graham-fives2

Look at your calendar. Then look at your NFL calendar. OK good, now look back at me.

That process of observation leads you to the conclusion that once the final embarrassing football game of Week 8 ends later tonight, the halfway point of the 2013 NFL season will arrive. Yes, that won’t technically be true for half the league until next week, as 16 teams have already rested for a week with their bye. But unofficially, the end of Week 8 is treated as the halfway point of the season, mostly because those who write about the NFL prefer a simple life.

As such, throughout the next week I’ll be looking back on the first half of this year while reflecting on what we’ve learned so far, and how common fantasy draft strategies in August may have changed. I’ll do this through a series of questions, because usually when I’m alone I ask myself questions and then answer them. I get some weird looks on public transit.

Often, these questions won’t have a definitive answer. Instead the greater goal of this exercise is that of exploration, and sifting through an eight-game sample size to find knowledge nuggets. They’re delicious with a nice honey glaze.

We begin with a look at the tight end position, and the best tight end in all the land.

The tight end position: Is reaching for Jimmy Graham still the right course of action?

Instinctively, you’re going to answer “YES OMG YES AND YOU’RE A CRAZY PERSON IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE” here. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, and instead I’m nourishing your thought diet. That’s what I do.

If you own Jimmy Graham in a standard 12-team league, you likely had to spend a late second-round pick on him with his ADP of 23rd overall. That means in a snake draft you also had a high first-round pick, high enough that there’s a very real chance your first two picks were Graham and Adrian Peterson. Those are two players have brought wide smiles to many faces throughout fantasyland, as they’re both at the top of their position (Graham leads all tight ends in fantasy points with 93, and although Peterson has posted some great but less than spectacular numbers, he’s still seventh among running backs at 89 points).

Graham has been simply dominant, as even while hobbled this past Sunday he needed only three receptions and 18 total snaps to score twice. It was his third two-touchdown game already this season, and he has only four throughout the rest of his career. With 630 receiving yards through seven games, he’s already posted four +100-yard games after only two in 2012, and his per game average of 90.0 is significantly higher than last year (65.5). That puts Graham on pace for 1,440 yards, which will easily shatter his previous high of 1,310. Of course, that pace is now in question with his injury and limited snaps, but the fact that he’s established it at all is quite Herculean.

Alright, so with that number vomiting out of our system, let’s acknowledge a truth Graham owners would like to avoid. When we’re discussing draft value, we’re referencing how productive a player has been relative to his peers, and if he’s worthy of being selected far ahead of them in most cases. Despite those glistening numbers, Graham’s status as that unique sort of gold is muddied at best through half a season.

There are two sides to this confusion. To be Pro Graham, you can point to the tight end fantasy points standings, and put your finger on Vernon Davis’ name. With 80 points he’s in fourth, and still at least within Graham’s area code. But after him there’s a jagged rock tumble to Antonio Gates with 56 points. That means the difference between Graham in first and Gates in just fifth is 37 points, which is vast and scary, especially since it’s happening in what’s mostly been a resurgent year for Gates (he’s been over 120 receiving yards twice already, and he didn’t even have one 100-yard game last year).

So we’re done here then, right? Hey now, wait up there young cowboy.

Look at the two names directly behind Graham in the tight end points standings. They’re both within 10 points: Julius Thomas at 88 points, and Jordan Cameron at 84. That’s a problem for Graham reaching, because unlike Davis, both Thomas and Cameron are late-round sleeper darlings who have blossomed quickly. While Graham owners were spending a second-round pick and then settling for usually a far inferior RB2, Thomas often went undrafted entirely, with an ADP of 209 at FantasyPros.

At first I had to rub my eyes upon seeing that, and when that didn’t work I asked co-workers to rub my eyes, which wasn’t a welcomed request. But upon further review, it’s easy to see how FantasyPros arrived at that while compiling their six sources (which includes ESPN leagues, CBS, and My Fantasy League). Although Thomas’ ADP was higher over at Yahoo, at 123.2 he’s still a 13th-round pick, and he’s still coming off the board a whooping 105.2 picks after Graham in those leagues, while being drafted in just 31 percent of all Yahoo leagues. The gap is even larger at My Fantasy League (147.6 picks), but despite that chasm in draft value, the separation in production between Graham and Thomas remains miniscule: just five points.

Cameron was more widely drafted because he was less of a secret in August thanks to a two-touchdown game in Week 2 of the preseason. But the deep death valley between him and Graham still existed in ESPN leagues (a difference of 98.3 spots), Yahoo leagues (104 spots), at My Fantasy League (103 spots), and through the composite at FantasyPros (92 spots).

Of course, assuming you’ll hit on a Thomas or a Cameron and that super sleeper will always be there in the late rounds is both difficult and foolish. But their production relative to that low-cost draft spot leads to a larger strategy: streaming tight ends, or loading up and using a committee approach.

Fantasy football isn’t a cumulative game. Instead it’s based on the wins and losses produced by week-to-week results, and there are always gems to be unearth and slotted in as the season progresses. For example:

  • Since inheriting the Dolphins’ starting tight end role after Dustin Keller’s season-ending knee injury, Charles Clay has averaged 48.7 receiving yards per week, which includes 109 yards on five receptions in Week 2, and a three-week touchdown streak that just ended. With 52.5 fantasy points he’s currently the eighth-ranked tight end — ahead of Tony Gonzalez, and only two points behind Jason Witten — and somehow Clay is still owned in only 51 percent of ESPN leagues.
  • Jordan Reed has just emerged in Washington after an injury and his effort to unseat Fred Davis. Since the Redskins’ Week 5 bye he has 282 yards and a touchdown on 21 catches (good for 33 fantasy points), and he’s also reasonably available (62 percent in ESPN leagues, and 73 percent of Yahoo leagues, percentages that were much, much lower a week ago).
  • Then there’s the more daring, cavalier approach to this week-to-week game. Since Week 4 Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland has averaged 44.4 yards per game with two touchdowns, a stretch with 79 yards in Week 5, and it includes catches for 34 and 47 yards. With the right matchup, he’s a fine and virtually unowned streaming option, as is Kellen Winslow once he returns from a suspension.

To the surprise of absolutely no one then, even Graham’s booming first half has only led to more questions about tight end draft strategy, and not more answers.