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Aug 27

The great draft debate: Graham is gone…now who do I take at TE?

We’ve discussed at length why you shouldn’t be reaching for Jimmy Graham despite the fact that he is the clear cut #1 TE in fantasy football this year, given his price tag.

In fact, we’ve also had discussions about why you should be considering bypassing selecting a TE in the early rounds altogether, and considering simply streaming for the year.

However, someone is still going to do it: someone is still going to grab Graham early in almost every league, and someone is going to be left with the decision on who to take next at the TE position. If Rob Gronkowski was healthy, it would almost certainly be him – in fact, if he was healthy there may even be a debate about whether Graham should be first or not; but… he’s not. Although news at the time of publication says he may avoid the PUP to start the year, it still seems as though he’s going to miss three or four games.

In previous versions of the great draft debate we’ve asked the “tough questions” – do I draft Brees or Rodgers as the first QB? After Megatron, do I take AJ Green or Dez Bryant? Should Foster still be the 2nd RB off the board?

Today we’re going to tackle the last skill position stumping question for the year: Graham is gone…now who do I take at TE…is it Tony Gonzalez or Jason Witten?

Welcomed back for this debate is Jon Collins, backing another Cowboy’s selection, the ironman, probably bullet-proof, Jason Witten. I’m going to back to the seemingly ageless wonder of the Falcons, Tony Gonzalez.

Tony Gonzalez vs. Jason Witten

Andrew for Tony Gonzalez:

It’s ridiculous to think I can sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t draft Jason Witten – I won’t. These guys are the same tier of tight end, squarely clumped together in the “Not Jimmy Graham” grouping. Unfortunately, the decision has to be made at some point as to which of these two guys you’d rather have on your roster, and I think there are enough reasons to want TGon over Witten.

Tony  Gonzalez is a slam dunk to be the second highest scoring TE in the league this year, argues Andrew (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tony Gonzalez is a slam dunk to be the second highest scoring TE in the league this year, argues Andrew (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The money in fantasy comes from consistent production, and that’s something that Gonzalez possesses when it comes to finding the endzone. Only once in his career has the ageless-wonder not reached 5 scores in a season, so while he suffers a bit in comparison to Witten in terms of receptions and yardage, he makes up for it in a big way by picking up those important week-winning touchdowns. During his four seasons in Atlanta, Gonzo has only been surpassed by Witten in TDs and fantasy scoring on one occasion, and that was well before the days of Dez Bryant asserting himself as a red-zone machine. Gonzalez has thrived producing touchdowns even while sharing a field with Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Although he slowed during the end of the regular season, he turned the page again in the playoffs recording touchdowns in both of Atlanta’s post-season matchups (against significant defenses in the 49ers and Seahawks). As he’s shown us over and over again throughout his career, age is something he simply can’t be bothered paying any heed.

In Dallas this season there are dual threats to Witten’s touches – and that’s where his value lay as it’s certainly not within the endzone. First, despite a less-than-glamorous training camp and pre-season, second round selection Gavin Escobar may cut into Witten’s touches should he ever figure things out. He is a rookie and it may take time for him to see significant action…however if he figures things out down the stretch and Witten starts to see a hit because of it then certainly that’s troublesome for his owners. Second, even while Escobar adapts to life in the big leagues, James Hanna showed signs of being useful during the end of last season. He has blazing speed and picked up a handful of grabs during the last few weeks of the year – if he has earned Romo’s trust, it could be troublesome for Witten’s targets and receptions. In Atlanta the threat to Gonzalez’s targets and endzone snags compared to last season….is no one really. A 6th-round pick with decent size, Levine Toilolo joined with expectations to be a good blocker and perhaps a threat in the red-zone…instead he’s been a pitiful blocker and wasn’t targeted during the pre-season, despite Gramps Gonzalez resting up and providing him all the first-team reps he should have needed to strut his stuff. Yes, Michael Turner has been replaced and upgraded by Steven Jackson this off-season, but Turner amassed 10 touchdowns last year despite being horrible in general. Jackson’s ceiling should be considered in the 10-12 range likely, and it shouldn’t result in a major decrease in opportunities for Tony.

Gonzalez will remain a highly important aspect of a team that loves to throw the ball, will remain an endzone favourite as he has throughout his career, and will not have any significant competition from within. Since he’s come to Atlanta he’s been a top-five TE three of four years, and last year finished the season as the 3rd best in the league. With Gronk spending the beginning of the season on the sidelines presumably, the second highest scoring TE is Gonzo’s to own.

 

Tacklers literally bounce off him, draft Jason  Witten - says Jon Collins (Photo: Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Tacklers literally bounce off him, draft Jason Witten – says Jon Collins (Photo: Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

Jon reps for Witten: The once 95% retired Tony Gonzalez returns from a virtual training camp to join the Falcons just in time for his swan-song season and he should be squarely implanted on our fantasy radar. He is an impressive physical specimen who remains dedicated to his craft in an ideal offensive situation, so, I won’t spend a ton of time discussing reasons to keep him off your team or concerns about age and injury. That would be borderline libelous – you’ll want to own Gonzalez this year for sure.. just not more than you will Jason Witten. Tony G finished 3rd in TE scoring last season (for what it’s worth, I’m convinced Gronkowski will still be the second best TE even if he only plays ten games) on the strength of 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. A great season. The problem: those were all recent bests – Atlanta-era career highs. Gonzalez has been consistently great since arriving in Atlanta but expecting him to maintain those five year bests at age 37 in a Falcons offense that should find increased targets for Julio Jones and more attention to the run game with Steven Jackson replacing Michael Turner.

Jason Witten, meanwhile, shares all of Gonzalez’s virtues, is six years his junior, and plays in a dynamic offense of his own. Plus, I’d expect game planners to be much more attentive to Dez Bryant (trust me NFC East coaches, it’s not going to matter) clearing out the middle of the field for Witten to do his work. Last year at this time we weren’t even sure if Witten was going to play the first month of the season, given concerns around a lacerated spleen. He went on to play in 16 games – a feat he’s accomplished every game since his rookie year. Along the way he eclipsed the 100 reception and 1000 yard plateaus but scored just three touchdowns – scoring behind Gonzalez in the one statistic that brings home the fantasy bacon and thus finishing behind him despite more impressive reception and yardage totals. If we accept that that number is not indicative of any changes in offensive philosophy, we should note that it is out of place… it’s not something to be used to put Witten down, but something that should make us feel good about his 2013 prospects. That number is likely to bounce back toward his career average. Last year, Witten caught a TD on 2.7% of his receptions. His career average is double that at 5.4%. While there is no guarantee that the number comes up, given his typical level of production one can assume that five or six scores are more likely to come along with 100 receptions than the three Witten posted in 2012 – an additional three touchdowns last season places Witten right in the midst of the race for TE3. On the flip side, we’ve already mentioned that #88s touchdown total was his best such output since he left Kansas City and Atlanta drafted Levine Toilolo this year – while he’s not expected to be a threat to the veteran’s snap count he could take a few looks in the red zone.

It should be noted, too, that Gonzalez slowed down the stretch last season. Cumulative numbers only paint a part of the picture, and the final half of 2012 was not nearly as strong as beginning of the campaign. Again, he’s not a typical athlete but we do need to make note of in-season stamina when it comes to players on the wrong side of 35. After posting his best line of the season in a week 10 loss to New Orleans Gonzalez’s numbers dipped significantly. He averaged just 6.19 FPPG in the seven games to close the season. Witten averaged 8.2 over that same span and scored two of his three touchdowns in the team’s final three games. It stands to reason that the lowered production during the fantasy season’s most important weeks will continue for the soon-to-be-retired Tight End.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the presence of Gavin Escobar who the Cowboys invested a significant draft pick in this offseason, but, I believe it is going to take some time to get him up to speed, plus, the selection is indicative of a desire to involve the Tight End in the offense to a greater extent rather than a plan to move Witten out of his current role. For my money, Witten is about as consistent an option as you can find once the first (or second?) options come off the board and owners should invest as such.

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