Top performer: Tight end

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
3:30
PM ET
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with tight ends.

Past producers:
The SEC returns six of the top 10 statistical tight ends this season. Orson Charles led all tight ends in yardage with 574 yards and had five touchdowns on 45 catches. The No. 2 tight end returns this fall, and this race might be the most wide open of all the top returners by position.

Here's the conference's top returning producer at tight end:

Chris Gragg, Arkansas: He was second among tight ends in catches (41) and receiving yards (518) last season, and had two touchdowns. Gragg also averaged 12.6 yards per catch last season. In an offense obsessed with throwing the ball, there was no way Gragg wouldn't get a good amount of passes thrown his way. But it's not like Gragg didn't deserve all the attention. The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder is an ideal target for any quarterback, and while he's a big body, he has good speed and is quite agile for his position. With all the receiving talent leaving Fayetteville, Gragg should get even more looks from quarterback Tyler Wilson, and there probably aren't too many people around that program upset by the thought of that.

The SEC returns five more of the top 10 statistical tight ends from a year ago:

Mychal Rivera, Tennessee: He caught 29 passes for 344 yards and one touchdown, and averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

Jordan Reed, Florida: He caught 28 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns, and averaged 11 yards per catch.

Philip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn: He caught 24 passes for 238 yards, and led all tight ends with seven touchdowns. He averaged 9.9 yards per catch.

Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State: He caught 11 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns, and averaged 18.7 yards per catch.

Michael Williams, Alabama: He caught 16 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns, and averaged 11.9 yards per catch.

This race really is wide open. While Gragg is probably the most physically gifted of the returning tight ends, it's not a foregone conclusion that he'll take home prize of top SEC tight end. Reed, who is a freak athlete, is someone who the coaches at Florida think will be a major factor in the Gators' offense this fall because young quarterbacks tend to shorten throws, and Reed is a solid underneath target. Williams will get more attention with Brad Smelley gone, and Johnson, who won't share time with Marcus Green this year, drew comparisons to past Mackey Award winner Aaron Hernandez in spring camp.

Keep an eye on South Carolina rising senior Justice Cunningham. He played alongside fellow tight end Rory Anderson, who had more yards and touchdowns, but Cunningham doubled Anderson's catch count last season, and gained 142 yards and one score. With Alshon Jeffery gone, expect Cunningham to get more looks this fall.

If Missouri's Eric Waters comes back 100 percent from his MCL injury this spring, he could have a pretty productive season in that offense. Waters is replacing one of the best in Michael Egnew, but one reason Egnew was so successful was because Mizzou loves using its tight ends.

Texas A&M uses its tight ends a lot as well. Nehemiah Hicks is probably the most gifted tight end for the Aggies and started seven games, but is recovering from shoulder surgery. Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau combined to catch 28 passes for 244 and four touchdowns last season.

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