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Clear TE strategy a must for fantasy owners

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Posted July 05, 2012 @ 3:09 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

The 4th of July holiday has passed, and summer inches toward the far turn. The lamenting about the lack of football will be over soon.

For fantasy football owners, there’s no better time than now to start planning for the campaign ahead. Now, when it’s quiet, is an ideal time to start pondering your draft strategy. A good starting-off point is to ask yourself this question: How deep is each of the skill positions?

Your answer at tight end should be a material part of your draft blueprint. Two players — the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham — tower over the other options at the position. Gronkowski is the top-ranked tight end in PFW’s 2012 Fantasy Football Guide, with Graham slotted second.

If you want Gronkowski or Graham, you are going to have to move early. Both should be off the board by the end of Round Three in standard-sized leagues, and it’s reasonable to consider both a round earlier, in my view, particularly if picking near the end of the second stanza. I will definitely do so. If that sounds rich, consider that Gronkowski, who racked up 90 catches, 1,327 yards and 18 TDs (including one rushing), averaged 15.06 fantasy points a season ago on PFW’s metrics, more than every other qualifying wideout save for the Lions’ Calvin Johnson (16.51).

Graham wasn’t quite as prolific as Gronkowski in ’11, but his stat line — 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs — is nothing to scoff at. Graham, who averaged 12.25 fantasy points, is the top target in a prolific passing offense, and he may have upside to improve further.

But let’s suppose you’re not buying that Gronkowski or Graham is that much better than other well-regarded players at their position. What to do then? In my view, owners need to have a clear opinion on the subject. The next three tight ends on PFW’s board are proven commodities but not slam dunks. Each has drawbacks.

The 49ers’ Vernon Davis, who’s third in our rankings, had a wonderful postseason, but he scored just 7.11 fantasy points per game in ’11, and he plays in an offense that’s not one of the NFL’s elite. The Chargers’ Antonio Gates (No. 4) has had a wonderful career and has shown great toughness playing through injury in recent years, but can he grind out one more productive season? And what to do with fifth-ranked Packers TE Jermichael Finley, a special talent who’s just a tad inconsistent?

Personally, I prefer Finley of that group. I’m also a huge fan of the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez, who could slip more than he should in drafts because of teammate Gronkowski’s prolific production. Me? I hope every draft I’m in goes that way. Hernandez averaged the third-most fantasy points among tight ends in 2011, proof that there are more than enough opportunities to go around in the New England offense.

If I strike out on Gronkowski, Graham, Finley and Hernandez … well, I won’t be happy, but I will not reach to simply fill the position. In my view, there is solid TE depth down the board, with the Bengals’ Jermaine Gresham (No. 17), the Ravens’ Dennis Pitta (No. 18) and the Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew (No. 19) being three players I like to exceed expectations.

Gresham, who made the Pro Bowl a season ago, has above-average athleticism for the position. He could take a nice step forward in 2012. Pitta has a strong rapport with QB Joe Flacco and could be sitting on a breakout season.

Pettigrew is rather underrated. For starters, he gets a high volume of passes thrown his way. He was the 14th-most targeted player in the NFL a season ago (126), and he had five games of double-digit targets. Also, though he gained less than 10 yards per catch in 2011, he moves well. He could get lost in the shuffle in leagues that don’t award points per reception, and he would represent outstanding value in the later rounds.

You may not like Pettigrew as much as I do. That’s fine. What isn’t fine is not having some semblance of a plan at the TE position on Draft Day. Don’t get left scratching your head and settling for a player you’re not sure you want. That’s a surefire way to start the season feeling those unwelcome pangs of regret.

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