1. Jimmy Graham, NO
While Rob Gronkowski finished with 17 more receiving yards and six more touchdowns last season, Jimmy Graham had more catches and targets. What does this mean? He gets more opportunities than any tight end in the league to succeed. When someone is as gifted as Graham, you can bet that he's going to grab the bull by the horns and run with this huge volume of opportunity. Let's start the party against the Redskins. Washington was one of only five teams last season to allow over 1,000 yards to opposing tight ends and one of only four teams to allow nine or more touchdowns to the position. If I created a matchup in a lab for Graham, I couldn't do much better.
2. Vernon Davis, SF
People like to pass against Green Bay. Maybe like is a strong word. Maybe teams are just forced into doing so because they're trailing by three scores in the third quarter. Either way, the Packers allowed a ton of passing yards and touchdowns through the air last year. Opposing tight ends alone tallied 1,184 yards against the Packers, a feat that no other defense could duplicate. If playoff performance is any indication, Vernon Davis looks primed to be a double digit scoring force again this season. He accumulated 10 catches for 292 yards and four touchdowns in only two games. He's got to be chomping at the bit to play these Packers.
3. Rob Gronkowski,
NE at TEN
Rob Gronkowski is simply an amazing person. He's got Paul Bunyan's build, Usain Bolt's speed, hands that combine the properties of a Sleep Number bed and Gorilla Glue, and Hugh Heffner's way with the ladies. It's not if he'll catch another 17 touchdowns, it's how many weeks into the season he'll accomplish it in. Two weeks? Three weeks? All kidding aside, Gronk is the best scoring threat that the Pats have near the stripe. His 18 red zone receptions for 12 touchdowns are simply too impressive to ignore. He'll get the ball from Tom Brady this week too when they battle the Titans. Tennessee was pretty good against the tight end last season, allowing only three players to surpass 70 yards and yielding no touchdowns in the final six games.
4. Antonio Gates,
SD at OAK
Before there was Gronk or Graham, another "G" tight end dominated the game for years. Antonio Gates has been doing it for as long as they've been playing with helmets on. He's been playing against the Raiders since the days of real pirates. In fact, he's been playing them for so long, that just against Oakland he's accumulated 74 catches for 1,040 yards and 10 touchdowns. In an injury-plagued 2011, Gates still managed to find the end zone seven times (which tied him for fourth-most among tight ends). What's shocking about that stat, is that 2011 was his lowest touchdown output in eight years!
5. Aaron Hernandez,
NE at TEN
Aaron Hernandez is about half a foot shorter than Rob Gronkowski. He's a tight end, but lines up in the slot almost as much as Wes Welker. For everything that Hernandez is not, he's a dynamite fantasy start nearly every week. The Pats locked Hernandez down to a big contract just a few weeks ago, and rumors indicated that he would attempt to look for wide receiver money since he took so many snaps from that position. He's the new breed of hybrid player, and it's like starting a really good wideout at tight end each week. After all, he's a part of the team that had three players with over 112 targets last season, and no other offense came anywhere close to that.
6. Dustin Keller,
NYJ vs. BUF
Who led the Jets with 115 pass targets last season? It was Dustin Keller. And guess what, the Jets didn't add a whole bunch of aerial weapons to their arsenal. In fact they let both Plaxico Burress and Braylon Edwards walk in the offseason, leaving basically Keller and Santonio Holmes as the only passing targets. Keller's touchdown total left a bit to be desired last season, but luckily for him he gets a Week 1 matchup with the Buffalo Bills. "Bills" stands for Boy I Love Letting (tight ends) Score, (they're not great at acronyms in western New York). The Bills were the only team in the league to allow double digit tight end scores, giving up 13 on the season in 2011.
7. Brent Celek, PHI
For those of you who missed the top flight tight ends, you could do much worse than Brent Celek. In the final five weeks of last season, Celek had a bit of an awakening and had nearly the exact same numbers as Jimmy Graham (354 yards and three touchdowns, Graham had one less yard). Celek has done it before, racking up eight touchdowns in 2009. With an oft-injured Michael Vick behind center, look for the Eagles to use a ton of dump offs to Celek and LeSean McCoy to get the ball out of Vick's hands ASAP. Celek should reap some pretty hefty rewards from such play calling. While the Browns were one of the best teams in the league at shutting down wide receivers, they were only a middle of the road defense against the tight end. In fact, tight ends scored as many times last season (seven) as wide receivers did. The dump off and avoidance of Joe Haden is in play.
8. Owen Daniels,
HOU vs. MIA
Why do we like Owen Daniels? The potential has always been there. He plays for a great offense with great options around him. Joel Dreesen left the team, taking his sniped targets with him. And Matt Schaub is back at the helm of the quarterback position. Much like the aforementioned Michael Vick, Schaub is probably going to be handled with kid gloves a bit, which means the long bombs down the field to Andre Johnson may be out of the question, and the dump off to the old reliable tight end is a much more attractive option. He'll likely see some chances against the Dolphins this week. Miami allowed the sixth-most tight end receptions last season.
9. Tony Gonzalez,
ATL at KC
What is it with tight ends and their last names beginning with the letter "G?" Must be good luck or something? I guess that bodes well for Jermaine Gresham's career too. Tony Gonzalez has been slam dunking footballs over the goalpost for 12 years now. In those 12 years he has only once failed to break 850 yards in a season and only once failed to have five or more touchdown catches. But most impressive is that fact that he's missed only one game in 12 years. A matchup against the Chiefs is an interesting one for Gonzo. Kansas City allowed the fewest tight end receptions last season, but the fifth most tight end touchdowns. Fifteen percent of tight end catches against the Chiefs went for a score (a little worse than one out of six times). If Gonzo gets six catches, he could score twice.
Finley, GB vs. SF
The curious case of Jermichael Finley can be summed up by two games last season. Week 3 against Chicago, Finley racked up seven catches for 85 yards and three touchdowns. The next week he followed it up with three catches for 28 yards. It's boom or bust for Finley, and frankly more often it's just bust. If you drafted him, you're probably starting him, but a matchup against the 49ers, who allowed on three touchdowns to tight ends all of last season (yes that matches his Week 3 output) won't likely pay dividends.
Take a chance on…
Coby Fleener, IND at
If you were a rookie quarterback in the NFL, and your offensive line was subpar, and your starting running back had been labeled a bust two years ago, and your top two wide receivers are getting up there in age or concussed by a cross-eyed look, what would you do? Would you look for your favorite target from your college team that you've known for years, who just happens to be on your pro team? Me too. Especially since Coby Fleener's matchup is against the Bears, who gave up nine touchdowns to tight ends last season. Nine times.
Kyle Rudolph, MIN
Rudolph the Vikings tight end, has a very shiny future. And if you ever saw him, he'd remind you a bit of Ashton Kucher (not really, but it rhymes). All of the other tight ends, used to get thrown to more (Rudolph never had more than three catches in any game last season). They never let Kyle Rudolph, get in the tight end meeting room door. Then one domey Week 1 game, Jacksonville came to play. We said, Rudolph with your hands so great, won't you catch like seven or eight? Because the Jaguars were sort of terrible, at denying any tight end in the league (a league-worst 91 tight end receptions). Kyle Rudolph the Vikings tight end, may have a game for his-to-ry.
Don't start if you don't have to…
DET vs. STL
Brandon Pettigrew is an insanely talented player, and will likely be starting in most fantasy leagues this week. The problem is, the St. Louis Rams' defense only does one thing well. Only one thing. That is denying the opposing tight end. The Rams allowed the second fewest receptions, the fewest yards and the fewest touchdowns to tight ends last season, making them far and away the toughest tight end defense in the league.
Fred Davis, WAS at
In his triumphant return from a suspension, Fred Davis welcomes a new quarterback (Robert Griffin III), a new top wide receiver (Pierre Garcon) and seventeen running backs in the mix. We hope there are enough balls to go around in Week 1. The Saints have not allowed a tight end to score since Week 10 of last season and allowed only two tight ends to top 53 receiving yards last season.