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Tight ends developing into a plus for owners

GREG AUMANN
Published September 7, 2004

Tight ends, for most fantasy owners, are afterthoughts.

Preseason magazines will tell you that unless you're drafting Tony Gonzalez, your expectations should only be so high.

Going by last year's stats, that would be true: Of the 36 players who caught five or more touchdown passes in 2003, only two - Gonzalez and New Orleans' Boo Williams - were tight ends.

With an influx of talented young players, however, the position is due for a renaissance. Come January, when you're tallying the players with five scores or more, don't be surprised if there are eight tight ends - or more - in the group.

Gonzalez is still king of the class, but Browns rookie Kellen Winslow comes in with perhaps even more hype than fellow Hurricanes star Jeremy Shockey two years ago. Injuries have limited Shockey, who's mustered four TDs in two seasons, but he and Winslow are capable enough to be their team's No. 2 target, a safe bet for 50 catches and six TDs each.

Baltimore's Todd Heap is often pegged as the league's No. 2 tight end, but his best asset is the sheer weakness of the Ravens' receiving corps. Only three of his 57 catches went for scores last year, and his quarterback situation isn't much better. Instead, look to another fourth-year star, Atlanta's Alge Crumpler, who could thrive given a full season with Michael Vick at quarterback.

A slew of second-year stars are poised for breakout seasons: Philadelphia's L.J. Smith, Dallas' Jason Wittenand Indy's Dallas Clark each had just one touchdown as rookies, but all three will surpass that before the end of September.

Witten had seven catches for 109 yards in the Cowboys' preseason finale, and no player was picked up in more in ESPN.com leagues in the past week. Smith and Clark are listed behind veterans Chad Lewis and Marcus Pollard , respectively, on preseason depth charts, but go with youth.

A few more names to tuck away, just in case your starter goes down and you need a pickup with potential:

Freddie Jones, Arizona. Injuries at receiver will help his numbers early, as first-year starting QB Josh McCown looks for a safety valve in an offense that will pass quite a bit.

Antonio Gates, San Diego. Who will be his quarterback? There's not a pretty answer, but with a horrible receiving corps, he's a lock to double last year's 24 catches and two TDs.

Ben Watson, New England. Sure, the Patriots have Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham , but Watson is a first-round draft pick, so by November he'll move up the depth chart. FIND THE BAD DEFENSE: Until they prove otherwise, you're always safe picking whoever is playing Arizona or San Diego. The Cards and Chargers were at the bottom of the league in scoring defense last year, and this week that means good things for the Rams and Texans. The Chargers allowed seven more passing TDs than any other team in 2003, so David Carr is due for a 300-yard game with two or three scores. And keep an eye in St. Louis to see how many carries rookie Steven Jackson can pilfer from the slowly fading Marshall Faulk. Jackson is one injury away from a rookie of the year season.

ROTO NOTES: That last spot on your bench is only so valuable, so don't hesitate to pick up Ricky Williams in keeper leagues. ... No rookie has picked up more buzz in the last month than Broncos receiver Darius Watts, who could be the No. 2 target that Ashley Lelie hasn't been for the last two years. He had 47 career TDs at Marshall and the fifth-most catches in Division I-A history, so expect big numbers from him. ... Sunday's final cuts really shouldn't have included anybody in your fantasy league. Sports Illustrated had newly unemployed Kevin Dyson penciled in as a starting receiver in San Diego, but if you picked him, that doesn't bode well for your season.

If you have a fantasy question, send an e-mail to Times staff writer Greg Auman at auman@sptimes.com

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