Fantasy football 2011: Top 15 redraft tight ends

High atop my forested, secluded hillside homestead is a night-time driveway light. To the family, the light is simply a convenience, providing illumination when taking the pooch for a midnight potty run.

Of course, in the summertime, the light attracts moths. Hundreds of them flutter around. The moths draw bats, which swoop and snack until the early morning hours. Bats can find food most anywhere, but they don’t need to wander far for the moth buffet found every night at the driveway light.

Fantasy football drafts can be very similar, especially at the tight end position. Fantasy owners are drawn quickly to the few elite options that provide a fantasy feast each and every season. The problem is that you’ll have much more competition for those guys.

Don’t overlook the power of some of the lesser-known tight end quantities in 2011. My personal predictions for the position (not the order they will be drafted in), include:

1. Dallas Clark, IND. We all know he was injured and we quickly saw just how important Clark is to Peyton Manning. Sure, Jacob Tamme filled in admirably, but Manning just wasn’t the same. Still, Tamme and Clark combined for 104 receptions, 978 yards and seven TDs, which would have put their collective effort second among all tight ends. Clark, a true offensive playmaker, is allegedly fully back to health. There is no reason to think he won’t return to the top of the TE rankings, especially in PPR leagues.

3. Jason Witten, DAL. I’ll admit that I was one of the Witten haters heading into last season. I figured he had his chance to break out and dropped the ball. However, even with Tony Romo out a portion of the season, Witten thrived. He’s a solid bet for receptions (although I confidently expect Clark to out-produce Witten in that category this year). The emergence of Dez Bryant across from Miles Austin may take some looks away from Witten, but it will also open up the middle for Witten to make more out of each catch he receives.

3. Antonio Gates, SD. Was on pace for a record-book sort of season until derailed by injury. The guy guts it out year in and year out and is the focal point of a high-octane passing attack. He’ll have a big season. ** Gates was ranked first overall in my previous rankings, but this is updated with the news that the plantar fasciitis that hampered him last season is still lingering this summer. He said he’ll play, but it will mean playing through pain … the same composite pain that ultimately sidelined him in 2010. Even at less than 100 percent, Gates is a beast whenever on the field, but this isn’t promising news for someone before the season even begins.

4. Jermichael Finley, GB. I struggled mightily on the next two rankings. Looking just at the numbers, it should be a slam dunk. Finley, in just four games before going down with an injury, averaged 5.2 receptions and 75.25 yards per game played. Vernon Davis mustered just 3.5 receptions and 57 yards per game.

However, Finley’s drawback, and what will keep him out of the top three at the position for the time being, is his injury track record. In two NFL seasons, he has yet to complete a full slate of games. While his injuries are not related, they, collectively, make one wonder if he’ll ever break free of the injury tag.

But those per game stats are so savory. Projected out over 16 games, Finley would have tallied 1,200 yards. He would have scored TDs and he would have been a fantasy beast.

Just remember on draft day that there are still demons lurking for Finley.

5. Vernon Davis, SF. Despite slipshod QB play, Davis continues to produce underappreciatedly solid stats year in and year out. The signal caller situation hasn’t gotten any better for 2011, but then again, it hasn’t gotten worse, either. More than anyone else on this list, you can count on Vernon providing some good weekly numbers.

6. Owen Daniels, HOU. Rushing back too quickly from a torn ACL, Daniels struggled throughout the 2010 season to find his mojo.

But he did … in the final four games, he averaged 5.5 receptions, 67.8 yards and a half-TD per game. Over the course of a full season, that would equate to 88 catches, 1,048 yards and eight TDs. And he’s extremely undervalued in your respective fantasy drafts this summer.

7. Rob Gronkowski, NE. Higher than most have him pegged, it is hard not to get excited about Gronkowski if you look at how Tom Brady favored him over the final half of the season. He was a red zone machine and made the most of each Brady offering.

If you take Gronkowski’s final eight games worth of stats and project them over the course of a full season, he’d have 56 receptions, 796 yards and 14 TDs. Not that I think he’ll hit that TD threshold in 2011, but he could easily eclipse the other two numbers.

8. Marcedes Lewis, JAX. Many would consider Marcedes’ 2010 a surprising breakout. His double-digit TDs were just that. However, if you look at his career stats, the receptions and overall yards have been steadily climbing towards last season’s crescendo.

Sure his 10 TDs will be hard to replicate, but then again, he proved he can make a difference in the red zone. David Garrard is likely to still be around when the lockout dust settles and rookie Blaine Gabbert will need a security blanket when he takes over the reins.

9. Jimmy Graham, NO. Some of his catches are amazing and there are fantasy pundits who consider Graham the next big thing at the position. He has the whole starting gig to himself in 2011 and based on our sample size last season, he can make some definite noise.

The only possible drawback would be lack of consistent receptions in an offense that is very good at spreading the love. However, the coaching staff and Drew Brees continue to gain more and more confidence in this kid and fantasy owners should, too.

10. Zach Miller, SEA. I had him ranked above Jimmy Graham before the move to Seattle, and while I agree that being with the Seahawks hurts his fantasy value somewhat, I don’t think it will be as drastic as some of the naysayers are suggesting. It isn’t like he had a hall of fame level QB throwing to him in Oakland. It wasn’t like there were Pro Bowl receivers around him taking the defensive attention away from him while he was in black and silver.

11. Kellen Winslow, TB. Some may complain about Winslow being this low. However, it is hard for me to vouch for a guy who just doesn’t find the end zone consistently enough. He has never score more than five TDs in a season.

You can chalk him up for 60-plus receptions and 700-plus yards, but there isn’t much more ceiling for him moving forward.

12. Chris Cooley, WAS. Cooley had 11 more receptions than Winslow in 2010 and 119 more yards receiving. So why the rankings-reversal? Because as TD-sparse as Winslow can be, Cooley has become even moreso a stranger to the end zone.

The tight end has just six total TDs in the past three seasons combined. He also has a much more shaky QB situation at the moment, as Mike Shanahan insists that John Beck is his guy. We’ll soon see about that.

13. Brandon Pettigrew, DET. Not necessarily a fast TE, Pettigrew still has enough of an offensive skill set to make some fantasy noise. Especially in an offense that seems ready to take the next step in 2011.

However, Pettigrew isn’t dynamic enough to turn plays into highlight reel images and he’s sharing receptions with Tony Schreffler.

14. Tony Gonzalez, ATL. Once upon a time, Gonzo was the class of the fantasy TE position. Now, he finds himself falling on prospective rankings lists. It isn’t that he can’t still produce. His 70 receptions, 656 yards and six TDs weren’t shabby at all in 2010.

Gonzo finds himself in a dynamic offense that is still based on a run-first mentality. The addition of Julio Jones means in some ways that Gonzo will lose receptions, but then again, defenses will have to be ready for the deep ball all the more in 2011, meaning Tony G could find more running room over the middle.

Still, his skill set is in the decline and all indications point towards a retirement at the end of the season.

15. Dustin Keller, NYJ. You want to root for this guy. He has the size and abilities to be a very nice fantasy tight end. But for all his skills, he continues to underperform over the course of a full season. More than other TEs, Keller finds himself struggling with the dropsies.

But perhaps the biggest drawback is that quarterback Mark Sanchez just isn’t the type of QB who will make his receivers better. The Jets thrive on the run-first, grind-it-out type of offense, and that doesn’t bode well for guys like Keller.

Don’t miss my 2011 redraft rankings for QBs.

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