By Tony Meale
Thanks to Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski – and, yes, Aaron Hernandez – the last two or three years have been a Golden Age for NFL tight ends. To be sure, there are studs like Graham and Gronkowski who are in a league of their own, but the position offers a fair amount of solid players who, for fantasy owners, fit into a very scientific category called, “Yeah, he’ll do.”READ MORE: 'Why Would Something Like This Happen To Me?' 94-Year-Old Anh 'Peng' Taylor Recovering After Shocking SF Stabbing Attack
If you want Graham, it’ll cost you a second-round pick. Same deal with Gronkowski, assuming he’s healthy to start the season – which, at this point, is a pretty big assumption.
After those two, you’re waiting a few rounds before snagging guys like Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez. And after those two, you’re playing the waiting game once more. Elite tight ends are nice, but you’ll definitely have options should you wait – either by choice or necessity.
1) Jimmy Graham, Saints
No explanation necessary.
2) Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
You’ll need to monitor Gronkowski’s health before your draft. If he’ll be ready for the season-opener – or if he’ll only miss two to four games – he’s worth stashing early. But if he’ll miss six to eight games (or more), you’re better off investing your fourth-round pick elsewhere.
3) Jason Witten, Cowboys
Witten was the only tight end in football last year to surpass 1,000 yards. The three touchdowns left something to be desired, but he also had 110 receptions, which were the fifth-most in football – not just at his position, but all of football.
4) Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
Last year was supposed to be Gonzalez’s swan song, but the 37-year-old couldn’t stay away. Not that we’re complaining. Gonzalez was third in yards (930) and fourth in touchdowns (eight) among tight ends last season.
5) Vernon Davis, 49ers
On talent alone, Davis is, at worst, a top-three tight end, but he didn’t seem to be on the same page with Colin Kaepernick last season, catching just one pass in each of San Fran’s final four games. That said, he had five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game and six catches for 104 yards against Baltimore in the Super Bowl. That’s encouraging. Davis is too good not to produce – and Kaepernick is too intelligent (or so we think) to not target him.
6) Greg Olsen, Panthers
Olsen set career-highs in catches (69), yards (843) and touchdowns (five) last year, essentially serving as Cam Newton’s No. 2 receiver. The 104 targets were his most since 2009. There’s a lot to like here.READ MORE: House Votes To Repeal Of 2002 Iraq War Authorization, Long Championed By Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee
7) Kyle Rudolph, Vikings
Rudolph basically doubled his production last year, going from 26/249/3 as a rookie to 53/493/9 as a sophomore. Don’t bank on nine touchdowns again, but Rudolph, only 23, should take another step forward this season.
8) Owen Daniels, Texans
After playing just 19 games in 2009 and 2010 combined, Daniels has suited up 15 times each of the last two seasons. In 2012, he caught 62 passes for 716 yards and a career-high six touchdowns.
9) Antonio Gates, Chargers
Simply put, Gates’ better days are behind him. He caught more than four passes just twice last season and surpassed 59 yards just once. He did account for seven touchdowns and his foot ailments appear in control, but the days of 1,000+ yards and 10 touchdowns are over.
10) Jared Cook, Rams
Cook is a freak athlete who this offseason signed a contract with the Rams that included $19 million in guarantees. That probably means St. Louis intends to throw him the ball.
11) Brandon Myers, Giants
In 2011, Myers played 16 games and caught 16 passes for 151 yards. In 2012, he played 16 games and caught 79 passes for 806 yards. He also caught four touchdowns – this after failing to score a touchdown in his first 42 career games with Oakland. Now, Myers finds himself with the Giants, who are especially adept at utilizing tight ends in the passing game. A few things need to fall into place, but Myers could be a top-five tight end this season.
12) Martellus Bennett, Bears
Bennett got off to a great start in 2012, catching 15 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in his first three games with the Giants. Then he hyperextended his left knee and saw his production suffer as a result. Now with the Bears, Bennett has the tools to produce. Here’s hoping Jay Cutler has enough time to find him.
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