Jordan Cameron 1

Sleeper Six Pack: Tight Ends

By Joe Kilroy

Email: [email protected]

In the fantasy football realm there may be nothing more rewarding than the satisfaction that comes from identifying a “sleeper” or pinpointing a player as “your guy,” acquiring him on the cheap (or in the later rounds of your draft), and then grinning from ear to ear throughout the season as he delivers in the manner you absolutely knew he would.

Generally speaking most people peg their sleepers as a player that will rise from mere obscurity into the upper echelons of stardom – or at least something approaching that level. And while I agree that is the “best kind” of sleeper to identify, I feel it is also relevant to note the worthiness of players who make significant strides in their production, but are not given the same level of praise reserved for those who climb to the highest of rankings.

With that thought in mind, and myself having been preoccupied with looking into worthwhile depth at the position lately, here are six tight ends that could be surprisingly productive in the year ahead.

Jordan Cameron, CLE

I list Jordan Cameron first because I realize that to many of you he isn’t a surprising nominee. Cameron was actually thought to be a sleeper heading into last season, but things never quite materialized for him.

Veteran Ben Watson functioned as the team’s primary starter and posted 49 receptions for 501 yards and 3 touchdowns. By comparison Cameron finished with just 20 receptions for 226 yards and a single score.

Heading into the upcoming season Ben Watson is no longer a member of the Cleveland Browns. And not only that, but new offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a strong track record when it comes to getting results from the tight end position.

Throughout Turner’s NFL tenures as an offensive coordinator and head coach he has gotten Pro Bowl seasons from Jay Novacek in Dallas, Stephen Alexander in Washington, and Antonio Gates with the San Diego Chargers. In seasons when his tight ends weren’t producing at a Pro Bowl level he was still managing to get notable production out of the likes of guys such as Jamie Asher, Randy McMichael, and Doug Jolley.

None of this makes Cameron a lock to jump into the upper ranks at his position, but he is in a favorable situation. If Cleveland chooses to select a tight end in the draft it could be an indication they don’t truly believe Cameron has what it takes to be a starter in the league. As things stand now, however, he’s worth the gamble if you can acquire him at a reasonable price.

A rookie draft pick in the late second to early third round range is what I’d consider parting with to obtain him.

Coby Fleener, IND

Coby Fleener is the next guy up. And just like Cameron he was someone a few people pegged as a sleeper heading into last season. Despite being Andrew Luck’s college teammate however, he didn’t deliver as expected and was outshined by fellow rookie counterpart Dwayne Allen.

So why should people be willing to invest in Fleener after such a disappointing start to his career? Well, for one thing, sometimes it takes a season or two before young players entering the league adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL. The reason that stands out most to me though is the acquisition of Pep Hamilton as the team’s new offensive coordinator.

Hamilton has spent the last three year’s coaching at Stanford University, which just so happens to be Luck and Fleener’s alma mater. Hamilton will be very familiar with both players’ strong suits and capabilities and will likely make an effort to get them in sync at the pro level.

Another favorable factor comes in knowing Hamilton already has experience coaching at the professional ranks during stints as quarterbacks and wide receivers coach with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, and Chicago Bears.

This is his first job as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, but there is less reason to be overly concerned about that knowing he has already coached in some capacity at this level.

I’d consider a rookie pick in the early second round or so a fair exchange for Fleener.

Robert Housler, ARI

There has been some buzz generating about Robert Housler ever since Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians commented on envisioning him as a “big wide receiver” as opposed to a tight end heading into the 2011 NFL draft.

Also factoring into the “buzz” is the presence of veteran Carson Palmer at quarterback who just got done placing tight end Brandon Myers on the map last season while with the Oakland Raiders.

While the new additions in Arizona do make Housler a legitimate sleeper candidate worth mentioning I remain somewhat skeptical.

Palmer targeted his tight end often last year in large part due to the fact he didn’t have notably better options at wide receiver. In Arizona he has Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and Andre Roberts. All three wide receivers can be reasonably viewed as more valuable options to Palmer than Housler.

On the flipside Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen did combine for 71 receptions, 802 yards, and 5 touchdowns last season within Arians offense while Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery, and T.Y. Hilton all provided valuable contributions themselves.

I have a hard time believing Housler will approach those numbers on his own, but a case can certainly be made that he will improve upon his totals from last season and be no worse than a productive back-up at the position.

Tony Moeaki / Anthony Fasano, KC

Moeaki was selected in the late third round of the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. And if it weren’t for concerns about his injury proneness he would have very likely come off the board a round sooner. As it turns out, however, teams were wise to shy away from him. Moeaki managed to get through his rookie season relatively unblemished, but he missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL.

He returned to action this past year and managed to play in 14 games, but there had been more than a few reports stating he never really flashed the same abilities he possessed prior to the injury. In most cases it’s expected that a player will need a year following a torn ACL before he gets back to his former self. There have been recent cases though where players have bounced back in seemingly miraculous fashion without the need of a full season to regain their form. Adrian Peterson and the Chiefs own Jamaal Charles are two such examples.

The Chiefs signed Anthony Fasano as a free agent this off-season to reportedly function as their number two tight end. He is the better all around player at the position, however, and while he may not possess the receiving abilities that made Moeaki such an intriguing option coming out of college he is still a reliable target that could become a productive player as the starting tight end in Andy Reid’s offense.

Given the current uncertainty surrounding the situation it’s hard to peg which tight end is the one worth investing in. Moeaki is the player considered to have more “upside,” but Fasano is the more reliable and steady option between the two.

Keep an eye on reports throughout training camp and the preseason regarding the situation. Whichever one is named the starter will be worth a place on your bench for anyone lacking at the position. If the stars align just right it’s possible one of these two will record upwards of 60 receptions.

In terms of value either could be had for next to nothing and may still be available as a free agent in your dynasty league.

Jake Ballard, NE

When it comes to Jake Ballard there isn’t any difficult analyzation to be done. Ballard had a productive season with the Giants in 2011 as he recorded 38 receptions for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns. He suffered a torn ACL while playing in the Super Bowl that year however and missed all of 2012 as a result.

The Giants plan was to place Ballard on waivers and then put him on injured reserve. The Patriots ruined those plans though by claiming him off of waivers. They did this knowing Ballard likely wouldn’t be able to play at all in 2012. That’s an indication that they made the move knowing he might prove of value down the line.

Now that Rob Gronkowski’s forearm issues continue to be a concern for New England it appears that Ballard could be called upon to fill his role if needed. It’s too early to reach that conclusion right now, but it’s something plenty of owners will be keeping watch of as we crawl closer to the beginning of the season.

It’s also worth noting that Aaron Hernandez has dealt with his own injury issues over the past two seasons. If either he or Gronkowski is unavailable for any stretch of games Ballard could be a strong starting option during their absence.

James Casey, PHI

I saved Casey for last because his role in Eagles head coach Chip Kelly’s offense isn’t fully known yet. We’ll have a better grasp on that as training camp and the preseason unfolds.

Casey is a tight end that can function as a fullback and be lined up at various positions on the field. It wouldn’t be shocking if Kelly attempts to make him a notable offensive contributor on a weekly basis. It’s even possible Casey could fit into Kelly’s offense better than incumbent starter Brent Celek.

Again, it’s too early to say for certain, but after recording 34 receptions, 340 yards receiving, and 3 touchdowns in a part time role with the Texans last year Casey is worth a look amongst fantasy owners in need of help or simply looking for depth at the position.

Read more DFW articles by Joe Kilroy