like both Cooley and Daniels, but the presence of Fred Davis and worries about the rest of the Redskins' offense have me concerned about Cooley, and, reassuring MRI or not, Daniels is the type of player who usually struggles in his first season back after ACL surgery and the Texans are loaded with receiving options at WR and TE if Daniels is even a quarter step slow. Shiancoe's value derives mostly from his red zone numbers and there's too much uncertainty in Minnesota right now to trust that Shiancoe can continue his positive trend in overall targets (43 to 59 to still just 79 in 2009) while maintaining one of the league's highest red zone counts and conversion rate at his position.

Upside TE2 (John Carlson, Greg Olsen, Jermaine Gresham, Dustin Keller, Aaron Hernandez)

Lots of overlooked value here right now. Carlson might prove very interesting if Pete Carroll will let him run enough patterns and use him as he has others in previous coaching stops. Olsen was left for dead after Mike Martz was hired. Camp reports suggest that might be a bit of an overreaction. Don't reach for him as your TE1 (in 12 team leagues), but don't cross him off your lists either. Gresham is being used extensively during the preseason, lining up as an H-back, a slot WR and a split end. If he can consistently get separation off the line, there's plenty of targets over the middle and in the red zone to be had. Keller isn't an every-week starter, but his mini-explosions are a perfect fit as your backup. I've been with Matt Waldman since draft weekend on Hernandez and I don't think the miraculous recovery of Wes Welker hurts Hernandez at all. Hernandez isn't the kind of rookie tight end that starts slowly. Think of him as a slot WR with elite red zone capability. If you don't like the prospects of many of the other backups in these tiers, take a flier on Hernandez a round or two earlier than his ADP currently suggests. The risk-reward profile will still be immensely in your favor.

Roster Filler TE2 With Situational Upside (Jeremy Shockey, Todd Heap, Anthony Fasano, Tony Scheffler, Kevin Boss, Fred Davis, Daniel Fells, Bo Scaife, Ben Watson, Marcedes Lewis)

These are the kinds of players we were looking at in the late TE1 tier a few years ago. Now you can have them as your rotational bye week replacements. I'd really like to put Shockey at least a tier higher, but his durability history has him too risky for the risky TE1 tier. Take him only if you get him late enough that he won't drive you nuts sitting on your roster.

Upside Watch List Waiver Targets (Brandon Pettigrew, Zach Miller, Jared Cook, Tony Moeaki, Shawn Nelson, David Thomas/Jimmy Graham, James Casey, Evan Moore)

There's something about every situation in the above group that could vault these players into the upside TE2 tier at any time. At least one of these players will be the next Visanthe Shiancoe or Brett Celek and earn a comfortable TE1 rankings and ADP in the coming seasons. For this season, the most likely candidates (based on depth chart and strength of quarterback and offense) are probably David Thomas/Jimmy Graham and James Casey, with Tony Moeaki and Jared Cook darkhorse possibilities. I liked Nelson's upside a couple of months ago, but the suspension will make it tough for him to develop a rapport with his quarterbacks before the weather changes.

As always, thanks for reading. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome to bloom@footballguys.com and bramel@footballguys.com.

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