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Beyond Graham and Gronk: Wait on tight ends to minimize risk, increase reward

Published: June 30, 2013

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Last season was not a good year for tight ends. After record-breaking 2011 campaigns, both Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham forced themselves into the second round (or higher) in most drafts heading into the 2012 season. Although both finished at the top at their position, injuries and unrealistic expectations prevented them from duplicating that 2011 success.

Jimmy Graham "flexed" his fantasy muscle

Tight end Jimmy Graham “flexed” his fantasy muscle the past two seasons, making him and New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski as the only elite options. If you can’t draft one of them, wait.

While there were some surprising tight end contributors last season, many owners felt a collective disappointment. Of the 10 top-ranked tight ends heading into the 2012 pre-season, only four (Graham, Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten) actually finished there. Even the “emerging” tight ends on the waiver wire failed to offer owners much relief. Choosing which of these tight ends to start, such as Kyle Rudolph, Dennis Pitta, or Brandon Myers, was just as likely to result in a score of “0” or “1,” then it was to provide reliable help from week to week. This roller coaster of production was exhausting and infuriating to owners, who were left without viable replacements.

Let’s be honest though: This season hasn’t gone much better for tight ends either. Aaron Hernandez, if you haven’t heard, made a “few” headlines this off-season. Hernandez (who also missed 6 games due to injury last year) was arrested for murder and immediately released by New England, eroding any hope owners had for his 2013 (and, likely beyond). The injuries that also restricted Graham and Gronkowski, a season later, still linger.

Graham had off-season surgery to repair a wrist that contributed to a league leading 14 drops. Unlike Gronkowski (see below), Graham’s surgery was early enough in the off-season that a full recovery is expected before the start of 2012. Yet, his wrist isn’t his lone issue. He also missed a game, and was limited in others, due to a sprained ankle.

Gronkowski has also led the league: in off-season surgeries. Since last November, Gronkowski has had 4 separate surgeries to fix his left forearm, in addition to his most recent back operation. The minimum 12-week recovery period will push into the regular season, making him a risk to even be ready before Week 3.

It’s undeniable that Graham and Gronkowski, despite injuries, have massive potential and have firmly established themselves as the top tier of fantasy tight ends. And, it’s not even close. The real dilemma for owners, however, is deciding how early is too early when drafting them.

Rob Gronkowski spikes ball after TD

Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are alone in the top tier of fantasy tight ends. But, after 5 surgeries in the last year, Gronkowski may be a risk since it will take a 3rd or 4th rounder to get him. Weary owners should be patient and grab undervalued tight ends later in the draft.

Tight end draft strategy for 2013 is relatively simple: Get elite talent early or wait. The problem is, as tight ends begin falling of the board, that’s easier said then done. Disciplined owners must realize that drafting a “top 10” tight end doesn’t always translate to top-10 production. Look at 2012: As mentioned above, six of the pre-season top 10 failed to finish there.

Owners must also understand that, outside of Graham and Gronkowski, the disparity between tight ends isn’t that great. Based on ESPN’s standard scoring projections, the 4th-ranked tight end (Jason Witten) will only score 24 points more than the 10th-ranked (Antonio Gates). That’s an average difference of 1.5 points per game. Taking it even deeper, only .94 points per game separates the 10th-ranked from the 15th-ranked (Jermichael Finley). If you want to draft Witten, it’ll likely take a 6th round pick. Wait on Gates, and you can probably get him in the 10th round. Choosing to be patient won’t cost you many fantasy points and will also give you the opportunity to snag a high-upside running back like Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy, Miami’s Lamar Miller, or Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell.

The challenge of waiting is to not just grab a tight end, but to grab “the” tight end. Owners who waited and drafted Gonzalez (ranked as the 7th tight end in 2012 pre-season), Rudolph (20th), or Pitta (26th) profited from this strategy. But, selecting Jacob Tamme (12th) or Jermaine Gresham (17th) would have made owners regret not going after one of the more “sure things” earlier.

If you aren’t willing to pay the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th round pick to get Graham or Gronkowski, believing that the injury risk is too much of a burden too early in the draft, then it’s important that you minimize the gamble of waiting by looking closely at those tight ends that possess enough upside to finish at the top. Below, we examine five “under-valued” tight ends most likely to produce beyond their draft day value.


Ranked the highest of these six headed into this season (7th), Rudolph is likely to repeat on his top-10 finish from last year if he can continue to find the end zone. His 9 touchdowns in 2012 were third amongst tight ends. His red zone targets (16) were tied for fourth. The good news is that, outside of newly signed Greg Jennings, there isn’t any indication that Rudolph won’t continue to receive those looks close to goal line. The bad news, however, is that Rudolph doesn’t do much else. His value is entirely tied up in his touchdowns, a number which is unlikely to repeat. According to ESPN, 18 different tight ends have caught 8 or more touchdowns from 2007-2011. Of those, 15 saw a decrease in their number of touchdowns the following season. With those touchdowns, Rudolph is a virtual lock for the top 10 again. Without them, he may plummet. But, with a 9th round pick, it may be a slight risk that could pay big.


Cook is a classic example of a hyped tight end that has never lived up. After finishing 20th last season, Cook still managed to sign a large free agent contract with the up-and-coming St. Louis Rams. The talent and upside are there. The production, however, is not… yet. Despite only 8 total touchdowns in his 4-year professional career, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this may be his breakout season. With the guaranteed money, St. Louis will want to get him involved and maximum their investment. In addition, Cook’s arrival immediately makes him the most experienced pass catcher in the Rams offense. As the team’s young receiving corp develops, he may be the best option. Cook’s ability to take the next step into becoming a solid fantasy tight end may be inconsistent at first, but it also may be worth taking that chance.


If Cook is a classic “over-hyped” player, Keller is the model for a proven player coming off a bad year. Correction: Keller is a proven player coming off a horrendous year. After two consecutive seasons of 100-plus targets, Keller finished 2012 with 36. This abysmal total was a direct result of the New York Jets’ offensive inefficiency and two leg injuries that limited his production and games played. Yet, before last season, Keller had never missed any playing time due to injuries. Now with Miami, Keller begins as the team’s go-to red zone target in a revamped offense that also includes former-Steeler Mike Wallace. Last season, Miami’s tight end had 14 red zone targets, 9 red zone catches, and 5 touchdowns. Keller may suffer as second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill continues to develop, but, if Miami continues to throw the ball inside the 20, Keller will be the likely beneficiary.


A trendy sleeper pick this season, belief in Cameron’s fantasy prospects is almost entirely speculative. In two professional seasons, Cameron has 26 catches… total. What makes Cameron an intriguing option is his lack of competition and the new offense Cleveland will run. After the team decided to not re-sign Ben Watson, the only tight end on last season’s roster that had more catches than Cameron, he essentially wins the starting job by default. He is also surrounded by young, unproven wide receivers. But, the biggest boost in Cameron’s value is new head coach Rob Chudzinski, who was the tight ends coach for San Diego during Antonio Gates’ rise to dominance. In Chudzinski’s four seasons with the Chargers (2005-2006 & 2009-2010), Gates averaged over 991 yards and 9 touchdowns per season. Don’t make a mistake: Cameron is no Gates. (Even though both are converted basketball players, which is all the rage in the NFL these days.) Cameron will not immediately become the pro-bowl version of Gates (a la 2005), but, under Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, another former Chargers’ coach, Cameron may be worth a late-round roster spot.


Housler and all other Arizona receivers benefit from the arrival of Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians. The Cardinals will throw the ball. Last season, as the offensive coordinator for the Colts, Arians’ team threw 627 times (5th most in the NFL) and that was with a rookie quarterback. With wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and, now, veteran Carson Palmer, Arians will lead an Arizona offense that will look to stretch the field. Housler has yet to break through, but he won’t be expected to carry the load, just produce. Already anointed the starter, Housler makes for a low-risk, second tight end with top-10 upside.

Although waiting on tight ends is a viable strategy if you aren’t able to get Graham or Gronkowski, it is imperative that fantasy owners mitigate that risk by selecting one or two of the “upward trending” options. It isn’t ideal to carry two tight ends for an entire season, but selecting a couple will give you a greater opportunity of finding an undervalued tight end, while you also have the option of moving one once the season begins. If you choose to wait, go “all in” and select someone with major upside. Alternative options will inevitably be available on the waiver wire.

It may be another bad year for tight ends. Just in case, select late and you’ll have a much greater chance to get positive value from your investment.


About Kellen Hubert


  1. Wow, somebody got a funnybone-ectomy (that’s a real thing, Bing it). I think NBA.com is more your speed. Cheers.

    • Haha! This was definitely “stat-packed.” Hopefully you found it informative… Thanks for reading and commenting, and hope you look for my next pieces as well!

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