When to Draft Rob Gronkowski
Will Rob Gronkowski remain in a league of his own, or will 2016 see one or more of the “other” tight ends emerge from his shadow and make a name for themselves? That question, and, more specifically, the “age-old” sense of familiarity it assumes, is not often associated with such a young player. It is, for that reason, helpful to remind oneself that Gronkowski has only been a professional for six years (no longer new to the game, of course, but certainly not past his prime, either). Add to that the fact that two of those years were cut short from injury, and it’s even more impressive, the impact he’s already had on the game.
As one of those rare position-transcending fantasy players, Gronkowski is often referred to as a third receiver. While the meat of the tight end position doesn’t usually start until the third to the fourth round of fantasy drafts, he is currently sitting (as of July 24) at the No. 10 spot of the FantasyPros consensus ADP rankings. The next best tight end, regarding average draft position, is Jordan Reed at 33.9, making that the largest draft position gap of all the consequential offensive fantasy positions. Taking that into account when contemplating drafting Gronkowski is important as the ADP gap between the top two wide receivers, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones, is just 1.8 – the gap from Brown to Alshon Jeffry, the 20th ranked receiver, is only 20.
Of course, ADP provides more of a cursory glance of the talent pool than anything else, but looking at player rankings for total fantasy points of each of the past two seasons paints a similar picture. In 2014 and 2015, Gronkowski beat out the second rated tight end by 30.3 and 25.3 total fantasy points, respectively. For running backs in 2015, that gap was 13.2 and for wide receivers, of the same year, it was 7.1. Cam Newton, the top fantasy quarterback of 2015, did end up with 45.4 more fantasy points than Tom Brady, but when compared to the tight end position, that of quarterback consistently averages close to twice as many fantasy points. That makes what Gronkowski has accomplished still more impressive than that of Newton when compared to their respective positions.
In other words, owning Gronkowski can prove to be more beneficial than owning the top player of any other position. That is, of course, assuming you can draft worthwhile players at the other positions so as not to lose the ground you gain by selecting the Patriots’ star.
Barring an injury, it’s safe to assume that Gronkowski will make the most of his opportunities, but, regardless of how well he plays, certain factors will always escape his control. Firstly, his quarterback, Tom Brady, will miss the beginning of the season due to a four-game suspension stemming from last season’s “deflategate” controversy. Trying to perform his best Brady imitation during that span will be the two-year pro, Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots’ second-string quarterback. He’s only attempted 31 passes in those two years, so leading New England for a full four-game stretch will be quite the undertaking, but, at the same time, it’s hard to think of an offense more accommodating to replacement players than that of the Patriots. It sometimes seems like head coach Bill Belichick could lead a high school team to the NFL playoffs with as well as he’s negotiated injuries in the past. So, a player like Garoppolo, who’s practiced with the team for two years, may not be as unprepared as many believe. On top of that, an attractive target of rookies and otherwise inexperienced quarterbacks just so happens to be the tight end position as the passes tend to be shorter, requiring fewer reads, and the target is typically larger and easier to pick up over traffic. Assuming Garoppolo holds his own and doesn’t crumble under the pressure, any negative impact on Gronkowski should be marginal if at all existent (should a bond form between Garoppolo and Gronkowski, the latter could surprisingly benefit from the Brady suspension).
On top of the temporary quarterback swap, Gronkowski will also have to perform alongside a new tight end companion in Martellus Bennet. While pairing Gronkowski with a veteran talent didn’t exactly work in the past (think Scott Chandler), Bennet can be a strong No. 2 tight end in New England. He’s an excellent blocker with above average receiving skills, so we could see Belichick go to a two tight end set much like he did before Aaron Hernandez made the wardrobe change. Of course, Bennet isn’t as talented as Hernadez was, but it’s still safe to say that the Patriots are stacked at the TE position. When you throw Julian Edelman into the mix of targets, it’s safe to say the Patriots should have an easy time spreading the field. That, in turn, should relieve some of the pressure Gronkowski usually faces and may allow him the opportunity for more big plays, though he’ll always be the defense’s primary concern.
In the end, Rob Gronkowski, assuming a healthy season, will no doubt finish as a (but probably the) top tight end in the NFL. Because his position has a lower ceiling than that of running back and wide receiver, one should consider the top players of those positions before turning to Gronkowski, meaning, similar to years past, owners will want to hold off on drafting him until the end of the first round. With the addition of Bennet and the loss of Brady, one could easily rationalize waiting until the early second round. Doing so, however, will involve passing on the high floor of Gronkowski in hopes that a player such as Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, or David Johnson can reach and maintain their respective ceiling throughout the season. One could also try passing on Gronk and shoot for Washington’s Jordan Reed a couple of rounds later, but Reed’s propensity for injuries makes such a move risky at best.
It is, therefore, wise to not overthink such a decision (oh, the irony) and, if the earlier picks go as expected, simply grab Gronkowski as the ninth or later overall pick and enjoy the plethora of touchdowns likely to ensue.
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