This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NFLRankings or the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Premier Fantasy Football Projections visit Fantasy Football Overdose, a fantasy football blog.
It’s an age old question in fantasy football: when do you draft your starting tight end? If you’re in a league that gives a bazillion points to tight ends, the answer is probably right away.
Even in standard leagues, though, New Orleans Saints stud tight end Jimmy Graham has crept up to the point where fantasy owners seriously consider him at the tail end of round one. Even if they’re not that crazy about him, he’s still on average drafted within the draft’s top three rounds.
Granted, he scored 16 touchdowns in 2013 and his value is as high as ever, but is it really worth drafting Graham as the top tight end? Or might fantasy owners be better of just waiting a little longer and grabbing someone like Denver Broncos star tight end Julius Thomas?
Let’s break a few things down and see which of these players is the better pick when it’s all said and done:
Stats and Points
Before we even get into numbers, let’s first point out the elephant in the room. Two, actually. First, Graham isn’t even officially signed on for the 2014 season. He’s franchise tagged, which means if he and the Saints don’t come to terms to a long-term deal he SHOULD still show up and play, but a holdout would be very possible. On the other side is experience between these two guys. Graham has been an elite presence for four seasons now, while we just got introduced to Thomas as a fantasy factor for the first time in 2014. So they both have a reasonable question mark around them.
Considering Thomas has just the one season to go off of, we can only really compare the two based off of what they did in their best years, which really just brings us to last season’s production.
Obviously as the best fantasy tight end, it’s not shocking to look back and recall that Graham put up better numbers across the board. He beat Thomas in touchdowns (16-12), yardage (by about 400 yards) and receptions (by 21).
All things considered, though, Thomas still finished in third place among all tight ends. He was still a whopping 67 fantasy points behind Graham (depending on your league), but his finish is pretty impressive given that he saw 52 less targets than Graham and also missed two games (Graham missed zero).
Statistically and point-wise, it’s silly to say anything other than Graham is the better fantasy option.
Average Draft Position
With that said, where you can find these guys could be what separates their true value. Graham is currently at the end of round one in fantasy football drafts. That kind of ADP means people are expecting the world out of him in 2014. That means he needs to stay completely healthy, get his contract situation resolved, fend off defenses adjusting to him more than ever and somehow match or exceed his 2013 numbers. That’s a heck of a lot to ask out of a tight end.
Julius Thomas isn’t being demanded of quite as much as a late third round selection, while he can even slip into round four if some other owners in your league are higher on the experience of someone like Vernon Davis. Rob Gronkowski is another guy some will pass on Thomas for, again due to experience, and also because when he does return from his ACL injury he has the ability to rival anything Graham can do.
Regardless, Thomas at the end of round three is better value on the surface, as it lets you got get your stud running backs and wide receiver or another combination of two elite players at other positions, and then you can come back in round three and get someone like Thomas.
A lot of fantasy experts love Graham regardless of where you pick him because they see owning Graham as a weekly advantage. No matter what happens, at least hypothetically, you will hold a position advantage over your opponent if you are a Graham owner. No other tight end in any given week can match what he is capable of doing, so right there you have a “win” in your matchup.
If you go down the list and look at the numbers from week to week, it’s largely true when you compare these two guys. At first, at least.
Graham is the superior yardage guy being that he’s basically New Orleans’ number one receiver in their offense, but he hits quite a wall at week 10 last year. To that point, he had scored 10 touchdowns through his first nine contests. The next seven, he scores just six. During that same span, Thomas scored four of his 12 touchdowns.
Both guys started hot and then slowed down as the year progressed. A lot of his is because defenses adjust slowly and offenses tend to come out hot, while defenses come out just trying to figure themselves and their matchups out. After the mid-way point, we start realizing who the true defenses are, and who the true dominant performers are.
Graham still wins in every way here, but Thomas is closer than we think. Factor in all the mouths Thomas had to compete with last year (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno), as well as a nagging ankle injury, and he might be a whole lot closer.
Who’s It Gonna Be?
Sure, Graham is probably going to beat Thomas in every statistical category, but Eric Decker is gone and Thomas is really just getting started. He’s still in a potent passing offense led by the great Peyton Manning, measures up well to Graham in terms of sheer athletic ability, and you can get the guy two full rounds later in fantasy drafts, on average.
If you have to pick one, why not wait until round three and four and grab Thomas? With Graham being picked as early as round one, you’re passing up an elite running back and possibly an elite wide receiver, depending on how your draft plan unfolds. Graham is the better overall fantasy option, but Thomas is going to return more value.