The tight end position has evolved into an offensive weapon over the past decade. In fact, 14 tight ends have 100-plus receptions combined over the last two years.
While the offensive role has increased, teams have also figured out how to make tight ends more effective in run-blocking schemes by flexing the position's alignment and forcing defenses to declare how they will play the run and pass. The old fashion in-line tight end who serves as no more than an extra tackle still has a place on a few rosters, but none of them will make this list of the top 25 tight ends.
As you'll see in Group E, there are a number of young tight ends with a legitimate chance to threaten the veterans to be in the top two groups by the end of 2012.
As I have done with the other position rankings, the players will be in groups of five and in alphabetical order inside each group. Each player listed either has an (^) for guys on the rise, (>) for players maintaining their status or (v) for those on the decline.
Dallas Clark, Colts (>): It's true that playing with Peyton Manning is a big plus, but Clark is a very capable receiver with 137 receptions and 13 touchdowns over the last two seasons despite missing 10 games with a wrist injury last year.
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Kellen Winslow, Bucs (>): If he could ever stay healthy enough to play 16 games, Winslow's numbers would be off the charts. Still, his 143 receptions rank third among tight ends over the last two seasons.
Todd Heap, Ravens (v): A savvy vet who knows how to get open and make a play. He has 93 receptions and 11 touchdowns since 2009. However, he will struggle to hold a spot this high a year from now with all the great young tight ends coming up.
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Greg Olsen, Bears (>): Some think the Mike Martz offense is a bad fit for Olsen, but NFL Network analyst Trent Green told me Martz will use the tight end more than most people think. Olsen was the 18th-most targeted player at the position in his first season with Martz, and hopefully Jay Cutler goes to him more this year.
Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings, (>) With Brett Favre at the top of his game in 2009, Shiancoe was a major force when he had 11 touchdowns. He only had two touchdowns last season and will have a hard time holding a spot here if there's an inexperienced QB running the offense in 2011.
Kevin Boss, Giants (>): Even though he might not put up big numbers, his 15.2 yards per catch in 2010 gives you an idea of his big-play ability. He was only the 16th most targeted tight end and probably needs the ball more.
Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (^): In his first 27 games, with three different quarterbacks, Pettigrew has 101 receptions and six touchdowns. As soon as Mathew Stafford can stay on the field for an entire season, Pettigrew's number will explode. He is an all-around tight end with the size and technique to establish a point of attack in the run game.
Jacob Tamme, Colts (^): Not many teams with a tight end mentioned above could lose that player and have the offense not miss a beat. However, that's exactly what happened when Tamme took over for the injured Dallas Clark. Tamme put up 67 catches and four touchdowns in just 10 games. In 2011, the Colts will be a very tough team when Clark is back and they go to the two-tight end packages.
Ben Watson, Browns (>): The Browns got a much better player than they expected when they signed Watson as a free agent. In his first season in Cleveland, he caught 68 balls and was the fourth-most targeted tight end. He also tied for second in first-down grabs with 40. When Colt McCoy develops, look for Watson's numbers to be even better.
Jimmy Graham, Saints (^): The former basketball player showed enough in one season that the Saints opted to cut ties with Jeremy Shockey. He's a surprisingly good blocker for a player with so little experience. In his rookie season, he finished with 31 receptions and five touchdowns. He projects to 65 receptions and 10 touchdowns as early as 2011.
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots (^): From a family of tight ends, Gronkowski played like a five-year veteran as a rookie. He's powerful enough to establish a point of attack in the running game and a good enough receiver to beat a linebacker in coverage. He had 42 receptions and 10 touchdowns, which tied for the best among all tight ends.