2012 Fantasy Football in Review: Tight Ends

Repeat after me: You can never discount Old Man Gonzalez. Ever.

In our final installment of our "Wait, Michael Turner and Larry Fitzgerald were top three round draft picks?" series, we take a look at what's often the forgotten position in fantasy football: tight ends.

And, you know, maybe the haters actually have a point. The top overall tight end this year, Jimmy Graham, only scored double-digit fantasy points in six games. Only one of those games came after Week 10. Graham would have finished 19th among all receivers, just ahead of teammate Lance Moore. And only eight tight ends even cracked 100 FP on the season, while 39 receivers hit the same number. I think it's safe to say that the Year of the Tight End is no more.

Sure, Gronk's injury didn't help, but were there any other tight ends that you could truly trust? According to our numbers... maybe three? Although our preseason top five looks eerily similar to the one that ended the season...

The Top Tens

Preseason Draft Kit
1. Rob Gronkowski: 146.58 Fantasy Points (FP)
2. Jimmy Graham: 142.13 FP
3. Tony Gonzalez: 131.65 FP
4. Jason Witten: 130.30 FP
5. Antonio Gates: 128.25 FP
6. Jermichael Finley: 123.82 FP
7. Owen Daniels: 122.19 FP
8. Brandon Pettigrew: 113.38 FP
9. Vernon Davis: 111.85 FP
10. Aaron Hernandez: 110.43 FP

End of the Season
1. Jimmy Graham: 144 FP
2. Rob Gronkowski: 141 FP
3. Tony Gonzalez: 135 FP
4. Heath Miller: 125 FP
5. Jason Witten: 115 FP
6. Greg Olsen: 107 FP
7. Dennis Pitta: 103 FP
8. Owen Daniels: 100 FP
9. Kyle Rudolph: 99 FP
10. Brandon Myers: 97 FP

Right on Target, Sir

Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons
Preseason Projection: No. 3 TE, 131.65 FP
End of Season Total: No. 3 TE, 135 FP

All hail Old Man Gonzalez! The King is not yet dead; he is stronger than ever!

I'm prone to a tiny bit of hyperbole; it's kind of my job as a fantasy sports writer. But it's not a joke when I say that Gonzalez is stronger than ever. In fact, the last time he put up numbers like these, we were partying like it's 1999.

numberFire took a look at our Net Expected Points (NEP) figure, which measures the value that a player adds to his team above or below the average play in the same situation. Since these numbers go back to only the 2000 season, we can't accurately measure the value Gonzalez added to the Chiefs in his 11 touchdown reception 1999 season. My guess is somewhere along the lines of the value of Nicole Scherzinger to the Pussycat Dolls (aka, the only one you've ever heard of). But for all the seasons we have figures for, Gonzalez's career high is 73.76 points of value added above expectation to KC in 2006. Second was 63.89 NEP in 2009, his first year in Atlanta.

Was. Because, you see, Gonzalez added 71.51 NEP to Atlanta this season, his second-highest season total in the last 13 years. But, of course, numberFire saw this coming. His catch rate had increased every year in Atlanta, from 61 to 64 to 69 percent, as Matt Ryan grew as a quarterback. In addition, his targets stayed consistent; he hasn't been below 109 looks in his three years in Atlanta.

As long as Matt Ryan continued his growth (as we predicted), then Gonzalez was due for another breakout year. And sure enough, he stayed along the same trend, with only 124 targets (just eight more than last year) but an absolutely stunning 75 percent catch rate. It will be tough to maintain this rate next year, but if there's somebody I'm not counting out, it's Old Man Gonzalez.

Coming Out of Left Field

Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers
Preseason Projection: No. 16 TE, 90.05 FP
End of Season Total: No. 4 TE, 125 FP

All told, Miller only gained about 35 fantasy points above our initial projection for him. But with tight ends about as strong as Jason Garrett's clock management skills this year, it was enough to make him the fourth-best fantasy tight end this season by a large margin. And let Yinzers rejoice.

Miller's role didn't exactly change in the Pittsburgh offense; he finished third on the team in targets for the fourth straight season (he finished fourth on the team in 2008 behind slot receiver Nate Washington). Pittsburgh has been, and remained this season, a very receiver-heavy passing attack.

But the shift is slowly beginning. While in the past he had finished at least 27 targets behind Pittsburgh's No. 2 guy, the targets were a bit more spread out this year. His 101 targets were not only a career-high, but they were also only four behind Antonio Brown for second on the team and 18 behind Mike Wallace for the team lead. All told, Miller received 17.6 percent of throws from Pittsburgh QBs this season.

Notice I said "Pittsburgh QBs". That's because, when Big Ben sat out the majority of four games between Weeks 10 and 13 with his "There is a strong possibility you may die" rib injury, Miller turned into the team's star. Averaging 5.75 targets per game, Miller led the Steelers in receptions in three of those four weeks. It also included his highest receiving yardage output of the season: 97 yards in Week 13 against Baltimore.

By regaining his 2009 form and nabbing a 70+ percent catch rate for the first time in three seasons, Heath Miller has made a strong case to return to the tight end elite. Especially given the health of both the Steelers receiving corps and his TE competitors this season, it wouldn't surprise me to see Miller in our top ten projections next year.

Back Into Hiding

Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions
Preseason Projection: No. 8 TE, 113.38 FP
End of Season Total: No. 21 TE, 65 FP

For many of the tight ends who had down seasons, there's a reasonable explanation for why they didn't do so well. Antonio Gates may actually be mortal, and the Chargers offense was extremely inefficient anyway. The Packers realized that they had four or five legitimate receivers and didn't really need Jermichael Finley. And Vernon Davis started off strong before getting Kaepernick'd.

But what about Brandon Pettigrew? Matthew Stafford had the most passing attempts in the NFL, Pettigrew played all but three games, and the Lions didn't really have any other receiving options outside of Megatron. But the expected break out tight end only finished with one double-digit fantasy game all season.

To understand, you'll first need to look at his catch rate. After increasing from 56 to 63 to 66 percent over his first three pro seasons, Pettigrew regressed in a big way to a 57 percent catch rate in 2012. Part of that can be contributed to Stafford deciding, "Hey, let's throw this ball up for grabs and see what happens!" at least five times a game. But even so, tight ends usually have a higher catch rate than wide receivers, and certainly higher than the league-wide 60 percent average. But that wasn't the case in Detroit: Calvin Johnson, Ryan Broyles, Nate Burleson, and Titus Young all finished with a higher catch rate than their tight end.

And that lack of catching ability led Stafford away from his tight end. On the season, Pettigrew averaged 7.7 targets per game, his lowest output since his 2009 rookie season. And that even includes a 15 target game in Week 12 against Houston, where Pettigrew's 15 were only second on the team and represented less than a quarter of Stafford's 61 attempts. (He also caught only eight of them.)

For Pettigrew to break out next season like many were expecting from him this year, he'll need to get back in Stafford's good graces and have a solid early catch rate so he doesn't lose his QB's confidence permanently. Given that the Lions will be getting back the receiving corps that was absolutely decimated by the end of the season, I'm not sold.