Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
What's 157 inches tall and weighs 530 pounds?
No, it's not the sasquatch San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson brought to the ESPYs last week. That's the combined height and weight of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham (6-foot-7, 265 pounds).
These two giants weren't just the biggest players at their position last season, they were also the best. In fact, technically, they were the best ever.
Before last season, no tight end had ever reached 1,300 receiving yards in a season. Graham and Gronkowski both reached that barrier in 2012 and they made it look easy.
These guys took the tight end position to a place it had never been before: the top of the fantasy rankings.
Most years, tight ends are a fantasy afterthought. Basically, they're the equivalent to a closer in fantasy baseball. There are always a few good ones but they're never worth picking in the early rounds of a fantasy draft.
This year, we may have to amend that statement. ESPN's latest mock drafts have Gronkowski going early in the second round while Graham appears to be a late second/early third-round selection.
Gronkowski and Graham weren't just more productive than any other tight ends in the game last season: they were also better than most of the league's top wide receivers.
Only Calvin "Megatron" Johnson racked up more fantasy points (254) than Gronk did in 2011 (he beat out the Patriots TE by a 21-point margin in my league last year). A-list wideouts Jordy Nelson (210 points), Wes Welker (206) and Victor Cruz (198) outperformed Graham (187) last season, but not by much.
How did these relative unknowns become fantasy goliaths in such a short amount of time?
Well, having a massive 6-foot-6 frame never hurts. Neither does having huge hops (the former college basketball player Graham has a vertical leap of nearly 39 inches while Gronkowski's is about 34 inches) and wide receiver-like quickness (Graham runs a 4.53 40-yard dash while Gronk's best 40-time is 4.68).
Graham and Gronk have two of the sharper skillsets in all of football and even if they didn't have Drew Brees and Tom Brady throwing to them, they'd still be pretty darn good. Fortunately for fantasy owners, they do have Brees and Brady throwing to them.
During his breakout 2011 campaign, Gronkowski reeled in 90 passes from the seven-time Pro Bowler Brady, who finished the season with the second-most passing yards in NFL history (5,235 yards). Almost 19 percent of those 90 receptions led Gronkowski into the end zone, where he performed his iconic touchdown spike an NFL tight-end record 17 times last season (he also had one rushing TD in 2011, giving him 18 total scores for the year).
Graham's statline last season was equally freakish. He finished one reception under the century mark while hauling in a team-leading 11 touchdowns. He accounted for just under 24 percent of the Saints' receiving yards in 2011, the season Brees set the NFL's all-time passing yards mark with an astounding 5,476 yards from scrimmage.
New England and New Orleans represent two of the league's most pass-reliant offenses, so Graham and Gronk are both expected to put up strong numbers again in 2012. But is one player really better than the other?
Stats would suggest that Gronkowski is the most sure thing among all NFL tight ends heading into next season. He topped Graham in yardage (1,327 to 1,310) and led all fantasy players in touchdown receptions last season.
So he's the guy, right? Not necessarily. As ferocious as Gronk was a year ago, he's coming off of an ankle injury that hobbled him in the Super Bowl back in February (he had surgery on his ankle during the offseason) and should have a lot more competition for targets in 2012 than he did last season.
Wes Welker signed his franchise tag, Deion Branch inked a one-year deal and the Pats were also able to snag former All-Pro Brandon Lloyd and productive Washington Redskins receiver Jabar Gaffney this offseason. Factor in that tight end Aaron Hernandez also made 79 catches last year and New England's receiving corps should be among the deepest in all of football.
If you add up their stats from last season, Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Lloyd, Gaffney and Branch combined for 480 catches, 6,421 yards and 48 TDs. There's no way Brady's breaking the 6,000-yard barrier this season, so something has to give. My guess is that while Brady would be a fool to stop throwing to Gronkowski, arguably his most reliable and dangerous receiving target from a season ago, in the interest of keeping the other receivers involved, Gronk's stats will probably regress somewhat in 2012.
While Gronkowski will probably see fewer targets next season, the opposite will be true for Graham in the Big Easy. As if Graham wasn't dominant enough in PPR leagues last season, he'll probably see even more footballs spiral his way in 2012 now that Robert Meachem (40 catches, 620 yards, six TDs with New Orleans last season) is on the San Diego Chargers.
The possibility of catching balls from the far inferior Chase Daniel was a concern earlier in the offseason, but now that's no longer an issue, as Brees and the Saints came to terms on a long-term contract at the end of last week. With Brees in charge again, Graham will have a decent chance to hit 100 catches this season.
Gronk, who was recently featured in ESPN the Magazine's annual "Body Issue" might get more invites to celebrity parties than Graham will, but I'm betting Graham will be the safer pick on fantasy draft day. If the New Orleans tight end is available near the end of the second round, I wouldn't hesitate to draft him.
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