There are very few slam-dunk picks in fantasy football. For years, owning LaDainian Tomlinson guaranteed you a spot in the playoffs. Peyton Manning has been an elite fantasy QB for more than a decade. And though he's now in the twilight of his career, Terrell Owens used to be good for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns a season.
At the tight end position, the debate in the fantasy world was always Tony Gonzalez v. Antonio Gates.
Gonzalez may be the best tight end in NFL history, but his days of Pro Bowl productivity are long gone. And with no other player challenging Gates for top tight end status, it's a no-brainer that he will be the slam-dunk first tight end off the board in your fantasy draft. The question is, when exactly should Gates come off the board?
Gates missed six games last season, so he didn't finish as the top fantasy tight end (based on ESPN's standard scoring). But with 50 catches for 782 yards and 10 scores, he finished a mere 12 points behind Jason Witten. Projected over a full season, his 214 points would have shattered Witten's total of 146 by nearly 70. As a comparison, Brandon Lloyd led all wide receivers with 203 points.
Now it's very unlikely that Gates would have had that kind of crazy production over a 16-game season, but you can see how dominant he is at the position. You can expect his numbers to be similar to those of the 10th or 12th wide receiver at season's end, and you should draft the Chargers tight end appropriately. I would take him as early as the fourth round, though some may take him in the third.
On to the tight end rankings…
1. Antonio Gates, Chargers: At 31, Gates will be following Gonzalez into the twilight in a couple of years. He's money now, though.
2. Jermichael Finley, Packers: Last year's "It" tight end is back after a knee injury ended his season early.
3. Jason Witten, Cowboys: He had nine touchdowns in 2010 and six total in the two previous seasons.
4. Dallas Clark, Colts: As injuries limited him to six games in 2010, Jacob Tamme emerged as another option.
5. Vernon Davis, 49ers: The former Terps tight end backed up his breakout 2009 season with a solid 2010.
6. Owen Daniels, Texans: He'll get quality looks as defenses key in on Andre Johnson and Arian Foster.
7. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars: Who else is the Jaguars' quarterback going to throw to inside the red zone?
8. Kellen Winslow III, Buccaneers: He's an [expletive] soldier!
9. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons: His numbers took a serious dip in 2010, but he's still a lock as a fantasy starter.
10. Jimmy Graham, Saints: Everyone is hyping this guy up, so count on him going earlier than he should.
11. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots: He's hurt by the presence of Aaron Hernandez and vice versa.
12. Zach Miller, Seahawks: Oakland's top receiver from a year ago is now in Seattle, where he'll thrive.
13. Brent Celek, Eagles: He was an afterthought when Mike Vick took over, but hopefully that changes.
14. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions: He had 71 catches for 722 yards in his sophomore season.
15. Greg Olsen, Panthers: A very good tight end, he was misused by Mike Martz in Chicago.
16. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots: Will the Ocho and a healthy Wes Welker hurt Hernandez and Gronkowski?
17. Chris Cooley, Redskins: A solid but unspectacular option. If only Cooley could score more often…
18. Dustin Keller, Jets: Is it wrong that when I think of Keller, I think of him getting destroyed by Ray Lewis?
19. Tony Moeaki, Chiefs: He had a few good weeks in his rookie season. Now it's all about consistency.
20. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals: Tight ends are often a rookie quarterback's best friend.
If you really want to draft a rookie…
I guess it would be Jordan Cameron or Kyle Rudolph, but trust me, you don't want a rookie tight end.
Three tight ends with sleeper potential…
1. Jimmy Graham: The Saints liked him enough to let Jeremy Shockey go, and Drew Brees is his QB.
2. Todd Heap: We know Heap's skill set well, and Kevin Kolb locked on to Brett Celek in Philadelphia.
3. Owen Daniels: He was the top-ranked fantasy tight end when he went down in 2009. He's healthy now.
Three tight ends I'd draft with caution…
1. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons: Like I said, he is old. And Julio Jones will cut into his red-zone touches.
2. Jeremy Shockey, Panthers: This is my annual disclaimer to not get your hopes up for Shockey.
3. The Patriots tight ends: Both guys were surprises last season, but how will the touches be distributed?
(For my quarterback rankings, released on Monday, click this link. You can find the running back rankings right here and Wednesday's wide receiver rankings are here. Look for kickers and defenses on Friday.)
Matt Vensel is a blogger and community coordinator for The Baltimore Sun. Send your fantasy questions and comments to Matt.Vensel@baltsun.com, @mattvensel on Twitter or leave them in the comments section below.