NFL Fantasy Football: The Tale of Two Tight Ends

The man who would be king? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)


There are at least a couple of elite players at every position in the NFL. It's rarefied air where the elite players dwell. They have a mix of talent, athleticism, and that hard to define "something" only great players possess. When compared to their positional peers, they stand apart - often by a wide margin.

The tight end position in the NFL is ruled by two players: Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham. Sure, there are pretenders to their shared throne, but the likes of Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley and Jason Witten just aren't quite there. Witten, it could be argued, owned the top spot among tight ends before being usurped by "Gronk" and Graham, but he never came close to their individual stats in any of his nine NFL season. In 2009, Vernon Davis scored 13 TDs, but he never came close in receiving yards and receptions. Finley has the weakest argument for inclusion since he's merely a cog in the passing machine owned by Aaron Rodgers.

Nope, the rulers of the tight end world are "Gronk" and Graham. 2012 will mark the first time in Fantasy Football history that two tight ends could be drafted in the first two rounds of individual drafts. These two players have cracked the statistical barrier between wide receivers and tight ends. They are directly responsible for NFL teams shifting the physical size of defensive backs when they scout college players. NFL offenses have begun to buy in on a mix of football/basketball player at the tight end position, and they are buying in a big way.

In mock drafts at Yahoo Sports over the past few weeks, I've haven't seen either "Gronk" or Graham go later than the second round. Yup! It's Fantasy Football anarchy. What's next? If you tell me it's Joe Flacco going #1 because of the all new "Bore the Defense with Offense", I'm going to start looking for a tall building...

So which of these scoring monster tight ends would you choose, and in what round? Let's take a gander at a few statistics, and see if we can glean which of these two could be a bit better than the other...

Robert James Gronkowski, the second youngest of five brothers, has athlete written into his genetic code. From his great-grand father, down through most of his sibling - they've all starred in one sport or another. One of three brothers who've landed in the NFL, Rob is the only one to make a mark of any kind. What I found interesting - and disturbing - is how "Gronk" found his way to the New England Patriots in the 201 NFL Draft. Call it kismet, or Belichick's genius, he chose "Gronk" in the second round (pick #42). The pick used was well traveled. It started out with the Chicago Bears, who traded it to the Tampa Bay for Gaines Adams. Tampa traded the pick to Oakland for their #39 pick and took WR Arrelious Benn. Oakland traded the pick to New England for the 44th pic (one they acquired from Jacksonville), and a sixth rounder so they could chose DT Lamar Houston and LB Travis Goethel. Whew! The pick had some travel miles on it, and New England cashed them in on a tight end from the University of Arizona named Rob Gronkowski...

I almost forgot he disturbing part... In the same draft, not only did New England land another star tight end in Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, but they actually passed by a guy named Jimmy Graham in the third round. In the same draft, the St. Louis Rams skipped by "Gronk" in the second round for Rodger Saffold, Graham for Jerome Murphy in the third, and bumbled by Hernandez to take Mardy Gilyard in the fourth round.... It gets worse, when you consider the two tight ends the Rams DID take in the in the 2010 draft: Michael Hoomanawanui and Fendi Onobun. Gronkowski wasn't even the first tight end chosen in the 2010 NFL draft. The honor went to Jermaine Gresham with the #21 pick in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Let's have a look at some off "Gronk's" measurable-s coming out of college:

Stats provided by Wikipedia

Pre-draft measureables
Ht Wt Arm length Hand size 40-yd dash 10-yd split 20-yd split 20-ss 3-cone Vert Broad BP
6 ft 6¼ in 258 lb 34¼ * in 10¾ * in 4.68 s 1.58 s 2.68 s 4.47 s 7.18 s 33½ in 9 ft 11 in 23 * reps
All values from Arizona Pro Day[, except * from the NFL Combine[

Gronkowski did not participate in most combine events due to a back injury.

Yup! That whole 6' 6 1/4" - 258 lbs and hands the size of catcher's mitts would have turned me off too...Groan!

When Gronkowski arrived in New England, it didn't take long to show Patriots fans they had something special. It didn't take Bill Belichick and Tom Brady long either. The offense began its swing toward creating more tight end schemes following the 2010 season. "Gronk" had what can only be described as an impressive rookie season, with 42 reception for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns. His sophomore slump failed to materialize, and the records for NFL tight ends shattered under the weight of a "Gronk -Kong" performance in 2011. The numbers he compiled had opposing defensive coordinators updating their resumes: 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns (1 rushing). He averaged 14.7 yards per catch too. The leading wide receiver on his team, Wes Welker (122 rec, 1,569 tards - 9 TDs), averaged 12.9 yards per catch.



To bring this back to a Fantasy Football context, only LeSean McCoy (20 TDs) scored more non-quarterback touchdowns. Calvin Johnson - widely regarded the best wide receiver in the NFL - posted 96 receptions for 1,681 yards (17.5 ypc) and 16 touchdowns.

So based on these stats, where would you draft "Gronk"? If you add in his late season ankle injury - which required surgery to repair, a new 6 year - $54 million contract extension and a few personal wobbles off the field (See: Gronk and the girl every mom and dad wants their son to bring home ), you could factor in what I'll call a "disturbance in the force" (George Lucas refuses to believe I coin this phrase after some suspect Mexican food when I was 10 years old...) for the Patriots' star tight end, and there is ample evidence to say this could hold true. Historically, players who get big contracts have a downturn in productivity. (See: Chris Johnson for latest example). Off field excesses tend to put a damper on on-field concentration, but most of these examples usually involve mug shots, and court dates. "Gronk's" dating a porn star really doesn't qualify here, but it's fun to mention.. The ankle injury is the only thing that should put a small - and I do mean small - asterisk next to "Gronk's" name on your Fantasy Draft boards.

He suffered the ankle injury in the AFC Championship game in late January. Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard tackled "Gronk" after a reception in the third quarter of the Patriots 23 - 20 victory. While he returned to the game after limping off the field, he was a non-factor in the Super Bowl, with 2 receptions for 26 yards and no TDs. So from the beginning of February, till when the season starts the pre-season schedule in August, he'll have had only 5 months to recover. When you weigh 258 lbs, ankles are important. If you run for a living, ankles are important, let alone jumping for a pass...

Stats will drive Rob Gronkowski'd fantasy Draft position for the majority on draft day. Most fantasy gurus have him as a solid round two choice. My feeling is that if you can, grab Aaron Hernandez as a handcuff if you're mortaging the farm to take "Gronk" high in your draft. But can you afford spending a high second round pick - plus a 5th or 6th rounder on Hernandez - to satisfy the tight end position on your team? I'm just sayin'...

Jimmy Graham is not only a great tight end for the New Orleans Saints, he's a great story too. Adversity overcome in the form of a broken home, and a step father who abandoned him for $98 in child support, Graham kept his life together while a world of heartbreak swirled around him He headed off to the University of Miami with a basketball scholarship. Graduating with a double major in Marketing and Management, but returned to Miami to play football for the one year he had remaining on his eligibility.

"[Coach] Randy Shannon sat me down, we had a little conversation, and I made a decision to come back to college," he told the Herald on Wednesday. "I'm really excited. Now I can't foul out. Now I can be as aggressive as I want to be. I'm excited to be hit for the first time. I know I'm giving up money I had on the table to be a pro basketball player [overseas]."
ESPN interview

He played in 10 games for "The U", catching 17 passes for 217 yards. What made him stand out was that five of his catches went for touchdowns. Somehow, his performance impressed the New Orleans Saints enough to spend a 3rd round draft pick on him in 2010. I'm pretty sure they used some kind of VooDoo too, because it worked out like magic was involved. His rookie season for the Saints mirrored what happened in his one year at Miami - in 5 starts (15games played in), Graham caught 31 passes for 356 yards and 5 touchdowns (11.5 ypc). I'm just guessing, but "5" may be Jimmy's lucky number?

In the 2011 season, he ignited into a game changing player. His 99 receptions for 1,310 yards (13.2 ypc) and 11 touchdowns vaulted him into the elite tight end class of the NFL. His close personal relationship with quarterback Drew Brees match well with the impressive work ethic that drives Jimmy Graham. You can see where I'm going her, right?

To date, Graham is still an untapped resource. He's spent the last two NFL seasons learning the game. I honestly don't think we've seen what Graham is capable of just yet. When you place him in contrast with Rob Gronkowski, you have to evaluate the two differently. "Gronk" has had football in his blood before he was a glint in his parents eyes. Jimmy Graham played football in high school as an afterthought to his basketball. He's going to get better, and better as time goes on. When his NFL peers voted him #14 on the most recent Top 100 players list - ahead of Rob Gronkowski - they did so based on potential as much as they did Jimmy's statistics.



The only thing I see going against him is the loss of Sean Payton, his head coach, due to the "Bounty - Gate". Jimmy Graham is still developing as a player, so I have to believe every part of the process he's gone through thus far has been integral to his growth into a star tight end. Payton called most of the offensive plays for the Saints in Jimmy's first two seasons, so how a change in play calling will effect him is anyone's guess. I think Drew Brees signing a long term contract with the Saints would be in Graham's interest as well. If contract talks break down into any kind of acrimony, I could see Graham - who calls Brees his "big brother" - could be swept up in the turmoil. Yeah, I know that's kind of a thin reason to hedge on Jimmy Graham, but I have no idea how fragile NFL players are in the broad scheme of things, do you?

When I compare the two players - Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham - I can't help but lean toward the potential up-side of Graham. True, as long as "Gronk" has Tom Brady around, he will no doubt excel, but I get a nagging tug from history when I think of the star tight end for the Patriots. In 2011, the term "Career Year" comes to mind. That's not to say he can't have a 2011 redux in 2012. Yet how many times in the past have we seen players smash statistical barriers one year, and drop the next? The pressure to maintain high levels of performance - like "Gronk's" 2011 campaign - must be incredible.

In my opinion, Graham offers more possibilities than Gronkowski in 2012. The Saints lost their #2 wide receiver, Robert Meachem, in free agency to the San Diego Chargers, so Jimmy's targets could go up. The same can't be said for Gronkowski in New England. The Patriots spent a great deal of effort gathering a huge wide receiver corp in the off season. Many are projecting Brandon Lloyd to make a dent in catch numbers for not only Gronkowski, but Wes Welker too. Graham is going to be "the guy" for Brees this season, just as "Gronk" was Tom Brady's go to guy last season when their teams get inside the 20 yard line. What it comes down to, is how you see each of these stellar tight ends growing in their rolls as the elite at their position. We always look for the best, and a throne can only seat one. In 2012, who will be crowned "King of the Tight Ends"?

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