NFL's Best Fantasy Tight Ends (2012 Edition): #10-6

Tight ends, often the forgotten link, are the focus here today. Here's your top 10.

In fantasy football, until about, oh, last September, you'd be the laughing stock of the draft on par with the Houshmandzadeh Guy if you even thought about a tight end during the first three rounds. For as good as Vernon Davis in 2009 (965 yards, 13 TDs) or Dallas Clark that same year (1,106 yards, 10 TDs) were, nobody thought of tight ends as nearly as important as their wide receiver brethren. But then came the enlighteners: Gronk and Graham.

Last season, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham changed the game. As the top receiving options for two of the top four QBs in the league (Brady and Brees, respectively), tight ends are now being considered as high as the second round for the first time ever. Even Tony Gonzalez in his heyday didn't offer this much value - he has never once touched the 197 fantasy points Graham put up last season, let alone Gronkowski's ridiculous 241 mark. If 2011 was the Year of the Quarterback in fantasy, then it makes sense that for some lucky fantasy owners, it was the Year of the Sweet These Awesome Passing Stats Help Our Tight Ends Too (or YotSTAPSHOTET for short).

But even if you don't get one of the top two guys, that doesn't mean your draft is ruined. In fact, it's far from it: tight ends are becoming a much more integral part of the passing game for many NFL teams, even those who don't have Gronk or Graham stats. In a standard league with a RB/WR/TE flex position, numberFire has seven tight ends in the top 50 positions on the draft board. That may not mean to go grab a tight end in round five or six even if the top ones are off the board - part of fantasy football is playing other people's drafting trends just as much as what the players themselves will do, and tight ends often don't go off the board early. It just means that, this year, the tight end position may be a more crucial part of your team than you're used to.

numberFire's Top Ten Fantasy Tight Ends

10. Aaron Hernandez - New England Patriots
Projected Stats: 789.0 receiving yards, 4.9 receiving TDs
Projected Points: 110.43

It's not too often you see two tight ends from the same team make the top ten, but with Gronkowski and Hernandez, Tom Brady has two special targets to utilize. He worked the combination to Brady-like perfection last season: the two tight ends were second and third on the Patriots in receiving behind Welkahhhh, and Hernandez was at least able to keep somewhat close to Gronkowski's fiesta-filled 17 touchdowns with seven of his own. Hernandez recently signed a new $40 million deal, and I believe the Patriots will want to include him as much as possible to make good on that investment. While numberFire projects both his yards and TDs to go down, I see Hernandez as a high-upside pick, especially since Gronkowski will be drawing increased attention on the other side of the line.

9. Vernon Davis - San Francisco 49ers
Projected Stats: 791.8 receiving yards, 5.8 receiving TDs
Projected Points: 111.85

I mentioned Davis's strong 2009 season in the introduction, but his production hasn't slipped too much since his banner year. Hitting over 100 fantasy points each of the past three seasons, Davis has developed into the best weapon for the NFC West's best quarterback, Alex Smith. (Yes, that did bring me a bit of pain in my gut to write, but look at the other three starters and tell me who's better.) Last season, Davis was second on the team in receiving yards (less than 100 yards behind Michael Crabtree) and led the team with six receiving touchdowns. And those figures were actually the worst totals he has had in the past three seasons. Perhaps more surprising for a tight end, he also led the Niners with 15 catches at 20 yards or longer. Perhaps the biggest reason to get excited about Davis: his catch rate of 70.53% in 2011 (NFL average is 60%) indicates that if does start to get even more targets, he'll be able to turn them into opportunities with ease.

8. Brandon Pettigrew - Detroit Lions
Projected Stats: 794.5 receiving yards, 5.7 receiving TDs
Projected Points: 113.38

If there's a boom or bust candidate in this tight end group, it's Mr. Pettigrew. One of only two guys in this entire top ten that numberFire projects to have a career-high in fantasy points (have to love our conservative and accurate estimations), Pettigrew's main room for improvement is stretching downfield: his 9.4 yards per catch was the worst average of the Lions' top six pass-catchers (including fellow tight end Tony Scheffler) last season. But if he can get that average up, the opportunities are sure there. Pettigrew's 126 targets were second on the team behind Megatron's 158, and he was able to convert those targets at an impressive 65.9% catch rate last season. He comes with a bit of risk - he's only scored over 100 fantasy points once in his three years starting - but that risk may be worth it for the upside he can bring.

7. Owen Daniels - Houston Texans
Projected Stats: 875.2 receiving yards, 5.9 receiving TDs
Projected Points: 122.19

If I had to separate the top tight ends into tiers (and I will, because I like to consider myself a nice guy like that), Owen Daniels is a step up from Brandon Pettigrew, in the third tier of tight ends along with Jermichael Finley. Daniels is the other guy who numberFire projects to have a breakout season at the tight end spot, mostly because of the increased projected touchdown total. Last season, Daniels was actually the Texans' leading receiver in terms of receptions, targets, and yardage - yes, even more than the back we have as the #1 overall draft pick and the #4 WR on our board as well who suffered through injuries last season. The main difference between this year and last year for Daniels will likely be those short touchdowns - Joel Dreessen was the preferred red zone target for the Texans' rotation at QB last season, catching a team-high six TDs. This year, Dreessen is in Peyton Manning-land, and those red zone targets mostly figure to go Daniels's way.

6. Jermichael Finley - Green Bay Packers
Projected Stats: 845.4 receiving yards, 6.7 receiving TDs
Projected Points: 123.82

While Finley might not be a top thought on his QB's mind like the last three guys (third on the team in targets behind Nelson and Jennings), Aaron Rodgers throws the ball so much that even the peanut vendor in the south end zone will get a shot at catching a pass at some point. This bodes well for Finley, who converted slightly under the league average in catch rate this past season (59.2%), but had so many targets coming his way that he was still able to snag 55 receptions on the season. numberFire projects a slight uptick in yards but a slight decline in TDs, mostly because Packers QBs combining for 51 touchdowns again would be very tough to do. That yardage total shouldn't surprise you though: Finley had more 20+ yard catches last year (14) than Greg Jennings (13) could even muster with two non-broken legs (NSFW language).