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State of the Tight Ends

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State of the Tight Ends

Postby The Lung » Wed Jan 26, 2005 10:51 am

Next in the series from Fanball:

By Ted Carlson, Senior Editor
January 26, 2005 5:00 AM ET

My fantasy football 2004 recap and 2005 preview series previously discussed quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, and this week I'm moving on to the tight ends. We're fresh off a record-breaking year for the position, which is likely due in part to the increased talent and athleticism of the tight ends and in part to the increased focus on the defensive holding and interference rules. With smaller defensive backs unable to push and grab tight ends down the field, these mammoths ran wild and posted huge numbers.

Just how big a leap did they make? In 2003, we saw one tight end catch 70 or more passes, three score at least five touchdowns, and three finish with over 600 yards receiving. By comparison, the 2004 campaign featured six tight ends with 70 or more catches, 12 with at least five touchdowns, and eight with over 600 yards.

As a result, fantasy tight ends will likely take on increased value in 2005. We're used to seeing these players hanging out just above kicker and team defense level in fantasy drafts, but the position now features a pair of studs who will fall in the first three or four rounds of drafts and another handful of players who will go well before anybody is thinking about a kicker.

But before I look ahead, let's quickly revisit the year that was…

What Went Right in 2004
I felt like I was pretty high on Antonio Gates heading into the season (ranking him sixth and seventh Fanball's Fantasy Football Weekly Annual and Draft issues), but he exceeded everyone's expectations. Gates set a new tight end record by scoring 13 touchdowns, breaking a record co-owned by Mike Ditka, Jerry Smith, Todd Christensen, and Wesley Walls. Antonio also racked up 81 catches and 964 yards before sitting out in week 17. Did you also know that Gates played basketball and not football in college? I think I heard that somewhere.

The Chargers' dynamo was not the only record-setting tight end of the season. Tony Gonzalez not only led the NFL in catches (102), but he also surpassed Ben Coates (96) to set the new single-season receptions mark for tight ends. Gonzo used all those catches to crush his competition with a career-high 1,258 yards, which was 278 yards better than the next-best tight end. He finished a distant second to Gates with seven touchdowns, but that's not bad for a guy who played the entire season with a stress fracture in his foot.

Gates' impressive leap somewhat overshadowed the emergence of fellow sophomore Jason Witten. The former Volunteer didn't set any NFL records, but he did make his mark in the Cowboys' annals. Witten's 87 catches and 980 yards were both franchise records, and his six touchdowns weren't too shabby either.

I was tempted to admonish Alge Crumpler for doing virtually nothing over the last five weeks of the regular season, but it's tough to complain about 774 yards and six touchdowns over 14 games. Crump's yardage and receptions totals have now increased in four straight seasons, and we can only imagine the type of numbers he'll post when Michael Vick learns how to throw like a real NFL quarterback.

Considering his off-the-chart ranking at the beginning of the season, Jermaine Wiggins deserves to be brought up next. Despite missing two games, Wiggins finished with 71 catches (sixth amongst tight ends) and 705 yards (seventh). His four-touchdown total was ordinary, but he climbed the tight end rankings more than any other player this past season.

Randy McMichael had nearly identical numbers to Wiggins, so I suppose he belongs in this category as well. Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten spoiled fantasy owners so much that McMike's 791 yards and four scores seem pretty bland. However, just one season earlier, Randy's numbers would have easily ranked him as the third-best fantasy tight end, and his 2004 totals were significantly better than the 598 yards and two scores he posted in 2003. Nice improvement, Randy. Gold star for you.

What Went Sorta Right in 2004
I can already hear the question coming. "What makes Jeremy Shockey's 666 yards and six scores somehow worse than Wiggins and McMichael's numbers?" Well, I'll tell you. One, unlike Wiggins and McMichael, Shockey was in every top-five tight end list entering the season. Two, he posted 893 yards as a rookie and set a 978-yard pace (489 yards through eight games) before getting injured in 2003. Jeremy finally figured out the touchdown thing, but he regressed in terms on yardage. I only give him partially credit.

Eric Johnson finally stayed healthy and showed his potential, catching 82 passes for 825 yards. However, Johnson only scored twice and proved aggravatingly inconsistent. The smartypants from Yale finished with 633 yards and two scores at home versus 192 yards and no touchdowns on the road.

We had high hopes for Daniel Graham, and he fulfilled those expectations when he scored five times in the first four games. However, Grahambo then failed to find the end zone in the Patriots' next nine contests. He also only had two outings of 50 or more yards on the season. Only that glimmer of early success kept me from labeling him a complete failure.

Bubba Franks scored seven touchdowns and actually exceeded any projections I would have set before the season, but he was too hit-and-miss for fantasy leagues. Bubba scored in six different games (which was nice) but provided fantasy teams with 43 or fewer yards in the other 10 contests (which was not).

What Went Wrong in 2004
Todd Heap suffered through what was apparently one of the worst ankle sprains in history, and, in turn, his fantasy owners suffered through a season that saw him play in only six games. What made the hiatus even worse is that Heap came back in week 13 and scored three times over the next three games, reminding fantasy owners why they drafted him and kept him on their rosters. It proved too little, too late.

Brash rookie Kellen Winslow II was supposed to make as much noise as Michael Winslow but instead turned into a silent K when he fractured his fibula in week two. Fans of the family will recall that K.W., Sr. also broke his leg as a rookie in 1979. Daddy responded with 89 catches, 1,290 yards, and nine scores as a sophomore.

Jim Kleinsasser didn't even make it as far into the season as Winslow. He tore the ACL in his right knee in the season opener and missed the rest of the year. The positive spin on the injury was that it opened the door for Wiggins to succeed.

Saint Boo Williams committed a fantasy football sin by not building on his promise. The man formerly known as Eddie racked up 347 yards and four scores over the last six games of the 2003 season, and he didn't quite match that fantasy production in 16 games this year, finishing with 362 yards and two touchdowns.

This was supposed to be the season that Marcus Pollard passed the horseshoe to Dallas Clark, but the two Colt tight ends both battled injuries and finished with fairly similar, disappointing stats. Maybe if Peyton Manning weren't so fixated on his wide receivers, these boys could have helped fantasy owners on a more consistent basis.

Looking Ahead to 2005
As I discussed in the article intro, the tight end class is arguably stronger than it ever has been in the history of fantasy football and owners may find themselves picking this position earlier in their drafts than they are used to. The two Tony Gs will demand high picks, and there are at least five other tight ends I'd feel very good about having on my squad. Here's one man's early top-15 list for 2005:

1. Antonio Gates, Chargers: He'll drop one spot if Brees is replaced by Rivers.
2. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs: Do I need to explain this?
3. Todd Heap, Ravens: Back-to-back disappointments don't overshadow his immense potential.
4. Jason Witten, Cowboys: The 22-year-old is just beginning to tap into his potential.
5. Jeremy Shockey, Giants: I'm assuming Coughlin and Accorsi are able to shore up the offensive line enough to let Shockey roam free in 2005.
6. Alge Crumpler, Falcons: I think his numbers will flatten out, but I'll certainly take a repeat campaign.
7. Kellen Winslow, Browns: The franchise is in the middle of a lot of changes, and I'm waiting to see what happens before possibly moving Winslow up.
8. Randy McMichael, Dolphins: New O.C. Scott Linehan turned Wiggins into a viable fantasy tight end, and I figure he'll know what to do with McMike.
9. Eric Johnson, 49ers: The 49ers' offense (and therefore Johnson) has to be more consistent in 2005, right? Right?
10. Ben Troupe, Titans: See below.
11. L.J. Smith, Eagles: We often discuss the third-year receiver theory, and I think it applies to this third-year tight end as well.
12. Dallas Clark, Colts: All the talent is there, but health is a major issue.
13. Jeb Putzier, Broncos: The Broncos will still be running a ton of quarterback-to-tight end rollout plays in 2005.
14. Erron Kinney, Titans: See Troupe write-up below.
15. Bubba Franks, FA: Franks and Freddie Jones are both free agents with some talent that could land in favorable situations.

Bust (1): Daniel Graham, Patriots: The Patriots spread the ball around too much, and second-year tight end Ben Watson could steal some looks.

Bust (2): Jermaine Wiggins, FA: I believe the Vikings will bring him back, but a healthy Kleinsasser and full season of Randy Moss will decrease Wiggie's numbers.

Sleeper (1): Troupe, Titans: If, as rumored, the Titans release Derrick Mason, I'd expected to see Troupe (and Kinney) heavily involved in a passing game that would feature Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico as the starting receivers.

Sleeper (2): Jerramy Stevens, Seahawks: I've gone to bat for this kid before, and I'll be willing to do it again if (and only if) the Seahawks don't re-sign free agent Itula Mili. That would show me the club has some faith in this talented but troubled tight end.

That wraps up another review/preview article, and I'll return next week and wrap up this series with a discussion about Adam Vinatier, David Akers, and the rest of the fantasy kickers. I may even take a cheap shot at Doug Brien.
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Postby Mercer Boy » Wed Jan 26, 2005 10:59 am

I just totally skimmed everything and went to the end with the rankings and busts...I don't agree with Wiggins being a bust. Kleinsasser is a blocking TE; Wiggins is a pass catching TE. They could utilize a 2 TE set or just alternate them between passing and running downs (without looking too obvious :-) ) and still get Wiggins a decent amount of catches.

If I'm not mistaken, he was the leading pass receiver for the Vikings last year. They have found a weapon in him, and I wouldn't be diminishing his role a lot since he was a drive-continuing type of player. 71 catches in 14 games? 8-o Good stuff for a TE.
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Postby JimmyChoi » Wed Jan 26, 2005 11:26 am

I think Witten will continue to shine .....and approach Gates numbers....
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Postby The Lung » Wed Jan 26, 2005 1:29 pm

I like Witten a bunch, but with so much question about the QB situation in Dallas, there's no way I rank and draft Witten as my #4 tight end.
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Postby water boy » Wed Jan 26, 2005 1:51 pm

i not sold on heap considering the ravens qb play has been up and down all year,a player i like next year is Ben Troupe in what i saw of him he could be the next Gates.
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