|Paul Spinelli/Associated Press|
|Rob Gronkowksi enjoyed one of the finest seasons ever for a tight end in 2011, posing 17 touchdown receptions.|
Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah is getting into the Olympic mindset early this summer, handing out NFL Podium Awards for the top three players at each position group. Remember, this list is based on where these players are ranked heading into the 2012 season. Today, he tackles tight ends.
The NFL currently has an embarrassment of riches at the tight end position, and offensive coordinators have taken notice. In 2011, seven different tight ends caught 75 balls or more. In two of the last three seasons, a tight end has led the NFL in touchdown catches. The top three offenses in the league (New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers) all feature dynamic tight ends. There are several outstanding candidates to medal in this category, but these three players are a cut above the rest.
Gronk established himself as the clear-cut top tight end in the NFL with his record-breaking 2011 season. He finished the year with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He made my list of the seven most dominant players in the NFL because of the matchup nightmare he creates for opposing teams. He has a rare combination of size, strength, explosiveness and ball skills. At only 23 years old, he should continue to be the leader at this position for a very long time.
I didn't have much trouble with the second spot on this podium, either. Graham followed up a productive rookie campaign with a phenomenal second season. In 2011, he caught 99 balls for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. The former basketball player is a big-play threat as well as an imposing red-zone target. He has very soft, natural hands and can scrape out extra yards after the catch with his speed and elusiveness.
There were several excellent candidates for this final spot. Veterans like Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates continue to perform at a high level, while the league is loaded with athletic youngsters at the position like Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Pettigrew and Jermichael Finley. However, several of the coaches and executives I spoke with voiced very strong support for Davis. His numbers might trail some of the other superstars' marks, but he is a more dynamic and explosive threat in the passing game. During the 49ers' postseason run, he caught 10 balls for 292 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 29.2 yards per catch (!). If Davis had the luxury of playing in a pass-first offense with a top-tier quarterback, he would post numbers similar to those accumulated by Gronkowski and Graham.
Others considered: Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers; Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys; Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers; Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots; Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons; Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions; Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.