By John Tuvey, Executive Editor
State of the Tight Ends
Not surprisingly, Antonio Gates was the class of the tight ends in 2006. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn't dominate the position quite as thoroughly as we expected.
Oh sure, he still led everyone at his position in yardage and touchdowns and outpointed the competition by roughly one point per game, but heading into 2006 some envisioned Gates as such a difference-maker that he might creep into the bottom of the first round.
While that may have been a tad aggressive, Gates most certainly headed up a class of tight ends that saw 10 members score at least five touchdowns (but only three score seven or more) and a cool dozen reach the 600-yard plateau (but, again, just three exceed 800).
Here's a glance back at the ups and downs of the 2006 campaign, as well as a peek at what might be in store for tight ends in 2007:
What Went Right in 2006
Obviously, Antonio Gates was The Man, with 924 yards and nine touchdowns. And while his four-game scoreless streak was a bit disconcerting, not to mention the fact that he didn't record his first 100-yard game until week 14, he was unquestionably the tight end to have… right up until it mattered, as he caught just three balls in weeks 15 and 16 and failed to score a touchdown in either game.
Marking his territory as the best pass-catcher on a team with a running back at quarterback, Alge Crumpler scored in week one, was silent for a month, then exploded for five touchdowns in three games. It was a classic sell-high moment, as he would score just twice more the rest of the way, including a most-likely meaningless tally in week 17.
Another tight end who was without question his squad's primary downfield target, Tony Gonzalez reclaimed a bit of his lost luster with 900 yards and five touchdowns. It's still his second-lowest touchdown total since 1998, but it's a whole lot better than last year's abysmal two.
Kellen Winslow finally made it to the field for an extended period of time, and though he was listed as questionable each and every week he stuck around long enough to tie Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's club record for catches by a tight end with 89—most in the NFL. Now we need to work on that touchdown total, as three just isn't going to cut it.
What Went Somewhat Right in 2006
Jeremy Shockey still hasn't played a full 16-game slate in his five-year pro career, but despite missing a game and being significantly hobbled for several others he mustered seven touchdowns for the second straight year.
Another name frequently found on the injury report, Todd Heap did play all 16 games for a second straight season. However, you couldn't prove it by fantasy owners who enjoyed Heap's fast start (five touchdowns in his first seven games) but were left hanging by his one lone touchdown over the final nine games of the season.
With 10 catches and a touchdown in the season's first fortnight, Desmond Clark was most certainly a hot pickup. He reward those owners with a month of zeroes, then just when he was kicked back to the free agent pool he scored twice. That scenario repeated itself in the second half, with Clark totaling four catches and 18 yards in four games, then scoring twice in week 14. Clark's end-of-year numbers were nice, but unless you were extremely lucky he probably did most, if not all, of his damage on your bench.
Chris Cooley was supposed to play the Gonzo role in Al Saunders' offense, and for a six-game stretch in the middle of the season (where he scored five touchdowns), he did. Unfortunately, he bookended that high with a five-game scoreless streak to start the season and one score in his final five to wrap things up.
The arrival of rookie Jay Cutler at quarterback in Denver corresponded with the rise of a new hot name in tight ends: fellow rookie Tony Scheffler. After Sheff recorded just six catches through the first three months of the season, the Broncos' top two picks combined for four touchdowns in the final four games, giving fantasy owners something to chew on in the offseason.
What Went Wrong in 2006
Everything was in place for Ben Troupe to have a monster season in an offense one year removed from throwing the second-most passes to tight ends in NFL history. Alas, Troupe recorded more than one catch just twice and broke his ankle on his second touchdown catch of the season, missing the final month and a half of the season.
After going off for 101 yards and a touchdown in the season opener, Heath Miller failed to top 34 yards the rest of the way and spaced his four other touchdowns out with at least two goose-eggs in between, rendering him virtually unstartable in most fantasy leagues.
Jason Witten's yardage total was just three yards off his 2005 mark, but he recorded just one touchdown. One. Meaning he was outscored by, among others, Kris Wilson, Steve Heiden, and Mark "Sweet Feet" Bruener.
Looking Ahead to 2007
Though his numbers have declined in two straight years now, Gates remains the top player at this position. After that, however, several players could step up and post numbers that would at least threaten his crown, though ultimately we don't anticipate anyone knocking Gates from the throne. With Gonzo and Daniel Graham potential free agents and young guns like Sheffler, Vernon Davis, Ben Watson, and even Marcedes Lewis threatening to make an impact, there is plenty of uncertainty in the ranks after King Antonio.
1. Antonio Gates, Chargers: Let's say he picks up two or three of the five or so touchdowns that drop off of LT's total next year; all of a sudden he's dominant again.
2. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs: The Chiefs may franchise him, but either way he'll get paid and put up big numbers yet again.
3. Kellen Winslow, Browns: Now that he's got the staying healthy part down, let's see him get into the end zone.
4. Jeremy Shockey, Giants: If only he played with a little more passion...
5. Vernon Davis, 49ers: Flashed his freakish skills after returning from a broken leg, and with Antonio Bryant down for the first two games of next year he'll be San Fran's top target.
6. Todd Heap, Ravens: A microcosm of his season: the Ravens run a play to set up third-and-goal from the five—perfect Heap territory—only Heap limps off with an injury and the touchdown goes to Dan Wilcox.
7. Alge Crumpler, Falcons: Will he still be the go-to receiver in Atlanta's new offense?
8. Tony Scheffler, Broncos: We're positively giddy about the potential of a Cutler-to-Scheffler burgeoning hook-up.
9. Ben Watson, Patriots: Could benefit if Daniel Graham leaves via free agency… or could lose looks to Dave Thomas.
10. Chris Cooley, Redskins: Needs to hit that midseason form earlier and hold it longer.
11. L.J. Smith, Eagles: With Philly developing some legit wideouts, his role might be declining.
12. Desmond Clark, Bears: So long as Rex Grossman remains the quarterback, Clark will be on the radar.
13. Heath Miller, Steelers: We'll reserve judgment until we see where Ken Whisenhunt ends up.
14. Dallas Clark, Colts: Bounced back from that vicious Madden hit okay, and still works the slot like nobody's business.
15. Jerramy Stevens, Seahawks: Like last season, is doing some of his best work late.
Bust: Randy McMichael, Dolphins: Of course, it all depends on who the Dolphins bring in to run the show… and whether or not McMike celebrates his birthday with the annual domestic assault arrest.
Sleeper (1): Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars: Jacksonville's wideouts are nothing special, and Lewis flashed some physical talent late in the season. He was the team's top pass-catcher heading into last season before an injury slowed his development; perhaps year two will be kinder.
Sleeper (2): Daniel Graham, Patriots (or not): New England has plenty of warm bodies at his position, and there are some teams out there (Green Bay and Minnesota, to mention a couple) that could use an athletic tight end. If Graham is wearing a different uniform next August, pay attention to the color.
I like the aggressive high rank of Tony Scheffler (I'm big on him next year too) but the absence of Jason Witten bothers me. He didn't score a lot of touchdowns, but he was still 6th in TE yardage even with Bledsuck at QB for 5 games.