You had Gronk, Graham, Hernandez and Witten. And then you had a lot of question marks.
That was the fantasy tight end pool entering Tuesday’s start of free agency. With just four standout players and a handful of middle-tiered ones to draft, fantasy owners were entering a draft arena with only one choice: They almost had to reach for a tight end.
But not after Tuesday.
Not only did Tony Gonzalez declare that he was coming back to play another season with the Falcons, making him a clear top tight end option, but Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett, and James Casey all found new homes. And their contracts tell us that their use is going to be favorable in 2013.
Martellus Bennett, Chicago Bears
The Black Unicorn will act as a middle-of-the-field threat in Marc Trestman’s Chicago Bears offense in 2013. And that’s good news for quarterback Jay Cutler, who isn’t used to having depth at receiver. He did once have a nice tight end in Greg Olsen, but when Olsen was a Bear, Brandon Marshall wasn’t lined up on the field with him.
We have to recognize that the Bears’ controversial signal caller isn’t necessarily partial to throwing the ball to tight ends. I’m just not sure using Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth as the benchmark here is the right thing to do. In the two seasons that Cutler did play with a solid receiving tight end, Greg Olsen, the now Panthers’ pass catcher secured 101 receptions for 1,016 yards and 13 scores. Olsen’s play left him as the 10th best tight end option in 2009. And remember, this is when Johnny Knox was the team’s best option at wide receiver. A guy like Brandon Marshall can surely open up the field for a Chicago Bears’ tight end, especially the underrated Martellus Bennett.
According to Pro Football Focus’ premium stats, since moving to Chicago, Jay Cutler’s best ratings have arguably been down the middle of the field. That certainly bodes well for a big body like Bennett’s.
And let’s not overlook what Bennett did in New York, either. He began 2012 with touchdowns in each of his first three games, and caught four or more passes in nine of his sixteen games. That’s with shaky quarterback play, too. Additionally, four of his five touchdowns came from the slot – an area the Bears will more than likely use him in the upcoming season.
Given the Chicago’s lack of reliable receiving depth, Bennett should and could easily find himself as Jay Cutler’s second favorite target in 2013. New head coach Marc Trestman is no stranger to explosive offenses, and Bennett’s big frame will serve as a nice complement to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery next year. Bennett should, for sure, be a fantasy team’s top tight end.
2013 Outlook: Mid- to low-end TE1 with moderate upside
Jared Cook, St. Louis Rams
Entering 2012, I had reasonably high hopes for Rams’ tight end Lance Kendricks. After all, Brian Schottenheimer’s offense made Dustin Keller a top-10 tight end in 2010 and 2011 in New York, and he (Schottenheimer) was entering his first season in St. Louis. After Kendricks failed to live up to the (my?) hype, why should we be high on Jared Cook?
Well, talent has a lot to do with it. Actually, it has everything to do with it. The Titans, Cook’s former team, just didn’t use him a whole lot. In 2012, he hauled in just over five targets a game in the young Titans’ offense. From a fantasy standpoint, he was consistently mediocre, topping more than five receptions just once all season long. We may want to blame that on poor quarterback play, but we still have to recognize that he had a lower targets per game average than Tony Scheffler.
Cook was on the field for just 56.9% of the Titans’ offensive snaps in 2012, and he played just 485 total snaps, which ranked 41st at the tight end position. For some perspective, Lance Kendricks, the Rams’ 2012 primary tight end, played 875 snaps, which equates to 80.7% of team snaps. We can’t put a ton of stock in snap reports because run-blocking tight ends can see a hefty number of plays, but the difference is fairly alarming and shows a nice room for improvement in fantasy for Cook.
He can’t block very well, but you have to think that his $19 million guaranteed is going to be used properly. The Rams (and the many other teams who were interested in Cook) see him as the hybrid pass-catching tight end NFL teams look for nowadays.
Jared Cook has been a fantasy sleeper his whole career. The 2013 season could be the season he finally wakes up.
2013 Outlook: Low-end TE1 with high upside
James Casey, Philadelphia Eagles
You want a lot of potential in a tight end? How about this quote from new Eagles’ head coach Chip Kelly regarding tight end James Casey:
I think the versatility that you can present to defenses is when you have a certain grouping in a game that’s not only one thing you can do, and I think the teams that have been successful doing it, you know, when you watch the Patriots line up Aaron Hernandez all over the place, is he going to be at tight end, is he going to be at receiver, is he going to be at running back, it makes it very difficult for the defense. They don’t know at the beginning of the play where people are going to line up and what they’re going to do. It keeps them on their toes.
Kelly likes versatility. James Casey is versatile. It’s an ultimate value scenario.
So who is James Casey? Well, to the casual fan, he was often overlooked in Houston because of Owen Daniels’ fantasy impact. But fake football owners may remember Casey because he was one of the few players who could play multiple spots in a fantasy lineup. That’s because, as I said, he’s versatile. I mean, the guy was drafted by the White Sox in 2003 and played three years with them.
Take a look at some of his college highlights here. The man is all over the field.
Though he only received one carry in 2012, Casey’s frame (6’3”, 240 pounds) is that of a fullback. Interestingly enough, Aaron Hernandez’s build is 6’1”, 245 pounds, which is quite comparable. And as you can see from that video, Casey brings a skill set that is similar to the one Hernandez possesses.
Should we think Casey can put up Hernandez numbers? If we stretched out Hernandez’s 2012 across 16 games, he would have finished with 82 receptions, 773 yards and eight scores. Call me nuts, but I don’t think that’s out of the question for Casey.
The fact is, if you’re not getting one of the top tight ends (Gronkowski, Graham, Witten, Gonzalez and Hernandez), there’s little reason to draft one before the double-digit rounds hit. And getting one with a lot of upside is crazy important, too. Jermaine Gresham? Eh, you could do worse, but is Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ offense really going get Gresham the ball much more than he’s already seen? Owen Daniels? Sure, he’s had a nice career, but we’ve seen his potential; we know what to expect.
Really, James Casey is the type of risk you should take in your fantasy drafts. The tight end position is just like the quarterback one in that you typically only need one to fulfill the lineup need, making solid players easier to obtain late in drafts. Considering the few points tight ends typically score, you should certainly target one with slight ambiguity and a lot of upside. Come August, many casual fantasy managers may not even know who James Casey is. Scoop him up late, and expect him to easily return his value.
2013 Outlook: High-end TE2 with high upside