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Tight ends: Who's this year's Vernon Davis?

9/16/2010

At this time last season, fantasy football owners viewed San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis as an afterthought. In fact, he might not have been a thought at all. It's hard to believe now, but Davis was ranked 22nd among tight ends for 2009 drafts, which means he not only wasn't selected in most standard leagues, but wasn't even in that next class of sleepers to watch either. Obviously, he's immensely popular now after leading all tight ends in fantasy scoring in 2009, with 78 receptions, 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, the last statistic tying the all-time mark for the position.

Davis is a star now, but I remain flabbergasted at how quickly his situation changed. Davis scored nine touchdowns in his first three seasons, and his questionable attitude/work ethic looked closer to unemployment than the Pro Bowl. His first two weeks last season were ordinary ... then he had 96 yards and two touchdowns in Week 3, three touchdowns against the Houston Texans in Week 6, a trio of 100-yard games in the middle of the season and, ultimately, the undrafted fellow beat out Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark for fantasy points.

The tight end position is rather deep this season. After top options Clark, Gates, Jermichael Finley and Davis, as well as Brent Celek, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow, Chris Cooley and touchdown machine Visanthe Shiancoe (did you know he's third in receiving touchdowns at any position since 2008?), there are other names fantasy owners should learn. Hey, they could, in theory, become this year's Vernon Davis.

Here are five tight ends to watch. To be included here, they can't be owned in more than a third of ESPN standard leagues.

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars: With a pair of touchdown receptions from David Garrard in Week 1, Lewis is the sixth most-added player in ESPN leagues, and the lone tight end among the top 25 in overall fantasy points. It's not exactly the Davis path because he is owned in nearly 30 percent of leagues, but a pace for 32 touchdowns will make anyone popular. Like Davis, Lewis was a former top draft pick (first round in 2006) that hasn't done much, and he has already tied his career best for touchdowns. If I squint, I could see Lewis getting to double digits in touchdowns, but not passing 50 receptions, as his touchdown grabs Sunday were his only two catches. Maybe he's the next Shiancoe, but not Davis.

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals: It has been so long since this franchise has had an interesting tight end for fantasy purposes that you're forgiven if you simply overlooked Gresham. However, this first-rounder in the 2010 draft caught six passes, one for a touchdown in Week 1, and he has the skill level to emerge as a star. For now I'd still rather own Zach Miller (Raiders), Heath Miller and John Carlson, but another interesting game or two and the upside will simply force us to add him to fantasy rosters.

Tony Scheffler, Lions: Yes, Brandon Pettigrew was a first-rounder a year ago, but Scheffler was brought in from Denver, and he's the one seeing targets. Scheffler caught six passes for 43 yards in Week 1, and the change in quarterbacks from strong-armed Matthew Stafford to game manager Shaun Hill makes it more likely, I believe, that the tight end will see an increase in looks. In four seasons with the Broncos, Scheffler was twice among the league leaders at his position in yards per catch, and has been an exciting downfield threat. Sure, he has succumbed to injuries, and has a recently-drafted first-rounder breathing down his neck, but the mostly-ignored Scheffler (he's owned in just 2.9 percent of leagues) should be productive.

Evan Moore, Browns: He reminds me a bit of Scheffler in his ability to stretch the field, and like Scheffler his quarterback can use all the help he can get. Moore caught three passes for 87 yards last week, one of them a 49-yarder, and I thought he should have received more opportunities last year, especially after he had an 80-yard effort in Week 12. Moore could easily pass Benjamin Watson on the depth chart.

Tony Moeaki, Chiefs: You're pardoned if you've never heard of this guy, but the Iowa product and third-rounder in the 2010 draft caught a Matt Cassel touchdown Monday night. OK, so we're digging a little deep here. He's unlike Davis in that he hasn't been ordinary for a multiple NFL seasons, but Moeaki was one of the team's minicamp stars, showing off great hands and athletic ability. Durability has been an issue, but at this point it doesn't appear opportunity is a problem.