- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Plenty of big names will be on display Monday night as the Eagles travel to Dallas to face the Cowboys. Terrell Owens is always talking, sometimes about his "best pal" Donovan McNabb. Tony Romo either will or won't have his girlfriend present. The Eagles' Brian Westbrook, who might be the best player on the field, could very well touch the ball on every play. There is no shortage of story lines when these division rivals meet.
However, rarely is a spotlight focused on the team's tight ends, and there's where we'll shine it today. Although one of the starters at this underrated fantasy position is a star, the other generally has been a disappointment.
Jason Witten was nearly the top tight end in fantasy drafts this season, but according to ESPN.com's average draft picks, the Chargers' Antonio Gates edged him out, based partially on reputation. Each player was a top-50 pick in the average league, underscoring how nice it is to get such terrific production at a generally sparse position. Witten set Cowboys franchise marks for catches and receiving yardage for a tight end in 2007, and he finished as fantasy's best at his position. During the past four seasons, the durable Witten hasn't missed a game. He has averaged 78 catches during that span with six or more touchdowns three times. Last season, Witten totaled 11 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown in a pair of contests against the Eagles.
Although Witten's value is rarely in question, and he's sure to be active in almost every league, the Eagles' L.J. Smith has teased fantasy owners -- and the Eagles -- with his play. But he hasn't become the star many expected he'd be. The talent is there for Smith to be a top-10 tight end, although fantasy owners remain a bit cautious, and rightfully so. Smith battled injuries much of 2007, but from 2004 to 2006 he hauled in 13 touchdown passes. Witten gets so many looks because he generally is Romo's second receiving option after Owens, and as the second option in Philadelphia (behind Westbrook), Smith is in line for a breakout season.
The Eagles' receiving corps lacks a star -- DeSean Jackson has played in one NFL game, so let's not go overboard yet -- and Smith got off to a good start last week with five receptions and a touchdown against the Rams. The truth is, Smith has been a favorite target of McNabb near the goal line for quite some time. In 2006, Smith received 18 red zone targets, third among tight ends. Smith was given the franchise tag by the Eagles this summer, meaning he has a one-year contract and surely wants to earn a long-term deal somewhere. Reaching a career mark in touchdowns would be a good start toward reaching that goal. Smith hasn't scored a touchdown against the Cowboys since his rookie season, but he has been a big-play performer. In his past three games against the division rivals, he has just two catches in each game. But he's totaled 174 yards in those games, meaning he averages 30 yards per catch.
Fantasy owners weren't high on Smith in drafts, making him the No. 18 selection at his position behind Owen Daniels and Kevin Boss, and barely ahead of the Bengals' Ben Utecht, who has two receptions in two games so far. But Smith's value seems to be heading in the right direction, as he went from 23 percent owned to 54 percent owned in the past week. With a good game Monday, Smith will remain on fantasy rosters.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.
Eric Karabell takes a closer look at Jason Witten and L.J. Smith and the expectations for them this season.