Thursday, July 27, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S TOP TIGHT ENDS!

I apologize for the lag in postings... I took a 5 day vacation and went to Cape Cod.

**As an aside, I went fishing and caught myself a 42" long Striped Bass. Damn', it required 15 minutes of forearm searing effort to get the 45 pound fish aboard my chartered Boston Whaler. Alongside the 54" long Barracuda I caught while in Cancun 3 years ago... one of my fondest angling memories.

Now, the NFL has enjoyed a remarkable surge in talented, pass catching, game-changing Tight Ends! No longer are Tight Ends just big bodies who thrust themselves into the paths of on-rushing Defensive Ends. Well.... some of them are, but while blocking remains an integral part of the position guys such as Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler, and Tony Gonzalez (who admittedly did MUCH more blocking last season then he has in years past) aren't compensated in royal fashion for their ability to keep extra defenders at bay.
Like no other sport the NFL is in "constant change," with both Offensive and Defensive coordinators doing their level best to keep the opposition off-balance. From the "Run n' Shoot," "Spread," and "No Huddle" offenses to the "46," "4-3," and "3-4" Defensive alignments, clubs are constantly trying to stay 1 step ahead of one another.

Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez was a known quantity; a huge athlete possessing great hands and speed that belied his size. Likewise, the Ravens' 2001 1st round draft pick, TE Todd Heap, has teased (in '03 and '05) both Baltimore and fantasy owners alike, but injuries and a lack of credible QB play have severely hampered his contributions.
But, when the Chargers signed undrafted Kent State Hoopster Antonio Gates in '03... things changed. Few took immediate notice, but his 24/389/2 rookie season certainly attracted the leagues' attention. It was his 81/964/13 '04 encore that really brought down the house, however, and forced GMs, scouts, and coaches to scour the nation for "the next Gates." Indeed, at 6-4/260 the Bolt' pass catcher is faster than most Linebackers, bigger that all DBs, and is really just a gargantuan Wide Receiver.
What the Chargers have in Antonio Gates has forced almost every other franchise to seek; an athletic giant capable of creating ugly defensive mismatches... and blocking when the occassion calls for it. Certainly, finding such an athlete is no mean feat. In fact, much like San Diego did with Gates, clubs are even combing through College Basketball's deep ranks searching for a rare gem amidst the thousands upon thousands of countless baubles.
NO other club boasts a Tight End possessing Antonio Gates' incredible confluence of size, speed, agility, athleticism, and baby-butt soft hands. But, there are a number of very talented Tight Ends who are worth drafting in your leagues' late-mid to later rounds.
Let's take a look at...

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S TOP TIGHT ENDS!

Chargers, Antonio Gates: I waxed poetic about the Bolts' big Tight End above. However, in a league rife with hyperbole; "he's the 2nd coming of Joe Montana," "I haven't seen a Running Back like him since Barry Sanders retired," and "he could be the next Lawrence Taylor," Antonio Gates is one of the few athletes whose accomplishments actually meet and even exceed the raves!
Coming off his 89/1,101/10 season, a year in which Gates notched a whopping 62 1st downs, a 12.4 YPC average, and recorded a quartet of 100 yard games (including back-to-back 145/3 and 132 yard efforts against the Chiefs and Jets respectively), the Charger pass catcher tops the Tight End list.
The concern? Quarterback Drew Brees, Antonio Gates' best bud', is now a Saint and unproven Philip Rivers has taken command of the huddle. The likliehood is that Gates will still record a season approaching... or exceeding, 800+/8+. The young Signal Caller will be brought along slowly, meaning he'll hand off to RB LaDainian Tomlinson with exhausting regularity... and frequently find an open Gates.
Just 26 years of age and finally mastering the many nuances of his position, Antonio Gates has rounded-out his game and is a "complete" package. Frighteningly enough, the kid still has ample upside.

Giants, Jeremy Shockey: Some would argue this ranking, but consider 2 consecutive seasons of production coupled with teammates that harbor Superbowl aspirations... not so outrageous now, is it?
Last season, Big Blue's "Shock' Jock" banked a career year; 65/891/7, and managed to stay on the field of play despite his annual handful of nagging nicks and knocks. In conjunction, Shockey's above-average blocking rendered Tiki barber and the run game downright lethal.
Shockey is the very definition of a "throwback player." He's got a mean-streak wide enough for 2, revels in nasty play (NOT dirty, however), possesses a knack for splitting the seam and getting himself into open space, and is powerful enough drag or bowl over would-be tacklers.
The key to springing this G-Man is Quarterback Eli Manning. Will the young Mann' be able to put a sorry 2nd half where it belongs, squarely in the rear-view mirror? Or, will Eli continue to struggle.
With a pass catching contingent of WRs Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and rookie Sinorice Moss supported by versatile RB Tiki Barber (albeit aging) and brutish RB Brandon "Brahma Bull" Jacobs, the Giant O is well-equipped to score. Eli Manning looked to Shockey frequently last season, and the pass and catch combo should only improve as their timing and rapport sharpens this season.
With RB Tiki Barber not getting any younger and no real future feature in New York's fold, and WR Plaxico Burress drawing most of the opposing secondaries' attention, so long as he remains healthy Shock' could even improve upon last season's fine diggies'.

Chiefs, Tony Gonzalez: Gonzo's ranking is a matter for debate and it could even be argued that Falcon TE Alge Crumpler and Dolphin Randy McMichael brag more fantasy value. Please note, though, that fantasy value and real value differ considerably! What Tony Gonzalez brings to the Chiefs and what Randy McMichael contributes to the 'Phins is markedly different.
Getting back to our man of the hour, Gonzalez recorded a marvelous '04; 102/1,258/7, with 19 plays of 20 yards or more. Last season, though, the club needed the 6-5/255 TE to stay at home and block far more often than he'd become accustomed to due to injuries along the O-line. Accordingly, a disappointing line of 78/905/2 was slapped on the backs of his Trading Cards when the '05 season concluded.
The Offensive line did get younger, largely because septugenarian OT John Welbourne retired. But, OG Will Shields and OT Willie Roaf are each 35+, C Casey Wiegmann is 33, and these guys are just about eligible for the AARP cards. Should the line suffer a spate of injuries, the Offense will sink faster than the Titanic. Futher complicating matters is an aging Trent Green and an unimpressive receiving corps. A 33 year old Eddie Kennison is a marginal #2... and more of a #3 receiver at this stage of his career, Samie Parker has shown flashes but he's anything but a lock, and dimunitive Dante Hall (5-8/180), who poses for trophies over the off-season, gets lost amidst the goliaths of the midway once the action starts.
Although Gonzo's TD total should increase... it wouldn't be stunning if his yardage totals continue their plunge. Make no mistake, behind the powerful running of bruising RB Larry Johnson the Chiefs will go run-heavy.
Look for at least one more sterling season from the Canton-bound KC TE.

Falcons, Alge Crumpler: To savvy Roto-rooters, TE Alge Crumpler is no secret. The Hot-Lanta pass catcher posted a career best receiving total of 877 yards, and his 13+ YPC, 5 scores, and 42 1st Downs underscore his importance to the Falc' O.
Astonishingly agile for a 260 pounder, Crump' can get his over-sized rear into high gear rapidly and once he's moving at full-speed smaller defenders simply ricochet off of his tree-trunk legs or get taken along for a 15 yard piggy-back ride. In short? Alge's a nightmare to tackle.
QB Mike Vick's favorite receiver can catch almost anything thrown his way, excells in the red-zone, and should only benefit from the rapid development of 2nd year WR Roddy White.
If we operate under the somewhat suspect assumption that Michael Vick will take a substantial step forward this season and improve upon his accuracy, Crumpler could be as good as 850+/8-10. Yes, that IS an ambitious projection but heck, I'm a glass half-full kinda' guy!

Ravens, Todd Heap: If not for want of a Quarterback... Such has been the lament of many a pass catcher, but Heap's cry is particularly prescient. Of course... Toddy-boy's suffered a heap o' injuries, but his production would likely be semi-ridiculous if the Ravens had fielded a real live Quarterback prior to this coming season.
The signing of Steve McNair should have an immediate impact upon the offense;
1. RB Jamal Lewis won't be expected to carry the entire offense.
2. WR Derrick Mason and McNair will undoubtedly rekindle their past magic and be a potent 1-2 pass and catch punch.
3. TE Todd Heap, healthy and coming off an '05 campaign that saw him record career marks for receptions (75), receiving yards (855), TDs (7), and longest play (48 yards), should be scary now that the forward pass has been reintroduced to the Baltimore playbook.
4. The defense will no longer be expected to keep games virtually scoreless.
Look for TE Todd Heap to reclaim his place amongst the league's very best pass catchers, and another career-season could be dead-ahead!

Redskins, Chris Cooley: A swift and nimble H-Back, the 'Skin pass catcher is one of coach Joe Gibbs' favorite players. The tall Cool' one is yet another TE who banked career marks; grabs (77), yards (774), and trips to the 'Zone (7).
Chris Cooley is unafraid to stick his head into a blitzing 'backers belly, he's able to run block, and best of all... Chris Cooley's hands are phe-freakin'-nomenal.
Surrounded by an embarrassment of offensive Redskin riches, Chris Cooley... a 'Waiver Wire grab for many last season, is "thisclose" to being an elite TE. Once the run on TEs begins, Cooley should be pulled off the 'board amongst the top 5-6.

Cowboys, Jason Witten: This spot was a toss-up, and deciding between Jason Witten (66/757/6) and Randy McMichael was like trying to decide upon chocolate or vanilla. Both play for clubs that have questionmark QBs, both play for clubs with game-breaking Wide Receivers, and both are richly talented. Due to the presence of newcomer WR Terrell Owens, however, I give the edge to Witten.
Dallas' 2-time Pro Bowl TE is a student of the game, boasts a fine Football IQ, and is not yet 25. One of the slower 'Pokes, Witten makes his pass catching living off of his great hands and knack for snapping-off big gains.
Make no mistake, WR Terrell Owens will attract Cornerbacks and Safeties like candy does kids, and the immediate beneficiaries should be complementary WR Terry Glenn and TE Jason Witten. The next beneficary? Dallas's rushing tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber. This talented group of playmakers will force Defensive Coordinators to order Peptol-Bismol and Maalox by the case.

NEXT BEST!

Dolphins, Randy McMichael: If QB Daunte Culpepper can recapture his lost magic, WR Chris Chambers and RB Ronnie Brown will make it difficult if not impossible for opposing defenders to key upon Miami's fast and liquid-slick Tight End. Culpepper does love to throw to his TEs, and McMichael is by far the most talented TE he's had at his disposal to date.
Off field issues continue to stalk McMichael, however.

Steelers, Heath Miller: Although selecting a 2nd year TE is a risk, Miller's 39/459/6 season bodes awfully well for the future. Further, the defection of WR Antwaan Randel El and retirement of RB Jerome Bettis will afford Miller a bevvy of red-zone opps'.

Forty-Niners, Vernon Davis: Selecting a rookie pass-catcher is near heretical... but sophomore Signal Caller Alex Smith has a dearth of playmakers at his beck and call. At 6-3/255, Davis is faster than many Wide Receivers and is scary-good once he finds himself in open space.
Look for Smith and Davis to hook-up as regularly... and as sloppily (is that a word?) as High School sweethearts.

Eagles, L.J. Smith: Without WR Terrell Owens and with a fabulously versatile Running Back in Brian Westbrook, the Eags' have sworn a blood-oath to go run-heavy.
That may work well in theory, but Westy's durability is iffy. Further, the club lacks a clear-cut #1 Wide Receiver. Look for Fab' 'Nabb and Smith to rack-up frequent flyer miles.

Colts, Dallas Clark: Dallas has a knack for finding the soft spots in zones... and is a nifty open-field playmaker after the catch due to his surprising speed. The loss of Edgerrin James will force QB Peyton Manning to go pass heavy again, and I'm gambling that Dallas Clark sees a nice number of Red-Zone chances.

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