Fantasy: After Gronk and Graham, little difference

Posted July 19, 2012 @ 12:58 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

At my old job many moons ago, a former coworker and I took part in a very strange fantasy football draft. It was me and him: A two-team league.

We did it mostly for folly, but also for curious experiment. Would strategy change in such a league? I did some homework after winning the first overall pick (ha) and quickly figured out that it would change — dramatically.

This was prior to the 2001 NFL season, and the top fantasy draws in standard (non-weirdo) leagues were players such as Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Fred Taylor, Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner.

So whom did I select first? Tony Gonzalez. Yep, a tight end. PFW's 37th-ranked overall player that year.

My philosophy was this: The difference between Gonzalez and the next-best player at tight end — a past-his-prime Shannon Sharpe and a list of stunningly bad fantasy players (Freddie Jones and Jay Riemersma were ranked three and four, respectively in PFW’s fantasy mag that year) — was massive, bigger than at any other position by a mile.

My fantasy rival could have his Faulk-James backfield, and I was still going to get Fred Taylor and Eddie George, but he’d be saddled with Sharpe. Brilliant, right? Boom.

Now, the risk — I say that as if there was anything at stake with this sham league — didn’t pay off for me: Even with James missing 10 games that year, Faulk had another monster season and the two of them easily outscored (190 fantasy points) my top two backs (33, with Taylor missing all but two games that season). Oops.

But I was mostly right about Gonzalez (917 yards, six TDs) and Sharpe (811 yards, two TDs). And you should get the point when I relate it to this season and fantasy leagues (and some semblance of reality) consisting of, say, 10-14 teams.

You’ve got the two big dogs at the top, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. They’re great. Their stats were neck and neck. Fantasy czars from coast to coast will debate this year: Which one is better?

Forget that noise. If one gets drafted with the 15th pick in your draft, the other one must immediately go with with 16th. There’s no debate there; they are far and away the two most exciting options at the position.

The question of real import is this: Which tight end should go next — and when?

I personally wouldn’t touch another one until the fifth round at least, but that's even too soon. That’s where Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley landed in PFW's fantasy preview mock draft this summer, and Aaron Hernandez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Brent Celek checked in a round later. Eight tight ends in the first six rounds. If this was 2001 and that happened, Ricky Dudley and Marcus Pollard would be walking around with their chests puffed out just a little bit extra.

Me, I’ll opt to wait. If I can get Fred Davis in Round Seven, Gonzalez in Round Eight or Jared Cook or Greg Olsen (not sold on Coby Fleener yet) in Round Nine, I am doing it. I did do it: I snagged Olsen in our draft, then took Jacob Tamme in Round 14 when other guys were mispronouncing kickers’ names.

All you need do is look at the 2011 statistics for PFW’s No. 3-15 ranked tight ends entering this season to see that there is not a huge difference:

PFW ranking
Player Receptions Receiving yards
Touchdowns
3 Vernon Davis, 49ers 67 792 6
4 Antonio Gates, Chargers 64 778 7
5 Jermichael Finley, Packers 55 767 8
6 Jason Witten, Cowboys 79 942 5
7 Tony Gonzalez, Falcons 80 875 7
8 Brent Celek, Eagles 62 811 5
9 Fred Davis, Redskins 59 796 3
10 Aaron Hernandez, Patriots 79 910 7
11 Greg Olsen, Panthers 45 540 5
12 Owen Daniels, Texans 54 677 3
13 Kellen Winslow, Seahawks (stats with Bucs) 75 763 2
14 Jared Cook, Titans 49 759 3
16* Dustin Keller, Jets 65 815 5

* Coby Fleener is PFW's 15th-ranked tight end, but as he is a rookie this season, he had no 2011 NFL statistics.

Quick look down the list ... Other than the touchdowns tapering off a little — and those are hard to predict, year to year — there's little difference between the top and bottom. Fred Davis had four more yards (in four fewer games played, no less) than Vernon Davis. Keller had more yards than anyone up there beside Witten, Hernandez and Gonzalez, and Cook wasn't far behind. Keller and Cook are both young players with upside and room to improve, too.

And the list doesn't even include Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham, who had more yards than Olsen and more TDs than all but five of those players, and Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew, who caught 83-777-5 last season. It also doesn't include players such as Chiefs TE Tony Moeaki, who went for 47-556-3 as a rookie before missing last season, or Tamme, who caught 67-631-4 (all of it coming in a 10-game span) in '10.

See my point? If you can't grab Gronk or Graham (who still needs a good nickname) up high, then just wait. Wait a while. The tight end you consider picking in Round Five is maybe not that much better than the guys you would consider in Rounds 10-15. Seriously. And while other guys are reaching, you can rack up depth at other positions.

Or just ponder which guy, Gronk or Graham, would go first in a two-man league. Maybe that's the real debate.