Having a productive and consistent tight end on your fantasy roster is a real advantage in the quest for a league championship.
Unfortunately, reliable tight ends were few and far between in 2008.
While there were some superstars that helped fantasy owners reach the top of the mountain, there was an overall decrease in the level of consistent production. The top five tight ends produced an average of 117.6 points this season. That's down 19.2 points from the 136.8 that the top five tight ends averaged in 2007. The decrease in statistical success can be attributed in part to a few players, a list that includes expected fantasy starters like Vernon Davis, Todd Heap, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow.
Davis' value crashed and burned under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and Heap was utilized as a blocker more often than a receiver in the Ravens' passing attack. Shockey dealt with injuries and didn't meet expectations in his first season in New Orleans, catching 50 passes without any touchdowns. Winslow, who was considered a top-three tight end in most drafts, went from 82 catches, 1,106 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games in 2007 to 43 catches, 428 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games in 2008.
While Chris Cooley established career bests in receptions (83) and yards (849), he scored just one touchdown the entire season. That's an enormous decrease from the seven scores he averaged from 2005-2007. So unless you were in a league that rewarded points for receptions, Cooley also failed to live up to his draft position.
Several tight ends did come out and make an impact during the course of the season, but none were consistent enough to be considered must-starts week in and week out. Anthony Fasano scored seven touchdowns and finished in the top 10 in fantasy points at the position, but he hauled in just 34 passes. Zach Miller showed a lot of potential for the future, but he found the end zone just once on a Raiders team that had little success with the passing attack.
Fantasy owners were also teased with some nice stat lines from other tight ends like Kevin Boss, Dustin Keller, Greg Olsen and Jerramy Stevens. But again, none of these players were consistent enough throughout the duration of the season to be considered prominent fantasy options on a regular basis.
Of course, there were a few bright spots at the position as well.
Tony Gonzalez was far and way the best fantasy tight end in 2008. Despite a mediocre start (he averaged just 39 yards in his first five games), the future Hall of Famer hauled in 96 passes for 1,058 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Much of his success came when the Chiefs turned the reins over to Tyler Thigpen and abandoned Larry Johnson as the centerpiece of the offense. Thigpen seemed to have tunnel vision when it came to throwing the ball to Gonzalez, and his fantasy owners benefited as a result.
While Gonzalez's success down the stretch was huge, Jason Witten was also a major contributor. He averaged close to 10 fantasy points in his first five games, but various injuries caused him to be far less consistent as the season wore on. Witten still finished second to Gonzalez in points, and I expect him to be a top tight end in fantasy drafts for 2009.
Despite the fact that his reception and yardage totals were significantly down, I think the same will hold true of Antonio Gates. Some owners were afraid to draft San Diego's Gates, who was coming off foot surgery and limited for much of training camp and the preseason. While he was able to start all 16 games, Gates didn't seem to move well at times and was targeted 25 fewer times than in '07. Still, he'll remain one of the elite players at his position going forward.
Dallas Clark was a superstar at the position, producing career bests in receptions (77) and yards (848). He also scored six touchdowns, which was good for the second-best total of his career. He'll no doubt be a top five tight end in all drafts, and he could go even higher if the Colts decide to part ways with Marvin Harrison during the offseason.
The biggest surprise of the season had to be the emergence of Visanthe Shiancoe, who finished in the top five in fantasy points at the position on NFL.com. Amazingly, he finished the season still available in 42 percent of leagues.
Overall, most of the big names heading into 2008 drafts will remain prominent for next season. Gates, Witten, Gonzalez, Clark and Cooley will all be selected in the earlier rounds, and Owen Daniels, Tony Scheffler, Carlson and Winslow will follow shortly thereafter. Of course, fantasy owners might not be so quick to fill the position in 2009.
Player of the year: Gonzalez. There wasn't a better tight end in fantasy football. Gonzalez really seems to be getting better with age.
Bust of the year: Winslow. Sure, injuries did affect his final numbers, but Winslow wasn't worth where he was taken in most drafts.
Breakout of the year: Shiancoe. I'm still amazed that Shiancoe was still a free agent in so many fantasy leagues at season's end.
Sleeper of the year: Carlson. The rookie was better than advertised and become a solid outlet for Seattle quarterbacks.
Top player for 2009: Witten. Gonzalez was the main man in 2008, but I still see Witten as the best option at the position.