Posted: Thursday August 16, 2012 4:10PM ; Updated: Friday August 17, 2012 12:47PM

Fantasy football 2012 TE preview

Story Highlights

Seven TEs caught 75 passes last year, seven had at least 800 yards receiving

Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham are likely to be drafted among the first 20 picks

Past with Peyton Manning could make Jacob Tamme a top-10 tight end in 2012

By Michael Beller, SI.com

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In today's Twitter-dominated, nanosecond-length attention span news cycle, we have a tendency to engage in hyperbole and superlative. The most immediate event we just witnessed was either the greatest of all-time or the worst of all-time with no in between. It often dumbs down sports discourse and completely ignores the historical perspective we have gained over the years.

However, that doesn't mean that the most recent wasn't also the best, capably illustrated by the overall performance of NFL tight ends in 2011. Last season was, without a doubt, the greatest season for tight ends in NFL history. Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the Saints rewrote the record books, with the former coming out just ahead. Gronkowski's 1,327 receiving yards were the most by a tight end in a single season. Graham's 1,310 came in a close second. Gronkowski also set the single-season record for most touchdowns by tight end with 18. No doubt Ben Coates was nodding in approval all season long.

But it wasn't just Gronk and Graham laying down a marker for the tight end position. Seven tight ends caught at least 75 passes last year, with Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez, Jason Witten and Kellen Winslow, along with Gronkowski and Graham. Seven tight ends racked up at least 800 receiving yards (five of the seven above, with Dustin Keller and Brent Celek replacing Pettigrew and Winslow), and Hernandez, Gonazlez, Antonio Gates and JerMichael Finley joined Gronk and Graham to give the position six guys with at least seven touchdowns. And remember, Finley and Gates were considered disappointments last year, and we haven't even mentioned Vernon Davis or Owen Daniels, the latter of whom lost most of the season to injury. Simply put, coupled with the dominance of the passing game in the NFL, we're smack dab in the middle of the Tight End Gilded Age.

What was once unthinkable is now a certainty for the 2012 season. We will have two tight ends off the board in the first 15-20 picks. Depending on your league, Gronkowski or Graham could go in the first round. The first 60 picks of an average draft -- that's just five rounds in a 12-team league -- could feature as many as six or seven tight ends. Just five years ago, basically everyone's draft strategy for tight ends was, "I'll just wait unless I get Gates or T-Gon." Now half your league will have their starting tight end among their first five picks. With all due respect to Bob Dylan, the times aren't a-changin.' They have a-changed.

We break down the tight end position in depth here, including the top 25 by tiers below:

Breakouts

Fred Davis, Redskins -- Davis still seems like a young player in terms of experience, but the USC product is entering his fifth season in the league, and at 26-years old, appears primed for a breakout. Having spent his entire career thus far with the Redskins, he'll team up with easily the best quarterback he has had as a pro when Robert Griffin III makes his NFL debut. Even while dealing with supposed quarterback play from Rex Grossman and John Beck last season, Davis was well on his way to a monster year. In 12 games, he caught 59 passes for 796 yards and three touchdowns, but he lost the last four games of the year to a drug suspension. He fits the mold of the Gronkowski/Graham new-age tight end, coming in at 6-4, 258, with speed to burn. He's the fourth tight end on my board behind the elite options at the position and the next guy on the list.

Jermichael Finley, Packers -- If the football gods wanted to build a tight end from scratch to dominate the NFL in 2012, whatever they built would probably come out looking a whole lot like the 6-5, 247-pound Finley. It's not often that a tight end can catch 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns and have that seen as an underachieving season. In fact, before last year it was impossible. But those are exactly the numbers Finley posted in 2011, a year most observers would say he left something to be desired. There's no doubt Finley is a freakishly talented athlete who has the ability to be an unstoppable force in the red zone, so long as he can cut down on his drops. It doesn't hurt having the league's best quarterback on your team, as well as weapons outside like Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson to help keep the middle of the field open. Finley will split out wide his fair share, forcing teams to shift alignments or double, as a cornerback just can't handle his physicality. I'm expecting Finley to post numbers similar to Graham's 2011 season.

 
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