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Offseason Movement: TEs
A Fantasy Perspective
7/13/07

While it may be the golden age of the tight end, it’s safe to say the position still does not get the credit it should. Tight ends – perhaps behind only quarterbacks – must know the playbook as well as anyone. And the only time the tight ends gets to take a play off is when his position is not called for in the formation. A quarterback, running back and wide receiver can sometimes get short rests even while on the field and can sometimes get away with missing an assignment or a read. However, if a tight end whiffs on a block on a run play, his running back gets hammered. If a tight end lazily runs his routes in the pass game, the defense can turn their attention to the outside. Finally, if a tight end stays in to block and doesn’t read the blitz right, his quarterback pays for it.

If it sounds like I’m pleading with you to respect the tight end, I may just be. When a team gets a great one, it is amazing the impact that he can have. The most recent examples are Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, who despite averaging receiving corps at best, were able to help their respective teams to feature two of the highest scoring offenses over the past few years. And it has held up over time – especially recently – that unless that his team favors a very heavy run-oriented offense (i.e. Alge Crumpler, Todd Heap), tight ends who put good numbers tend to lead their offenses to high-scoring seasons, sometimes regardless of the receivers who line up with them. Think about it though…why wouldn’t they do well? Even if a defense double-teams a TE, how may LBs and safeties can jump up with a 6-5 TE that a defender is not allowed to contact down the field? They present big targets and the good ones have such big hands, it would almost be a crime not to give them a chance to end the drive for the offense in the end zone.

At just about every position, a below-the-radar (and sometimes undrafted) player gets “it” for a season and goes from waiver wire hopeful to the final piece in your run for a fantasy title. This position is no different. Last season was a pretty fair season for the position in that regard, as Chris Cooley, Kellen Winslow and Desmond Clark all emerged from late round or undrafted obscurity to second-half starters on teams that ignored the TE position in their draft or fell victim to the disappointment of Jason Witten. In 2005, Heath Miller and LJ Smith were good, low-end #1 TE options. However, with a full plate of responsibilities to learn – just like a QB that switches teams – TEs don’t generally have huge seasons in their first season after a move as they spend a lot more time thinking about their assignments than they are used to, almost like going back to being a rookie in some respects. Unless they are already familiar with the system or moving from run-oriented team to a pass-heavy offense, it’s more often wiser to opt for the player who stays put.

All that being said, there are a few TEs making the move this season who fall under the guidelines just mentioned in the preceding paragraph. In order of projected fantasy impact, let’s take a look the TEs who switched teams this offseason and their chances for fantasy success…

Randy McMichael
(From MIA to STL)
In his attempt to bring together as many members from the 2005 Miami Dolphins (signing backup QB Gus Frerotte last year and adding backup RB Travis Minor this offseason) as possible, HC Scott Linehan and the Rams’ front office added a third ex-Dolphin to the fold this spring and possibly their most important former Miami player in McMichael. Even though he was only a fourth-round selection five years ago, most people would tell you he has underachieved and, to a certain degree, those critics would be right because of his incredible athleticism. However, for pretty much the first time in his professional career, McMichael will have a very good supporting cast AND a very accurate QB AND he will not be the #1 or #2 option that defenses will game plan for each week.

The immediate downside to that fact is that the Rams have so much offensive skill-position talent that he may get lost in the mix from time to time. Nevertheless, the former Georgia Bulldog standout had his best season under the tutelage of Linehan in 2005 (as did Chris Chambers), making possible the likelihood that McMichael can come close to doing it again in St. Louis. At this early stage, I look for the 28-year-old to grab around 60-65 balls and score 5-6 times, making him well worth a starting spot each week and a seventh-round selection in 12-team leagues. (He may actually go lower because his value will have dipped after a poor season, at least by his standards.) So, even though Daniel Graham signed for the most money at the position in the offseason, I expect McMichael to have the most fantasy numbers at the TE position of any of the TEs that switched teams this season.

Marcus Pollard
(From DET to SEA)
This is one signing that went much more unnoticed than it should have. Pollard is nearing the end of what has been a pretty solid NFL career. That is not to suggest he is merely collecting a check though. His numbers largely disappointed last season as Detroit OC Mike Martz treats tight ends more like a necessary evil than a viable option. (Remember, he hauled in 46 balls and three scores in 2005 under Steve Mariucci’s watch.) Despite the depth of talent in the Seahawks’ WR corps (even minus Darrell Jackson), QB Matt Hasselbeck has shown he will hit a TE that he knows will hold on to the ball. And Mike Holmgren does run one of the purest forms of the West Coast offense, meaning if the TE will be involved. (And one look at the Seahawks’ roster reveals Will Heller, Bennie Joppru and Leonard Stevens…if anyone is going to catch the ball at the position, it will be Pollard.)

Pollard is no longer worth a late mid-round pick like he was in his heyday with the Colts, but figure he will get every one of now-Buccaneers TE Jerramy Stevens’ two-catches-per-game average plus some of former Seahawk Itula Mili’s receptions. As a result, it is entirely possible for Pollard to reach 40-45 catches with five touchdown grabs assuming he plays all 16 games. That not only makes him draftable, but it likely makes him a viable low-end #1 or top-end #2 fantasy TE. Just like with all late picks in your fantasy draft, he does have a big question mark – he is 35 – so he is bound to, at some point, lose that step that he had on linebackers and safeties his whole career.

Daniel Graham
(From NE to DEN)
To be quite honest, Graham in Mile High country made all the sense in the world until one of their offensive assistants mentioned he would be in line for 50-plus catches this season. The question with Graham has never been the ability to catch that many passes, it is more that he tends to drop way too many catchable balls and that he tends to do it in critical situations. Pair that with the continued maturation of second-year TE Tony Scheffler, who showed very adept hands toward the end of the season and appeared to be then-rookie QB Jay Cutler’s favorite receiver. When I first discovered the Graham signing, I visualized a poor man’s version of Shannon Sharpe and Dwayne Carswell circa 2003 with Scheffler playing the role of Sharpe’s hard-to-guard receiving TE and Graham in place of Carswell, living up to his reputation as one of the league’s best blocking TEs.

But as tends to happen, money talks and young talent may have to take a back seat for now. Graham is getting paid way too much money – in the $6 M/season neighborhood – to serve as an extra tackle in the run game, thus relegating both Scheffler and Graham to #2 fantasy TE status. This is certainly one of those moves that will benefit the Broncos much more than it will any fantasy team. I suppose that is par for the course from one of fantasy’s biggest enemies, head coach Mike Shanahan. Perhaps we, as fantasy players, should take as a sign that Shanny is going easy on fantasy owners as he is getting older, as he has seemingly cleared up that RB merry-go-round by signing Travis Henry. Expect Scheffler to be the more fantasy-relevant TE this season, but expect a 45-30 split at best for Scheffler-Graham, respectively, with the younger TE more likely to fail to hit 45 than the former Patriot to come up short of 30. Both are draftable this season as #2 TEs, but with the number of quality options there are at TE this year, I would pause if I had to start either one regularly whereas before Scheffler would have merited low-end #1 fantasy TE status.

David Martin
(From GB to MIA)
Martin will be the first of two deep sleepers at this position I will discuss that have been beset by injury. A former college receiver, Martin has sometimes flashed the ability that you would expect from someone with his background, but it seems as though anytime he may be getting on a roll, he is not on the field. In Miami, he joins a TE roster that he should easily beat out in training camp. With new QB Trent Green quite used to finding the TE, Martin could be one of those pleasant surprises that will likely go undrafted in 12-team, one-starting TE leagues. However, don’t make the mistake of looking too deep into Martin either, as he has played a full slate of games just once in his six-year career. And certainly don’t make the mistake of saying since Green found Tony Gonzalez on a regular basis and HC Cam Cameron coached Antonio Gates that Martin will be a hybrid of those two fantasy studs. I do expect, however, for Martin to play 12-14 games and have a 35-40 catch season, which would be a career high for him. From a drafting perspective, let him go undrafted but be sure to monitor his progress. It always feels great to be able to snag that one undrafted fantasy TE that seems to pop up every year and makes himself into a starting-worthy player.

Eric Johnson
(From SF to NO)
Most of us already know Johnson would not be moving to The Big Easy if he could have stayed healthy in San Francisco. For a short while as a 49er, he was the only legitimate receiving option his quarterbacks had. Right along with David Martin, Johnson as a Saint is probably the most intriguing under-the-radar TE prospect to me heading into the season. For as electrifying as the New Orleans offense was last season, it lacked a commanding, short-yardage, sure-handed presence like Johnson in the middle of the field. Much like McMichael and Martin before him on this list, he does come into a situation where he will be fairly low on the pecking order. That said, QB Drew Brees has shown no disdain for spreading the wealth to each of his receiving options, meaning Johnson – barring injury, always a big if – might end up being a pretty fair fantasy backup worthy of a roster spot – if not spot starts – along the way. If you are the type of owner who does not like spending even a mid-round pick on a TE and would rather roll the dice on a late-round option at the position, you could do much worse than Johnson.

Jermaine Wiggins
(From MIN to JAX)
This was a very curious signing, in my opinion. Currently ahead of the well-traveled Wiggins on the Jaguar depth chart is George Wrighster and 2006 first-round draft pick Marcedes Lewis. Even more curious was bringing in Wiggins a few months after locking up Wrighster to a five-year contract. However, it does make sense on a couple levels. (1) The one-year contract Wiggins signed reunites him with the coach that he experienced his career year with, Mike Tice, who now serves as the assistant head coach for the offense. (2) He has long been a dependable route runner that is a solid move-the-chains type of receiver on a team that does not have many players who do just that. Look for him to carry that same role with his new team. Perhaps, in the process, he will be able to share his wisdom with his younger teammates about how to do just that.

Kyle Brady
(From JAX to NE)
Raise your hand if you knew Brady was still in the NFL…in all seriousness, the ninth overall pick by the Jets in the 1995 NFL Draft has carved out quite a lengthy career for himself in this league. Since his 64-catch season with the Jaguars in 2000, though, Brady has struggled to be fantasy-relevant. And that will not change in New England where he won’t even the most prominent Brady on the team. Brady, whose stats have disappointed for a player that was picked so high, has made his professional career by being a very good blocker, a trend that will continue with his new surroundings as a Patriot, where he will likely fill the Daniel Graham role in the offense. Expect very little contribution from Brady in the passing game, considering he is the third-best receiving option at his position on the team. Add in all the receivers New England signed and you have enough ammunition to look elsewhere for a sleeper TE this season.

The following are a few more notable free agent acquisitions at tight end this offseason. However, each was brought on to their respective teams strictly as a reserve, and you should not consider selecting any of them on draft day, even if the players listed ahead of them on the depth chart falls to serious injury at some point in training camp or early in the season…

Visanthe Shiancoe (From NYG to MIN)

*I, for one, think that Shiancoe is one of those players that people will joke about his name but who could pleasantly surprise this season. However, the same thing that will help him – a young QB who will look for a safe route underneath more often than forcing it down the field – may be the same thing that keeps him from being fantasy roster-worthy this season. Shiancoe certainly has enough talent, but will likely end up only as a bye-week option in 2007.

Jerramy Stevens (From SEA to TB)

*At his best, Stevens would give fellow teammate Alex Smith a run for his money. However, if he were at his best more often, Seattle never would have allowed their former first-round choice to leave in the first place. His new coach, Jon Gruden, will be less tolerant than Mike Holmgren was, if for no other reason, because he doesn’t have a high draft pick invested in him. It’s a darn shame that Stevens’ head isn’t as full of possibilities as his body is, or else fantasy owners would have yet another TE to spend a mid-round draft choice on, knowing we could get near Pro Bowl-type numbers out of him. So unless Stevens’ move to Tampa matured him, it’s just as well that you don’t invest a pick in him in your draft.

Tony Stewart (From CIN to OAK)

*The drafting of Zach Miller and the presence of Courtney Anderson makes it highly unlikely Stewart will have any fantasy impact this season.

Fred Wakefield (From ARI to OAK)

*The drafting of Zach Miller and the presence of Courtney Anderson makes it highly unlikely Wakefield will have any fantasy impact this season, if he even makes the team.