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THIS WAS supposed to be the Year of the Tight End, a season brimming with highlights not only of established stars Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez running wild through secondaries but also of emerging talents such as Randy McMichael, Heath Miller and Ben Troupe blasting their way for big gains. So far, though, the season of the tight end stud has been largely a dud. Many tight ends had trouble getting off the line early in 2006, for various reasons. Some (such as Jason Witten) were asked to block more. Others (such as McMichael) suffered from a change at quarterback. But in recent weeks tight ends as a group have been showing signs of a breakout--and as we come down the stretch, that makes the position crucial for fantasy teams. You already know the leaders of the pack: Gates and Gonzalez. Here are eight others who should come on strong.
1 ALGE CRUMPLER Falcons
His full name is Algernon Darius Crumpler, and he's also known as the highest-scoring tight end in fantasy football. When Michael Vick has shown a hot passing hand, a prime beneficiary has been Crumpler-- Vick's most trusted weapon. Crumpler has 236 yards and five touchdown receptions in the last three games after 194 yards and one TD in the first five. Another reason to like Crumpler for the stretch run: He has games against the Saints, Redskins and Panthers, teams that have been burned consistently by tight ends. As long as Vick gets him the ball, Crumpler will remain an elite producer.
"I said I was the best," K2 boasted before last Sunday's showdown against Gates. "I am the best." Not so fast, Junior. Winslow's very good; his 51 receptions lead all tight ends (he had 11 to Gates's two on Sunday), he has produced consistently, and he's a must-start for every fantasy team. But he's not in Gates's league--yet.
3 JASON WITTEN Cowboys
Now that the Human Pigeon Perch, Drew Bledsoe, has been benched in favor of the more mobile Tony Romo, Witten can actually go out for a pass instead of being chained to the line. Since Bledsoe's benching 10 quarters ago, Witten has 15 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown. In the previous 5 1/2 games, he had 16 catches for 165 yards and no TDs. The surge in Witten's production should only continue, considering the rapport he has with Romo. They've been close friends since entering the league together in 2003, they work at each other's off-season football camp, and they room together on the road.
4 DESMOND CLARK Bears
The biggest surprise on this list, Clark hit a midseason minislump (during which he was bothered by a sprained foot) before an 86-yard, two-touchdown effort against the 49ers two weeks ago. A favorable omen: Bears coaches are sticking by their plan to make the tight ends a focal point of the passing attack. ( Clark's backup, John Gilmore, has two TDs.) Combine that with Chicago's upcoming schedule against several defenses that have yielded big games to tight ends ( Giants, Jets and Lions), and Clark becomes a highly desirable option down the stretch.
5 TODD HEAP Ravens