- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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The tight ends are the next stop on our tour of NFC South position rankings.
Let’s start with a quick overview on a position that’s got to be considered one of the division’s overall strengths. The NFC South has arguably the best tight end ever, two guys who can be very good when they’re healthy and happy and a bunch of guys that are solid role players. Let’s jump into the rankings.
Tony Gonzalez, Falcons. Yes, he’s on the downside of his career and he’s even dropped some hints that this might be his last year. But none of that really shows up on the field. Gonzalez takes such good care of himself that age doesn’t really detract from his performance. He’s Matt Ryan’s favorite target and having slot receiver Harry Douglas back in the offense this year should help open more of the field for Gonzalez.
Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers. Yes, you have to be concerned because the Bucs have been so cautious with Winslow’s knee throughout the camp and preseason. But there were a lot of days last season when he didn’t practice. The knee probably will remain an issue and Winslow might get days off from practice, but the important thing is that he’s on the field on Sundays. He made it through all 16 games last season and produced 77 catches in a season where the Bucs were juggling quarterbacks. With Josh Freeman now firmly in the starting role, Winslow could be even more of a force.
Jeremy Shockey, Saints. Knock him all you want because he brings some of that on with his flamboyant style. But this guy still makes some pretty big plays. He’s not going to be an 80-catch guy because New Orleans has so many other targets in the passing game, but he’s an important part of that mix. Durability is a bit of a concern, but Shockey’s always a threat when he’s on the field.
David Thomas, Saints. No, he’s not a starter, but he played a huge role in the New Orleans offense last year, even lining up at fullback at times. With starting fullback Heath Evans healthy and back in the lineup, Thomas should be able to focus more on just playing tight end. With Shockey’s durability issues and Sean Payton’s creative offense, Thomas will be on the field a lot. He’s a guy who could start for some other teams.
Dante Rosario, Panthers. Carolina uses a rotation of three tight ends and none of them are going to put up huge numbers in an offense that doesn’t throw to the tight end often. But Rosario is the one who is the biggest threat as a receiver.
Jeff King, Panthers. King’s kind of a jack-of-all trades in this offense. He’s got good hands and could put up bigger numbers in a different offensive system, but he nicely fits a role here.
Justin Pelle, Falcons. A solid veteran, who gets to do some of the dirty work the Falcons try to spare Gonzalez from.
Jimmy Graham, Saints. This rookie is a project with only one year of college football experience under his belt. But the former basketball player is a phenomenal athlete. Payton will include Graham in some packages to try to take advantage of his athletic ability.
Gary Barnidge, Panthers. He’s the third man in the rotation with King and Rosario. He only caught 12 passes last year, but averaged better than 20 yards per catch. That statistic could convince the Panthers to throw to him a bit more often.