Both Antonio Gates and Troy Polamalu feature prominently in the 2011 fantasy football rankings, but where do they land? Check out this season's rankings to find out.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the NFL lockout is over and for the fantasy fanatics out there it couldn’t come a moment too soon.  Did any of you really want to try and cobble together a league where points would be awarded for the number of times players insulted Roger Goodell?  Well, I guess at least that would be a high scoring league….

 

Anyway, back to the matter at hand.  The NFL season kicks off on September 8th, which gives you a solid 5 ½ weeks until you need to have your roster ready to go.  So with that condensed schedule, you lucky readers get a double feature this week.  We’ll be looking at both the top tight ends and defenses all in one article this week.  Don’t say I never gave you anything nice!  Now, on to the rankings.

 

TIGHT ENDS

1.  Antonio Gates, San Diego: Gates is a stud.  Everybody knows that, and if you’re playing fantasy football you certainly don’t need me to tell you that.  What you do need to know, is that this projection is based on him managing to stay healthy all season.  He had a lot of injury issues last year, and should those persist he could be a major headache for fantasy owners.  That said, his upside is too great, and he has too good of a quarterback throwing him the ball not to put him in the top slot.

 

2.  Jason Witten, Dallas: Alright, I can admit it, I was way off on Witten last season.  He was an absolute monster all year, hauling in 94 catches for more than 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns.  Witten looked 5 years younger last season, and I think he’ll post another great season this time around.  So long as Tony Romo doesn’t get enamored with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin I project Witten to put up similar numbers to those from last season.

 

3.  Vernon Davis, San Francisco: Last season it was actually extremely impressive that Davis ended up with 914 yards and 7 touchdowns with a quarterback situation that closely resembled a steaming pile of……well you get the picture.  It remains to be seen what his role will be in Jim Harbaugh’s new offense.  Unless the former Stanford coach is as stubborn as Mike Martz in using the tight end I think Davis should be the focus of the Niner’s passing game.  No matter who is throwing the ball I expect Davis to at least meet last season’s totals, and possibly exceed them.

 

4.  Dallas Clark, Indianapolis: Honestly, I think you may be able to get this guy as a steal this season.  With Clark missing the majority of last season, many players may have moved him down their draft boards, but don’t fall for that.  Clark is one of the most talented tight ends in the league, and his soft hands mesh perfectly with Peyton Manning’s precision passing game.  There is no TE and QB combination that is more in sync than those two guys.  Expect Clark to return to his pre-injury form and be an elite tight end this season.

 

5.  Jermichael Finley, Green Bay: Alright, this is where all the question marks begin to form.  Finley has all the talent in the world, and at 6’5” he poses an incredible matchup problem for any team in the league.  Sounds great right?  Here’s the catch:  it’s all potential at this point.  Finley has never performed at a high level for a full season, and after going on IR last season, he’s still somewhat of an enigma.  Tack on to that a very crowded group of pass-catchers in Green Bay, Finley could be hard pressed to meet the lofty expectations many have for him.  That said, I think he’ll be a favorite red zone target of Aaron Rodgers this season, and could be in line for double digit touchdowns this season.  Look to target him in the middle rounds, after you’ve filled your QB and at least one RB and one WR, if not more.

 

6.  Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville: So was he a flash in the pan, or is this guy for real?  As you can tell by my high ranking of Lewis, I’m betting on his being the real deal.  Now that he’s no longer holding out of training camp, there aren’t any major concerns surrounding Lewis.  The big deal will be whether or not he can match his production from last season while teams are actually paying attention to him.  He snuck up on some teams last year, that won’t happen in 2011.  That said, with a rookie potentially starting in Jacksonville, the tight end becomes even more important as a safety valve.  I expect him to see a significant increase in catches and yards, with a slight backwards step in his number of touchdowns.

 

7.  Chris Cooley, Washington: Cooley always seems to go underappreciated by fantasy players, and frankly I’m not sure why.  Cooley caught 77 balls for 849 yards last season, and ranked second amongst tight ends in targets last season.  Sounds great right, so what’s the problem?  There may not be a worse quarterback situation than the one in Washington right now.  There is really no settled starter, and we as fantasy players have to take that into account.  Cooley has the talent to be a stud, but with so much up in the air, I can’t recommend taking him anywhere before the 6th or 7th round in a standard 12 team league.

 

8.  Greg Olsen, Carolina: Mike Martz’s stubborn refusal to use the tight end has led to the Bears getting rid of their most talented player in the passing game.  And yes that includes “Ol’ One Leg,” Jay Cutler.  Olsen should provide a nice crutch for Cam Newton this season, and so long as the Heisman winner can at least be better than what the Panthers saw under center last season, Olsen should be worth starting in most leagues.  Look for him to exceed his numbers from last season in every way, but just understand that with a rookie QB this year he could have a huge game followed up by a terrible one just because the guy throwing him the ball isn’t quite up to snuff.

 

9.  Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit: If this guy didn’t tear his ACL last season he’d be way higher on this list.  But let me put it this way, Pettigrew is actually my favorite tight end coming into this season.  He’s going to come cheap (unless you’re in a league with a bunch of deliriously optimistic Lions fans, and frankly those people seem to be around a lot these days…), and he has the potential to be huge this year.  He’s a big target, which should prove useful in the red zone, even though he won’t be much of a deep threat.  There may be a ton of question marks around him, but he should come at a good value on draft day, and if both he and Matt Stafford can stay healthy I could see Pettigrew ending the year as a top 5 tight end statistically.  Now, Stafford staying healthy behind the Lions offensive line isn’t exactly the type of proposition to bring about optimistic feelings, but just keep Pettigrew’s upside in the back of your mind on draft day.

 

10.  Zach Miller, Oakland: He’s a Raider, and even thinking about drafting a Raider gives me just as much of an upset stomach as it does for you, trust me.  But the guy just plain has talent.  If he were on a team with a real quarterback, he’d be higher on this list, but with his free agency situation still up in the air at the time of writing this article, I’m working on the assumption that he’ll be back in Oakland.  If Miller shocks the world and ends up on a team with a good quarterback move him up this list, but if he’s still in Oakland consider him a talented tight end who won’t quite achieve his potential.

 

11.  Kellen Winslow, Tampa Bay: Winslow looked pretty good last season, and it appears that Josh Freeman is only getting better.  He’s a difficult guy to project, because he does have tons of talent, but he never really seems to make the most out of that talent.  I think that will probably be the story again this year.  Especially with the young and emerging wide receivers in Tampa, I think his role will be slightly diminished this season.  That said, he’s still worth a weekly start in almost all fantasy formats, and should be one of the last starters drafted in your league.

 

12.  Owen Daniels, Houston: If you can call a guy who was ranked in the top 5 or 10 fantasy tight ends the last few seasons a sleeper, Daniels would be that guy this season.  He was awful after recovering from an ACL to start the year, then he injured his hamstring and missed 5 weeks.  However, when he got back from that injury he looked like the Daniels of old, catching 4 or more balls in each of his last 4 games.  I think that Daniels has a bounce back year.  Look for him to be a start-worthy tight end this year, with the potential to move his way into the top 6 or 7 tight ends in fantasy football.

 

13.  Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta: He’s arguably the greatest tight end of all time, there’s no denying that.  But he just isn’t what he used to be.  If you watch film of Gonzo last season he just didn’t look like his usual self.  He didn’t get the separation that he once had, and he couldn’t go up and get the high balls like he used to.  He’s still a borderline starter in fantasy leagues, and is certainly worth a roster spot just in case he finds a way to have a fantastic year.

 

14.  Dustin Keller, New York Jets: He’s got the talent, he’s got the speed, he’s got the size.  Sounds great right?  One problem, he’s also got Mark Sanchez throwing him the ball.  Put the playoffs out of mind, and think to the whole of the regular season.  Sanchez consistently missed Keller and other receivers.  Also consider the fact that once Santonio Holmes got back from suspension, Sanchez seemed to zero in on his number 1 wide receiver and completely neglect Keller.  If Sanchez takes a step forward, expect Keller to take one too.  If he doesn’t, expect another extremely frustrating season from Keller.

 

15.  Brent Celek, Philadelphia: I really like Celek’s talent, but Mike Vick doesn’t seem to see it the same way I do.  He was all-world with Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb throwing to him in 2009, but with Vick, he was merely a fantasy afterthought.  The biggest reason for that is the fact that Celek’s targets dropped by more than 28% under Vick.  That’s not a recipe for fantasy success.  Celek is a player who may be a serviceable backup, and could give you a few solid starts, but unless Vick changes his ways, I don’t expect big things from the Philly tight end.

 

FOOLS GOLD PLAYERS:

Jimmy Graham, New Orleans: Other fantasy writers seem to be enamored with this guy and I really don’t get it.  He had some circus catches last season, and the team’s confidence in him seems to be sky high.  But he only managed to get more than 70 yards twice last season, and there is a real log jam of people ready to catch passes from all positions in New Orleans.  Unless this guy is the second coming of Antonio Gates (both were college basketball players) I don’t see him separating himself from the pack in New Orleans and warranting the top 10 ranking many are bestowing upon him.

 

New England Tight Ends: I’m not saying they aren’t talented, they are, and that’s the problem.  There are too many good tight ends on that team to warrant starting any of them.  Any of them would be great bye-week fill ins, but don’t fall into the trap of the immense talent that both Gronkowski and Hernandez possess.  They’re great real world tight ends, just not great fantasy ones.

 

DEEP SLEEPER:

Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati: He won’t be your starter from day 1, but with the loss of Chad Ochocinco and the likely departure of T.O., Gresham should take a larger role in offense this year.  He’s got an ugly quarterback situation, and lets face it, he’s a Bengal, but he’s got a lot of talent.  Keep an eye on him on draft day, he’s worth a late round flier due to his potential.

 

 

DEFENSES

 

1.  Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are….well they’re the Steelers.  I don’t think I need to say much more.  They create turnovers and get to the quarterback, and that’s how you pick a winning fantasy defense.  They don’t have the best set of corners, but their front 7 are incredible, and Troy Polamalu is the best playmaker in the league.  Look for them to be just as stout as last season, and fully warrant their number 1 ranking.

 

2.  Green Bay Packers: Everything that was said about the Steelers, you can pretty much transplant to their Super Bowl XLV competition.  They have a good pass rush, and they have one of the best 3-deep sets of corners in the league.  The only concern is when Charles Woodson will hit the wall.  He’s not getting any younger, and there have been whispers that a change of position to safety is in his near future.  Consider them a great option on draft day, as they should create plenty of turnovers and playmakers like Woodson and Nick Collins could turn those into defensive touchdowns.

 

3.  New York Jets: The fact that the Jets are only the 3rd ranked defense really shows how strong the fantasy defenses are this season.  The Jets are still stacked at most every position.  They are very similar to the Packers and Steelers in scheme, they just don’t quite get the pass rush that their counterparts in Green Bay and Pittsburgh did.  That’s why they aren’t at their level.  Revis Island is still the best shut down corner in the league, but all that means is that people don’t throw his way.  But that fact doesn’t show up on a fantasy stat sheet, so if you’re picking the Jets make sure Green Bay and Pittsburgh are off the board first.

 

4.  Philadelphia Eagles: Yes, I’m buying into the hype.  I love what they did this year.  The addition of Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin, and Cullen Jenkins should greatly improve the defense.  I really expect Trent Cole to have a great year with much of the pressure taken off of him due to the additions of Babin and Jenkins.  I think they’ll be harassing quarterbacks all year, and that should lead to a lot of fantasy points.  And for those of you who play in leagues where special teams scores are given to the defense, keep in mind that the Eagles will get some bonus points from the league’s best return man, DeSean Jackson (assuming his holdout ends on time).

 

5.  Baltimore Ravens: They’re always right around here aren’t they?  Ray Lewis is still great, and when healthy Ed Reed is too.  It’s really the big nasties and the pass-rushers that are the Ravens’ strength.  Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs should be scary up front all year, and will create plenty of havoc.  That should lead to turnovers, sacks, and mistakes by the opposing offense, and a nice fantasy year for the Ravens.

 

6.  Chicago Bears: They stopped the run better than most anybody last season, and did a pretty solid job against the pass.  Julius Peppers had every team game-planning for his unique set of skills.  I do, however, see an ever-so-slight fall back for the Bears this season.  They’re still clearly an elite defense that any fantasy player should be happy to have, but I just don’t think they’ll have enough huge plays, including defensive touchdowns, to be in the top 5.  However, if your league includes special teams scores in defensive statistics, move the Bears at least 2 spots on this list, because Devin Hester has the ability take any punt back for a score.

 

7.  New England Patriots: If anybody can control Albert “I can’t pass a routine conditioning test” Haynesworth, it’s Bill Belichick.  If Albert “I stomp on people’s heads” Haynesworth (too many nicknames on my part?) gets back into form the Pats could be a studly fantasy defense.  The Pats overachieved much of last year, especially considering their suspect secondary.  They also don’t generate quite enough pass rush for me to feel comfortable with them any higher than this spot.  But they did suffer a lot of injuries last season, especially in the secondary, and getting those guys back will help.  So with that in mind I don’t expect them to be the number 1 defense in fantasy football again.  That said, they’ve added some nice pieces, and I expect them to be the last of the elite fantasy defenses this season.

 

8.  Atlanta Falcons: Dear ESPN:  Ray Edwards is a nice player, but what was with you guys hyping his signing with the Falcons like they had just landed Reggie White in his prime?  The guy generated 8 sacks in 2010 and 8.5 in 2009.  Unless he takes a significant step forward this season I don’t see him being the piece that gets the Atlanta defense over the hump.  You need only look as far as the NFC divisional playoffs to see how to beat this team.  They haven’t improved the secondary nearly enough, and teams with smart quarterbacks can shred this defense.  Being in the NFC south and having to face Drew Brees and Josh Freeman 2 times each isn’t going to be good for the Falcons.  They’re a solid play against mediocre quarterbacks, and for that reason are a starting caliber defense in fantasy football.

 

9.  San Diego Chargers: The Chargers looked good on paper last season.  They gave up the fewest yards in the NFL, and really pressured the quarterback well.  The problem?  Somehow they ended up outside of the top 10 in fantasy points because of some of the worst special teams in NFL history.  The special teams gave up 30 points last season, most of them on bad snaps and general mental errors.  I have a hard time believing that the Chargers will be that bad on special teams this season, but on the flip side, I don’t think their defense will be quite as good.  They overachieved last season, and I think that one step forward and one step back will leave them as a solid, but unspectacular, fantasy defense.

 

10.  New York Giants: I don’t think this team will be good enough to warrant upper echelon status if they actually trade Osi Umenyiora.  The success of the Giants defense is directly related to their ability to rush the passer.  Second, the proclivity of their offense to give the ball away hurts the Giants’ value too.  Eli Manning and company put the Giants defense into bad field position far too many times last season to warrant their being in the top tier.

 

11.  Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs showed us last year that they have the pieces to be a real defensive force for the years to come.  Tamba Hali looks like a superstar in the making, and based largely on his production I’m moving the Chiefs way up on my board from where they were last year.  If you’re looking to play the high risk/high reward game this season with your defense, I think the Chiefs may just be your answer.

 

12.  Detroit Lions: Yup, those Lions.  Their back 7 is still really sub-par, but that front 4 has the makings of being beyond ridiculous.  For the first time in years the Lions have a defense worth starting in a fantasy football league.  I’m not a Lions fan, so I’ll just sit back and let you fans of the blue and silver celebrate for a second…..had enough?  Good, let’s move to the next team.

 

13.  Miami Dolphins: We really are moving into the area with some severely flawed defenses at this point.  Sure, Cameron Wake looks like the real deal, and Vontae Davis is one of the top 10 corners in the NFL.  They still have a lot of holes, especially on the defensive line, and because of that they may give up some hefty rushing yards.  They’re a team that’s on the border of starting or a bye week pick-up.

 

14.  New Orleans Saints: You know how I said I was buying the hype with the Eagles?  Not so much with the Saints.  Most experts have the Saints in their top 10, and I just don’t see it.  This is one of the worst tackling defenses in the league, and they’ve shown time and again that they can get gashed by just about anybody in the league, including the worst playoff team of all time.  Will Smith is staring down the barrel of a suspension, and the addition of Shaun Rogers isn’t going to help much in my opinion.  They aren’t worthy of starting in most fantasy formats, and I frankly don’t recommend even drafting them.

 

15.  Minnesota Vikings: Many people may say I’m crazy for having the Vikings in my top 15, but I actually thought about having them even higher on the list.  The Vikings started out horribly, due in large part to the slow start by the mulletless Jared Allen.  But what most fantasy players won’t realize is that once the Vikings were out of playoff contention the Minnesota defensive unit actually came along nicely.  The Vikings scored in the double digits in 4 of the last 6 weeks of the season, with the only true hiccup in that stretch being the 40 point stinker they let loose against the Bears.  Keep an eye on this team, if they stay healthy they could be worthy of a start.

 

FOOLS GOLD TEAMS:

Dallas Cowboys: Rob Ryan and his brilliant defensive mind may be there, but the talent (outside of DeMarcus Ware) just isn’t there.  They’re going to have trouble stopping both the run and the pass this season and I genuinely can’t recommend them unless I see something different.

 

DEEP SLEEPER:

Indianapolis Colts:  This unit will pressure the quarterback.  Freeny and Mathis are possibly the best pass rushing tandems in the league, and if they can find a way to stop the run they can be a fantasy force.  The way Manning and company will rack up the points will force many teams to desperately throw, and that could lead to some turnovers.  Keep an eye on the Colts early in the season, and if it looks like they’ve improved snag them off the waiver wire.

 

Remember, for all your fantasy updates follow me on twitter, @lehmanna36