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Fantasy Outlook: Is Rob Gronkowski worth a first-round pick?

Aug 14, 2015

Rob Gronkowski can lock down the tight end position for you, but he doesn't come without risk

Rob Gronkowski can lock down the tight end position for you, but he doesn’t come without risk

The 2014 NFL season was the Year of Gronk, with the Patriots’ larger-than-life tight end putting together his best season since 2011. Going into 2015, Rob Gronkowski is the No. 1 ranked TE by a wide margin and is currently being taken in the late first round and early second round according to standard ADP. Tom Brady’s suspension could be disruptive, and the tight end’s aggressive play style puts him at risk for injury but don’t be deterred. Drafting for fantasy football is an exercise of evaluating relative value, and Gronk’s value over the next best players at his position makes him worthy of a top-12 pick.

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Gronk…and Everyone Else

There is no disagreement over Gronkowski’s dominance of the tight end position, regardless of the statistical category selected. He was an absolute monster across the board. Last year he averaged 12.3 fantasy points per game in standard scoring leagues and scored 184.4 total fantasy points, both were league-leading statistics for tight ends. He also led all tight ends in receiving yards, receiving TDs and targets, along with being Pro Football Focus’ top-ranked TE, and 11th out of all players at any position. He looks and played like a man among boys, and owners should expect that to continue in 2015.

The first few rounds of most fantasy drafts see owners seeking to locate the top running backs available, followed by receivers and a few elite quarterbacks. Gronkowski is the rare tight end that deservedly is being taken in the late first round, but it could be accurate, and even a steal.

Last year Gronkowski scored 12.3 points per game. That number of points is good enough for 10th if he played RB, but was first among TEs by 2.7 points per game more than the second-place Antonio Gates (9.6).

The table below shows Gronkowski’s dominance of his position relative to that of other top players at their positions by standard scoring (minimum 12 games played).

 Position QB RB WR TE
First Ranked Player Fantasy (PPG)  22.1  18.4 17.0  12.3
Second Ranked Player Fantasy (PPG)  21.9  18.1 15.7 9.6
Difference Between First and Second Ranked Players (PPG)  0.2  0.3 1.3  2.7
Difference Between Third and 10th Ranked Players (PPG)  3.1  6.2 2.4  2.6

On average, Gronkowski was head and shoulders better than the next best tight end. The difference was more than the difference between the third and 10th ranked players at the position, where you would expect to find replacement level players available. Additionally, owners who are picking in the 8-12 range are unlikely to have many top-level RBs available, and would do well to grab a player who will be a clear matchup win every week instead of reaching for an inferior player at a higher scoring position. Additionally, Jimmy Graham in run-heavy Seattle, Julius Thomas playing with Blake Bortles and old Antonio Gates serving a four-game suspension to start the year. Therefore, Gronk’s separation from the rest of his position group is likely to grow.

Missing Tom?

Tom Brady’s presumed four-game absence is a cause for concern for the New England Patriots, but will it have a major effect on their star tight end? It seems unlikely. Jimmy Garoppolo will be able to work behind an offensive line that returns the majority of its components and allowed the third fewest sacks in 2014. While some of that has to do with Tom Brady’s awareness, Garoppolo will likely still receive acceptable protection. When New England takes to the air anytime this season, the first option will be Gronk, and that is unlikely to change no matter who is at QB. The Patriots declined to add any marquee WRs in the offseason and will likely be rolling with Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, none of whom is going to threaten Gronk’s targets.

While Garoppolo lacks the experience and in-game chemistry Brady and Gronk may have developed, his physical tools are superior to Brady’s at this point in their careers. Garoppolo’s athleticism will likely allow him to extend some plays that would otherwise be sacks, and may help mitigate his mental errors. Most importantly for Gronkowski and his fantasy owners, it doesn’t take a genius at quarterback to know that when you are in trouble, the 6’7 freak athlete is your best option to feed. With a defense that looks to be inferior compared to last year’s squad, the Patriots may find themselves needing to throw more often than in years past, and Gronk will be ready.

Injury Issues

None of this information is likely new to most owners. 99% of experts, fans and players believe Gronk is the best TE both in the NFL and in fantasy. The question has always been if he will be healthy enough to be on the field catching passes and spiking after touchdowns. While injury issues are highly unpredictable even for players without Gronkowski’s history of aggressive play and serious injuries, the Patriots’ star has missed enough games to give owners pause. The high profile of the games Gronkowski has missed or been hampered in may have slightly inflated his reputation as an injury-prone player.

Gronk has missed 14 of a possible 80 regular season games in his career with injury, nearly a full season of games. Any player who has missed almost 18% of the possible games he could have played is an absolute injury concern. So while the willingness to roll the dice on Gronkowski’s health is the only real gamble in drafting him, it is a relatively significant risk. Although following a torn ACL, Gronkowski didn’t miss a game until Week 17 last year when the Patriots held him out after clinching top seed in the AFC. Athletes commonly return to full strength in their second year following ACL surgery. So if last year was a limited Gronk, this season might resemble his 2011 campaign where he scored 17 touchdowns and caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards.

Conclusion

Rob Gronkowski’s current average ADP is 14th overall, putting him as an early second-round pick in most drafts. His team will likely rely on him more than ever, there is a weak looking group of alternatives at the position and there’s another year between him and any major leg injuries. All things considered, it seems reasonable that this is a slight undervaluation. Taking Gronk anywhere in the second round or beyond should be an easy choice, and if you feel good about some of the RBs and WRs available later on, a first round choice is justifiable. Plug him in Week 1 and leave him there for the rest of the season.

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John Trupin is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from John, check out his archive and follow him @troopdogg24.

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