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Jimmy Graham tops ATL's tight end rankings

Every Thursday, Chris Wesseling rolls out the power rankings for one specific NFL position.

So far, we have ranked the top running backs, inside linebackers and outside linebackers in the league. This week, we turn our attention to the NFL's best tight ends.

Instead of straight rankings, this format will feature tiers so as not to be as arbitrary.

This is not a fantasy football cheat sheet, nor is it an attempt to predict which players will finish with the best statistics this season. The premise is which tight end I would want for the 2013 season. Although statistics, scouting reports and other factors such as durability were considered, the criteria is based primarily on game film from the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Top shelf: Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski

Graham has been the most unstoppable mismatch in the NFL through three weeks. How is a defensive back supposed to prevent a touchdown when he boxes out in the end zone? Through three games, Graham is on pace for 123 receptions, 1,909 yards and 21 touchdowns. When I watch Game Rewind, I can't help but think Graham and J.J. Watt were the models for those giants in the NFL Sunday Ticket's "World's Most Powerful Fan" commercials.

It's fair to question Gronkowski's staying power after seven combined surgeries to his back and forearm. When he's on the field, though, there's nobody better. Even with eight missed games over the past two seasons, no tight end in NFL history has started his career in more impressive fashion.

As unguardable as Graham seems in the end zone, Gronk is the most dominant red-zone presence in the league. His blocking prowess too often goes unnoticed.

Next level: Vernon Davis, Jason Witten, Jordan Cameron

Davis is an all-around tight end with a freakish size-speed combination, but he's been just shy of the transcendence of Graham and Gronkowski. His receiving skills remain under appreciated because the 49ers have kept him in to block so often under coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Witten remains on a Hall of Fame pace.

Cameron is here to stay as a legitimate playmaker and red-zone threat. What does it say about Pat Shurmur's coaching staff that Cameron languished on the bench for two years while the Browns' offense starved for playmakers?

Pro Bowl potential: Kyle Rudolph, Heath Miller, Jermichael Finley, Jared Cook, Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas, Martellus Bennett, Tyler Eifert, Dwayne Allen

What happens when Rudolph gets quality quarterback play? He walks away with the Pro Bowl MVP award. Miller was one of the most reliable and complete tight ends in the league before shredding his knee late last season. Finley was playing the best ball of his career prior to the Week 3 concussion.

Cook flashed dominance as a down-the-seam threat in the season opener, but he has been quiet since. We can knock Cook down a peg if he continues to pull a disappearing act with the enigmatic Sam Bradford. Gates is moving better this year than he has in a couple of years. Thomas benefits from single coverage and a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he's not quite as smooth as fellow former hoopster Cameron.

Bennett has a shot at a breakout season with Jay Cutler throwing to him, but his blocking has been subpar this season. It won't be long before Eifert is second fiddle to A.J. Green in the Bengals' passing attack. Allen was emerging as one of the NFL's best all-around tight ends before undergoing season-ending hip surgery.

Solid starters: Tony Gonzalez, Owen Daniels, Greg Olsen, Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller, Jermaine Gresham, Brent Celek, Brandon Pettigrew, Charles Clay

Gonzalez hasn't won with speed in at least half a decade, but he appears to be a bit more lumbering this season than last. It doesn't help that he's been needed as an extra blocker, and Roddy White isn't drawing extra defensive attention. Perhaps Gonzalez will round into form in the coming weeks after skipping training camp.

Daniels and Olsen are receiving specialists whose production depends on game plan and matchups. Lewis, Miller, Gresham and Celek are rock-solid tight ends capable of contributing in the passing game as well as the running game. Pettigrew has the most inconsistent hands in the league. Clay is a jack-of-all-trades with an offensive role that continues to increase.

Best of the rest: Fred Davis, Delanie Walker, Rob Housler, Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers

Coming off Achilles surgery, Davis is a forgotten man in the Redskins offense. He could lose his job to Jordan Reed. Walker is the Swiss army knife of tight ends, but he's long been overrated as a reliable receiving threat.

Housler is one of the fastest tight ends in the league. It remains to be seen if he will have a major role in Bruce Arians' Cardinals offense. Chandler has been the Bills' most effective red-zone threat for the past couple of seasons. Myers' production is heavily dependent on garbage time.

Upstarts: Vance McDonald, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Jordan Reed, Gavin Escobar, Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Luke Willson, Garrett Graham, Dion Sims, Mychal Rivera

Coach Jim Harbaugh has compared McDonald to Mike Ditka and even given him the Hall of Famer's uniform number. The second-round draft pick moves extremely well for a man of his 6-foot-4, 260-pound carriage. Fleener isn't going to break out this season if Pep Hamilton continues to rely so heavily on a power running game. Ertz is a receiving specialist. Green is the successor to Gates in San Diego.

Just a guy: Anthony Fasano, Benjamin Watson, James Casey, Kellen Winslow, Lance Kendricks, Sean McGrath, Dallas Clark, Ed Dickson, Zach Sudfeld, Logan Paulsen, David Paulson, Jeff Cumberland, Gary Barnidge

A pupu platter of those nearing the end of the line, failing to emerge as solid starters or lacking upside.

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