Newcomers, established vets headline deep TE group

Posted July 22, 2011 @ 8:22 a.m.
Posted By Eli Kaberon

Injuries derailed many of the game's top tight ends last season, limiting their playing time on the field and impact in the world of fantasy football. Antonio Gates, Dallas Clark and Jermichael Finley combined to play only 21 games in 2010, a giant letdowm to owners who invested early-round picks in those players.

Yet in their place, a new crop of tight ends emerged as go-to guys. From surprising rookies to well-known vets, there were plenty of players at the position who had terrific years. There is more depth than ever, especially now with those three standouts returning to full strength.

Familiar faces dominate our list of the 10 best tight ends, but there are a couple of first-timers making their presence known as well.

1. Antonio Gates / San Diego Chargers

Key stat: No tight end in the league moves the chains better than Gates. Eighty-four percent of his receptions in 2010 resulted in first downs, the highest at the position among players with double-digit catches, and his 15 receptions of 20 yards or more trailed only Vernon Davis. 

The skinny: Injuries ended Gates' season prematurely, although his stats were still worthy of receiving a Pro Bowl invite. With QB Philip Rivers firing him passes, Gates should be able to increase his productivity if he can stay healthy.

2. Jason Witten / Dallas Cowboys

Key stat: There are plenty of tight ends who are quality targets, but very few who are their team's primary receiving option; Witten is one of those few. His 128 targets last season led all players at the position, as did his 94 receptions. He also was the only tight end to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards.

The skinny: It's important to remember that Witten posted those career numbers even though Cowboys QB Tony Romo, one of Witten's closest friends, was out for much of the season. Although Romo likes to air it out deep to his wide receivers, he should look for Witten plenty in the Dallas attack in 2011.

3. Dallas Clark / Indianapolis Colts

Key stat: A wrist injury ended Clark's 2010 season after six games, but even before that, his numbers weren't up their usual standard. With defenses focusing on him more than ever, Clark gained 9.4 yards per reception, the lowest average of his career by more than a yard.

The skinny: Playing with Peyton Manning is always a positive, but Clark's owners should be wary about how many passes will be thrown his way. Backup TE Jacob Tamme emerged as a quality target after Clark went on injured reserve and could cut into Clark's stats.

4. Vernon Davis / San Francisco 49ers

Key stat:  Davis' catches, yards and touchdowns all dropped from their 2009 level, but he did improve his yards per reception to an exceptional 16.3 last season.

The skinny: The only thing holding Davis back is the giant question at quarterback for San Francisco. New head coach Jim Harbaugh loves throwing to his tight ends, so Davis will have plenty of opportunities to make plays, assuming his QB can get him the ball.

5. Jermichael Finley / Green Bay Packers

Key stat: Finley is a dynamic playmaker when he's on the field, but injuries have limited him to only 16 career starts in three seasons since being drafted. Last season, a knee injury in Week Five kept him on the sideline for the rest of the regular season and all of the Packers' Super Bowl playoff run.

The skinny: If he's fully healthy, Finley will be a fantasy force. The Packers' offense is based on downfield throws, and Finley is one of the best in the NFL at stretching the field, gaining more than 14 yards per catch last season (12.8 career average).

6. Kellen Winslow / Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key stat: Down the stretch, Winslow played his best ball of the season, grabbing all five of his touchdown catches in the Bucs' final eight games.

The skinny: QB Josh Freeman will look for his young wide receivers first, but that shouldn't stop fantasy owners from picking Winslow. He's a consistent playmaker who produces on a weekly basis.

7. Rob Gronkowski / New England Patriots

Key stat: With 10 touchdowns in his rookie season, Gronkowski tied for the league lead in that category despite sharing playing time with fellow first-year TE Aaron Hernandez.

The skinny: Very few defenders can match up with the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski, a reason Patriots QB Tom Brady looks for him in the red zone. Assuming Gronkowski can avoid a sophomore slump, double-digit TDs are not out of the question for him in 2011.

8. Aaron Hernandez / New England Patriots

Key stat: In his first season in New England, Hernandez figured out quickly who his biggest rivals were. He gained 61.5 yards per game vs. AFC East opponents, more than 20 yards above his season average.

The skinny: A versatile player who can line up at several different spots, Hernandez is unlike most NFL tight ends. One worry is injuries, as hip problems limited productivity at the end of his rookie season.

9. Tony Gonzalez / Atlanta Falcons

Key stat: His receptions and yards have decreased each of the past four seasons but Gonzalez has remained a consistent scoring force. His six receiving TDs last season were second on the Falcons, trailing only All-Pro WR Roddy White.

The skinny: Although he keeps himself in terrific shape — he has missed only two games in a 14-year career — Gonzalez's best days are clearly behind him. He still will post above-average stats, but don't expect the vintage No. 88 anymore.

10. Marcedes Lewis / Jacksonville Jaguars

Key stat: In Lewis' first four seasons as a pro, he scored a grand total of seven touchdowns. In 2010, he scored 10, tying for the league lead from the position and earning him a Pro Bowl appearance.  

The skinny: On a team void of elite pass catchers, Lewis should get plenty of balls thrown his way and, as a result, plenty of attention from opponents.