2014 Fantasy Football Preview: Tight End Rankings

Posted Aug 19, 2014's Matt Lutovsky provides his expert analysis on the top fantasy football tight ends heading into the 2014 season.

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Remember this offseason when Jimmy Graham and the Saints had an arbitration hearing over whether Graham should be classified as a tight end or wide receiver? The official ruling was tight end, but fantasy football owners should still think of Graham as a wideout.

Confused? Check this out:

Yes, Graham is a TE for fantasy purposes, but last year, he ranked fourth among all pass-catchers in standard-league fantasy points, just 2.3 points below Calvin Johnson.

If you draft Graham, it's easy to feel pressure to quickly fill your WR slots because, let's face it, you don't want someone like Brian Hartline as your WR3 – that just looks bad. But, again, you shouldn't think of it that way.

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Try this: Your “WR1” is really Graham, making the first WR you draft really your “WR2.” That makes the second WR you draft your “WR3”, and your third wide receiver your “TE.”

Sticking with our Hartline scenario, last year he would've ranked seventh in TE fantasy points. Pretty good, huh? This year, you can probably get a Hartline-type in the 11th or 12th round, if not later.

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That's called a winning strategy, my friends. And it all starts with Graham, who should probably be the sixth or seventh player selected in most drafts.

As for the rest of the TEs? Well, let's take a look.

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Thomas, Gronkowski, Davis

If you squint hard enough, you can talk yourself into overdrafting any of these three players.

Rob Gronkowski's best season (2011) was noticeably better than Graham's was last year, but after several serious injuries, including a torn ACL and MCL suffered last December, it's tough to trust Gronk to suit up for 12 games, let alone 16. He's not a lock to be ready for Week 1, so fantasy owners who take the plunge better make sure they have a good backup.

Julius Thomas enjoyed a breakout last year with the help of Peyton Manning, and it's conceivable he could be in for a bigger role this year with Eric Decker gone. Thanks to elite athleticism and an elite offense, Thomas should be the second TE off the board, probably in the third or fourth round. Gronk should follow soon after.

Vernon Davis was second in TE points last year, but he was largely TD-reliant. It's also worth noting that his production regressed once Michael Crabtree returned from injury (2.4 catches, 35.1 yards per game). Davis can obviously put up big numbers, but the boom-or-bust factor is too high to risk anything more than a fifth-round pick. Chances are, you can find a better value from the next group.

Cameron, Reed, Witten, Olsen

Jordan Cameron was a monster in the first half last season, but he slumped hard in the second half and still plays for a Browns' team with, shall we say, limited offensive talent and a new offensive system that doesn't figure to highlight the TE as much. Cameron's very talented and will still get a lot of looks, but don't overrate him based on last year's first eight games.

Jordan Reed was quietly great last year until a concussion ended his season in Week 11. He led all TEs with at least 35 targets in catch percentage and was sixth in yards after catch. Everything is in place for success in Washington's new offense, and you can probably get him a round or two lower than he should go because of the “unknown” factor.

Jason Witten is incredibly consistent from year-to-year, though not necessarily game-to-game. Last year, he had six games with 13-plus points and five games with fewer than 2.8 points. You know he'll play 16 games (10-straight seasons accomplishing that feat), but there will always be a nagging feeling that you can do better. If Witten falls to the seventh round, great – but don't reach for him.

Greg Olsen is becoming the new Witten – good, rarely great, and often overdrafted. Olsen will seem like the last of the “upper tier” TEs – especially when you talk yourself into him being the “only” target in Carolina -- but there will likely be better value if you wait a few rounds.

Rudolph, Pitta, Clay, Gates, Ertz

Kyle Rudolph was the No. 9 fantasy TE two years ago, but last season's campaign ended with a whimper due to a fractured foot. Rudolph was actually on pace for more targets, catches and yards last year, so if he can recapture even a little of his TD magic from 2012, he'll provide a ton of value. And don't overlook the addition of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator or Rudolph's offseason contract extension. Clearly, he's going to be a big part of the Vikings' offense.

Dennis Pitta missed 12 games last year because of a hip injury, but Joe Flacco loves him, shown by Pitta's 33 targets in his four games last year. There probably isn't a big difference between Pitta and the next five or six TEs, but he's in the best situation.

Miami's Charles Clay was one of seven TEs to receive 100-plus targets last year, plus he got the occasional goal-line carry. He likely won't threaten the top five, but he's a great bet to be top-12.

Antonio Gates is “old” and chronically injured, right? Not really. Gates has actually only missed one game the past two years and had the fourth-most TE targets last season. Everyone seems to be in love with teammate Ladarius Green as a sleeper (and he is), but Gates is still capable of being a fantasy starter.

Philadelphia's Zach Ertz has no real track record of success, but with Brent Celek ticketed for more blocking duties, Ertz figures to see an expanded role in the passing game. That could be huge in Philadelphia's creative offense.

The Best of the Rest:
Martellus Bennett (Bears), Jared Cook (Rams), Delanie Walker (Titans):  Nos. 10, 11 and 12 in TE fantasy points last year
Tim Wright, Bucs: Showed a lot of promise in '13; good red-zone target
Coby Fleener, Colts: Third year typically a breakout year for TEs
Ladarius Green, Chargers: Long on talent, but playing time could be an issue
Joseph Fauria, Lions: Dangerous in red zone, should play over Brandon Pettigrew (blocker) and Eric Ebron (rookie) in key pass-catching situations
Mychal Rivera, Raiders: Better QB play should help him in second year
Tyler Eifert, Bengals Should get opportunities early with Marvin Jones out
Garrett Graham, Texans: Due for a big uptick in targets