THIS WAS supposedto be the Year of the Tight End, a season brimming with highlights not only ofestablished stars Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez running wild throughsecondaries but also of emerging talents such as Randy McMichael, Heath Millerand Ben Troupe blasting their way for big gains. So far, though, the season ofthe tight end stud has been largely a dud. Many tight ends had trouble gettingoff the line early in 2006, for various reasons. Some (such as Jason Witten)were asked to block more. Others (such as McMichael) suffered from a change atquarterback. But in recent weeks tight ends as a group have been showing signsof a breakout--and as we come down the stretch, that makes the position crucialfor fantasy teams. You already know the leaders of the pack: Gates andGonzalez. Here are eight others who should come on strong.
1 ALGE CRUMPLERFalcons
His full name isAlgernon Darius Crumpler, and he's also known as the highest-scoring tight endin fantasy football. When Michael Vick has shown a hot passing hand, a primebeneficiary has been Crumpler--Vick's most trusted weapon. Crumpler has 236yards and five touchdown receptions in the last three games after 194 yards andone TD in the first five. Another reason to like Crumpler for the stretch run:He has games against the Saints, Redskins and Panthers, teams that have beenburned consistently by tight ends. As long as Vick gets him the ball, Crumplerwill remain an elite producer.
2 KELLEN WINSLOWBrowns
"I said I wasthe best," K2 boasted before last Sunday's showdown against Gates. "Iam the best." Not so fast, Junior. Winslow's very good; his 51 receptionslead all tight ends (he had 11 to Gates's two on Sunday), he has producedconsistently, and he's a must-start for every fantasy team. But he's not inGates's league--yet.
3 JASON WITTENCowboys
Now that the HumanPigeon Perch, Drew Bledsoe, has been benched in favor of the more mobile TonyRomo, Witten can actually go out for a pass instead of being chained to theline. Since Bledsoe's benching 10 quarters ago, Witten has 15 catches for 202yards and a touchdown. In the previous 5 1/2 games, he had 16 catches for 165yards and no TDs. The surge in Witten's production should only continue,considering the rapport he has with Romo. They've been close friends sinceentering the league together in 2003, they work at each other's off-seasonfootball camp, and they room together on the road.
4 DESMOND CLARKBears
The biggestsurprise on this list, Clark hit a midseason minislump (during which he wasbothered by a sprained foot) before an 86-yard, two-touchdown effort againstthe 49ers two weeks ago. A favorable omen: Bears coaches are sticking by theirplan to make the tight ends a focal point of the passing attack. (Clark'sbackup, John Gilmore, has two TDs.) Combine that with Chicago's upcomingschedule against several defenses that have yielded big games to tight ends(Giants, Jets and Lions), and Clark becomes a highly desirable option down thestretch.
5 TODD HEAPRavens
An injury-reportstaple, Heap has battled ankle and thigh maladies all season yet has continuedto produce on Sundays, catching between three and five passes a game and atouchdown in five of eight contests. He benefits from a quarterback (SteveMcNair) and an offensive philosophy that eschew throwing to wide receivers inthe red zone. (Seven of Baltimore's 10 passing TDs have gone to tightends.)
6 BEN WATSONPatriots
Presumed dead inSeptember, the Patriots' aerial game is alive and thriving. And whilequarterback Tom Brady has been spreading his tosses among his Bradybunch--"Whoever gets the ball is usually the guy that's getting open,"he says--no one has recently been getting open more frequently than Watson. Thethird-year man has a team-high 16 receptions for 209 yards in his last threegames and is on his way to having the breakthrough season that was expected ofhim.
7 L.J. SMITHEagles
The top fantasytight end through the first three weeks, Smith tailed off in October. Hisprospects for the stretch remain solid, however. Even though he's battling aback injury, he plays in a system that only occasionally dusts off a runningplay (the Eagles called 43 pass plays versus 15 runs in a loss to the Jaguarsat windy Lincoln Financial two weeks ago.) And when Philly does throw, it'smore often a dump-off to Smith or running back Brian Westbrook than a downfieldpass.
8 JEREMY SHOCKEYGiants
Like Witten,Shockey has been pressed into pass-blocking duty, but unlike Witten, the NewYork shock jock has been slower to come around in terms of fantasy production.He has been scoring a bit more (after having one TD in his first four games, hehas four in his last four), but he's averaging a career-low 10.1 yards percatch and is on pace to finish with just 612 receiving yards--his worst outputsince his 535-yard season of 2003, when he played in only nine games. He'sstill a threat in the red zone, however, and a good spot play against the rightopponent.
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JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS
The Falcons tight end has five touchdown catches in his last threegames.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES
Heap thrives in the Ravens' tight-end-friendly system.
SIMON BRUTY (SMITH)