2014 Outlook: We regularly say that a tight end has to submit a truly historic season to justify a first- or second-round pick. Well, in 2013, Graham did just that. His 16 TD receptions led the NFL and was the second most ever by a tight end. It's true that after an incredible start -- 49 catches, 746 yards and 10 TDs through Week 9 -- Graham leveled off a bit. Bothered by a plantar fascia injury, he topped 73 yards receiving in just one of his final eight contests. But in that span, he also had 6 TDs, so we'll shut up. Perhaps the NFL's truest matchup nightmare, Graham is a cornerstone of the Saints' offense. Maybe historic seasons have simply become his norm.
2014 Outlook: In his first year as a starter, Thomas established himself as a red zone freak -- 8 of his 12 TDs came inside an opponent's 20 -- and a trusted safety valve. Part of what makes Thomas tick as a fantasy option is the talent around him. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders should ensure that Julius will regularly see singled-up looks, and Peyton Manning trusts him to take advantage. The bottom line: The Broncos' offense is a machine, and Julius Thomas is an essential cog. He missed a couple of games with a knee injury in 2013, but he should be all systems go this season.
2014 Outlook: If Gronk could guarantee us 16 games, we'd be tempted to place him atop our TE list. He's that good. In 50 career regular-season contests, he's scored 42 TDs. But he has also undergone eight career surgeries, the latest of which is probably his most serious. He tore his ACL and MCL after a huge hit from T.J. Ward in Week 14, putting Gronk on the clock for 2014 training camp. And frankly, even if he meets a Week 1 deadline, you have to wonder whether the star-crossed Gronk can keep overcoming physical adversity and take NFL-level punishment. We love the guy, but every year he seems to carry more risk.
2014 Outlook: Big Vern was the No. 2 TE in fantasy last year, quite a rebound from his No. 15 ranking in 2012. It turns out all those theories suggesting Davis and Colin Kaepernick couldn't coexist were as ridiculous as they sounded. The duo seemed to like each other just fine inside the red zone, where Davis scored 9 of his 13 TDs. In a run-heavy offense with Michael Crabtree healthy and Stevie Johnson aboard, we'd argue that Davis won't be a top source of yardage or receptions. But the possibility of double-digit TDs keeps him elite.
2014 Outlook: Last year Witten topped 5 receiving TDs for just the second time in the past six seasons, earning his fantasy owners a respite from their annual end zone torment. In general, though, 2013 was a bit of a comedown. Witten posted his fewest catches and lowest yardage total since 2006 and had a whopping seven games in which he caught three or fewer passes. He's still only 32 and can bust loose in any given week, but we'd be worried about last year's so-so totals combined with his typical dearth of touchdowns.
2014 Outlook: Through the first eight weeks of 2013, Cameron was fantasy's No. 2 TE behind Jimmy Graham. He had 49 grabs and 6 TDs and was only 34 receiving yards behind the prolific Graham. Defenses got wise to Cameron thereafter, and his second half featured only 31 catches and one score. Now that Rob Chudzinski no longer coaches in Cleveland, it's fair to wonder whether the offense will revolve around the TE position as much. Cameron is still a tough matchup and a fantasy starter, but last year's early-season dominance was probably a bit of an outlier.
2014 Outlook: It's fair to be concerned that Carolina's inexperienced WR corps will allow defenses to focus on Olsen. But it's not exactly like Panthers wideouts set the world ablaze last year either. Regardless of the supporting cast, Olsen's past two seasons in Carolina have been remarkably consistent: around 70 grabs for 800 yards and 5 TDs. A mountain of a man with good hands, Olsen sits atop the above-average TE tier. There's no reason to reach for him in a draft, but you'll be fine if you end up with him.
2014 Outlook: Pitta fractured and dislocated his hip early in training camp and understandably lacked explosiveness when he returned in December. His absence was devastating to Baltimore's passing game. The Ravens just didn't have enough receiving weapons without him, which explains why they forked over $16 million guaranteed this winter. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is famous for featuring athletic tight ends out of the slot, and Pitta's connection with Joe Flacco is strong. Torrey Smith will handle the deep stuff, Steve Smith will get looks and Owen Daniels will be a factor, but we're predicting that Pitta will lead Baltimore in catches this year.
2014 Outlook: Even before he broke his left foot in Week 9, Rudolph was a fantasy disappointment. A season after scoring 9 TDs, he had 3. Even worse, he posted only one game with more than five catches or 51 yards receiving. Rudolph is a giant human who runs well; his limitations have been his QB and an offense that hasn't focused on him. Enter Norv Turner, the Vikings' new offensive coordinator, who has a history of creating star tight ends. He was a crucial part of Jordan Cameron's breakout in Cleveland last year and Antonio Gates' development in San Diego. Fully trusting Rudolph, who's never topped 500 yards in a season, is tough. But he does have breakout potential.
2014 Outlook: Reed's rookie season was a fantasy roller coaster. He started predictably slow, with just 13 catches for 106 yards and 1 TD in September. But for more than a month thereafter, the Redskins pumped him the ball relentlessly: His 14 targets in Week 8 tied for the fourth most for any TE in a game all year. Unfortunately, by mid-November, Reed was out for the season with a serious concussion. New Washington coach Jay Gruden comes to town with an offense that'll look downfield often, and Reed will be part of that effort. But DeSean Jackson's arrival to play alongside Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts may limit the number of available targets for the TE.
2014 Outlook: After Dustin Keller went down in the preseason with a catastrophic knee injury, Clay, a third-year halfback/fullback, was forced into action as Miami's primary tight end. And what a revelation he turned out to be. Clay isn't a factor as a run blocker and he's not a burner or a total athletic freak, but he has soft hands and is a reliable safety valve for a young QB (Ryan Tannehill) who often needs one. Add it all up and Clay finished among the top 10 TEs in targets (101), catches (69), yards (759) and touchdowns (6) last season, and he even saw the occasional carry from the Dolphins' backfield. Clay won't win you weeks, but he's an acceptable fantasy starter.
2014 Outlook: Somewhere in that hulking body of Bennett's lurks a player who could destroy fantasy leagues with downfield plays and double-digit TDs. Unfortunately, his employers don't use him that way. Bennett's first season with the Bears looked like his prior season with the Giants: five or six targets per game, but very few of the vertical variety and only occasionally in the red zone. We suppose it's only natural that Bennett is forced to fight for table scraps in an offense featuring Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Alas, plan on Bennett's flashing big-time ability -- and disappearing for chunks of time.
2014 Outlook: Give Walker credit: In his first season as a full-fledged NFL starter, he posted career highs across the board and showed improved hands. In his final year with the 49ers, he had seven drops on 37 targets; last season he had only three drops on 85 targets. New Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt spent 2013 in San Diego helping Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green combine for 94 grabs and 1,248 yards, and while that would be an ambitious projection for the smaller Walker, it's at least an indication that he won't waste away. A top-10 season isn't out of the question.
2014 Outlook: Those hoping Ertz would become Chip Kelly's favorite new tight end were sorely disappointed last season. Brent Celek ran 66 more pass routes than the rookie, and overall Ertz played about half as many snaps. But moving forward, we think Celek showed enough as a blocker that Ertz has a chance to establish himself as the top receiving tight end in Philly's high-octane offense. Of course, if we're wrong, drafting Ertz to be your starter will come back to haunt you, which is why we've resisted the temptation of predicting a massive breakout. But if you're looking for a possible surprise stud, Ertz fits the bill.
2014 Outlook: Last season Gates finished third among tight ends in receiving yards, third in targets and fourth in catches. So why isn't he an elite fantasy option anymore? Because his understudy is ready. Ladarius Green is a decade younger and several steps faster than Gates, and he's learned at the foot of the master for two seasons. Plus, after years of leading TEs in average yards at the catch, Gates is now near the bottom of the pack. At 34, his legs have simply left him. We can envision one valedictory season for Gates in which he shares the job with Green. But the end is near.