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Jimmy Graham tops preseason tight end rankings

Throughout the summer, Around The League will roll out the power rankings for each specific position. First up are the tight ends.

All-Pros: Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis

An early-season MVP candidate, Graham averaged 119 yards per game prior to his late-October plantar fascia tear and just 52 yards once his snaps were reduced following the injury. With Graham hobbled, the Saints' offense stumbled through a five-game November-December stretch, topping 17 points just once. Graham still led all tight ends with 86 receptions, 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013. (UPDATE: Graham became the highest-paid tight end in the NFL on July 15 with a four-year, $40 million deal.)

Gronkowski was better than ever before his season-ending ACL injury in December. After struggling for the majority of the season, Tom Brady led the NFL with 35.75 points and 473.25 yards over a five-game span once Gronk returned to the lineup. From a statistical standpoint, Brady has been Aaron Rodgers with the Patriots' All-Pro tight end healthy -- and Andy Dalton when Gronkowski is sidelined. Keep in mind: Gronk is younger than 2013 breakout stars Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas.

It would be interesting to see Davis' numbers if he wasn't asked to concentrate as much on blocking at the expense of his pass routes in the 49ers' ball-control offense. It's telling that Davis' regular season averages of 43.7 yards and 0.44 touchdowns per game spike to 75.0 and 0.88 in the playoffs.

Next level: Jordan Cameron, Julius Thomas, Jason Witten, Heath Miller, Jermichael Finley*

Cameron's smooth athleticism evokes memories of an early-career Tony Gonzalez. Hauling in errant passes from the Cleveland Browns' trio of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, Cameron posted 15 more catches and 129 more yards than fellow former hoopster Thomas managed with Peyton Manning.

Witten isn't quite as spry after the catch as he once was, but he remains one of the NFL's most complete tight ends for the Cowboys.

Miller, meanwhile, is the AFC's answer to Davis. If Pittsburgh used Miller in a similar fashion to Graham, he would clear 70 receptions on an annual basis. It's no coincidence that the Steelers got off to an 0-4 start as Miller worked his way back from an ACL and finished with the conference's best record in the second half of the season once the tight end was back to full strength.

*Finley was in the midst of one of the best stretches of his enigmatic career when he was felled by a career-threatening neck injury with the Packers in mid-October. NFL teams have been reluctant to green-light his return to the field this offseason.

Solid starters: Kyle Rudolph, Jordan Reed, Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen, Dennis Pitta, Greg Olsen, Charles Clay, Antonio Gates, Brent Celek, Marcedes Lewis, Delanie Walker

When Rudolph was paired with legitimate quarterbacks, he earned a Pro Bowl MVP nod. Reed has the talent to join Cameron and Thomas in the next tier if he can steer clear of concussions. Bennett established career highs across the board in Marc Trestman's offense with the Chicago Bears last season.

We fully expected the Colts' Allen to emerge as one of the AFC's premier tight ends prior to his season-ending hip injury last September. He's a better player than more ballyhooed Indianapolis teammate Coby Fleener. Pitta's own hip injury left Joe Flacco without a go-to receiver in key situations last year. Olsen was Cam Newton's most reliable pass catcher with the Panthers.

Clay gets points for versatility, but he's not one of the NFL's Top 100 players. Gates averaged 6.4 receptions and 87.6 yards through Week 5 of 2013 with the Chargers. Those numbers plummeted to 3.4 and 34.5 following the emergence of Keenan Allen in San Diego the rest of the way. At age 34, Gates looks like a player about to be bypassed by Ladarius Green. The same torch-passing is going on in Philadelphia with Celek and Zach Ertz.

Potential vs. production: Ladarius Green, Jared Cook, Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Rob Housler, Coby Fleener, Garrett Graham, Travis Kelce, Mychal Rivera, Gavin Escobar, Luke Willson, Vance McDonald

Cook is capable of taking over games in a Vernon Davis fashion, but he's been more of a tease than a consistent threat. Eifert didn't show the playmaking ability of a first-round draft pick as a rookie.

Housler is a pass-catching specialist in a Cardinals offense that asks its tight ends to block. Fleener is dangerous after the catch but needs to prove he can come down with contested balls. He lacks physicality.


Of all the quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers stands alone at the top. This summer, Around The League will rank the best players in each position heading into the 2014 season.
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» Tight ends

Graham is the new Owen Daniels in Houston. Kelce is a breakout candidate with the Kansas City Chiefs if he shows no ill effects from microfracture surgery. Rivera has to hold off David Ausberry for snaps in Oakland. Willson is one of the NFL's fastest tight ends.

Diminishing role: Brandon Pettigrew, Owen Daniels, Zach Miller, Jermaine Gresham, Scott Chandler, Timothy Wright, Brandon Myers, Jeff Cumberland, Anthony Fasano

Pettigrew's drops will be less of a factor with rookie Eric Ebron assuming a major role in the Detroit Lions' aerial attack. Daniels will play second fiddle to Pitta in Baltimore. Miller was forced to accept a pay cut in Seattle. Chandler is coming off a career year but will see fewer passes with Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams on the Bills' roster.

Impact rookies: Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Richard Rodgers, Troy Niklas

In the latest episode of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys discuss Rob Gronkowski's expected return to action and Cordarrelle Patterson's potential rise this season.

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