Fantasy Debate: Aaron Hernandez vs. Jason Witten
We all know who the best two tight ends in fantasy football are: Rob Gronkowki and Jimmy Graham (I don’t have a “M.D.” at the end of my name, so I’m not going to assume that Gronk is going to miss any time until his actual doctor says so). But who’s No. 3?
If you go by last year’s end-of-season points total, the answer is Tony Gonzalez. If you go by our experts' consensus rankings...well, tune in for that next week. If you go by Jake Ciely’s rankings, the answer is still Tony Gonzalez (although Jason Witten is second in his rankings). And if you go by the Fantasy Hipster’s rankings, it’s probably someone you’ve never heard of like Vance McDonald.
For today’s task, I’m going to knock Mr. Gonzalez out of the equation for purposes of simplification (although I’ll admit it’s very possible he finishes third) and focus on the two guys who are generally the consensus third and fourth ranked tight ends in fantasy football going into the 2013 season: Jason Witten and Aaron Hernandez.
If you’re one of those people who loves to target upside, Aaron Hernandez is your guy. The former fourth-round draft pick out of Florida has a lot of things going for him. He’s got one of the best quarterbacks in the league throwing to him, he’s still only 23 years old, he’s basically a wide receiver masquerading as a tight end (so you don’t really have to ever worry about him staying in-line to block), and he has a pretty cool touchdown celebration to boot. There’s also the fact that the Patriots lost a whopping 304 targets from last year walk out the door with Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, and they really only brought in Danny Amendola and a few rookies/re-tread veterans to compete with Hernandez for those targets. If you’re one of those people who is really worried about Gronkowki missing the season (I’m not), those lost targets from last year jump to 383.
If Hernandez can carryover his strong 2012 finish (threeTDs in his last four games), he has a very good chance to solidify himself as one of the best tight ends in fantasy football. However, for all of his potential, Hernandez has some major questions he needs to answer before he can be considered a sure-fire elite tight end option. Can he stay healthy? He’s never played more than 14 games in any of his three seasons since entering the league in 2010, and he had offseason shoulder surgery. Can he take the next step in his progression? For all of his accolades, he’s never had a 1,000-yard season in his career. Can he become one of Tom Brady’s go-to red zone targets? He gets his fair share of looks inside the 20 (second most among tight ends in 2011), but that’s notoriously Gronk Country when he’s healthy, so Hernandez has some work to do there.
If you’re one of those people who loves to target safety, Jason Witten is your guy. Tony Romo’s security blanket is pretty much money in the bank when it comes to fantasy production and is one of those players who you can slot into your lineup week-in and week-out without having to worry. He led all tight ends (by a lot) with 110 receptions, 1,030 yards, and 150 targets last season and will continue his featured role alongside Dez Bryant in the Cowboys offense. When it comes to durability, Witten is one of the most reliable players in the NFL with only one missed start in his entire 10-year career (and that one game was in his rookie season way back in 2003). To go along with his durability, Witten has posted four 1,000-plus yard seasons in the past six years, and in the two seasons he fell short, he still had over 940 yards in each (so in comparison, his worst two seasons over the past six yardage-wise are still better than Hernandez’s best).
Now that I’ve thrown bouquets of roses at Witten’s feet, is there any reason why he’s not a no-brainer over Hernandez? Mainly one: touchdowns. For whatever reason (hello, Dez Bryant), Witten hasn’t been a huge red zone target for the Cowboys over the past couple years, and it shows in his touchdown production (which is the lifeblood of fantasy points). He did score nine (a career-high) back in 2010, but his totals of five and three scores over the last two season leave a lot to be desired if you’re spending a fifth or sixth round pick on Witten. Last season, Witten finished with less red zone targets (14) than guys like Martellus Bennett, Heath Miller, and Kyle Rudolph. I’d expect more red zone usage of Witten in 2013 with Bill Callahan (supposedly) taking over control of the play calling, but the lack of touchdowns are the one thing potential Witten owners need to be aware of heading into 2013.
As a Patriots fan, I love Aaron Hernandez and all the upside that he brings to the table, but if I’m going to spend one of my first five or six picks on him or Witten, I’d rather go with the safer option. Hernandez may have a higher ceiling than Witten, but he also has a lower floor, and I’d feel a lot better waiting on someone like Dennis Pitta or even Jared Cook if I’m targeting high upside.
So after all that, who would you take as the third fantasy tight end (again, assuming you still have Graham and Gronkowski as No. 1 and 2)?