Assessing the Patriots TEs
By FBG Staff
September 5th, 2011

The New England passing game is obviously one of the best in the NFL, and their tight ends are a big part of attack. However, there has been much discussion regarding the fantasy prospects of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Is there enough pie to make both of these guys fantasy stars? Will then cancel each other out? There are several questions here. Our Jeff Pasquino opens the discussion.

Jeff Pasquino

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' passing attack looks good so far this year (at least in the pre-season). Throughout the extensive FootballGuys content, both tight ends have been projected as excellent values. Give us each your take on the outlook for Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in the New England offense:

  • Do you foresee New England using two tight ends as a base offense? Where does each tight end rank as far as likely targets for the Patriots? (such as Welker, 85, Gronk, Hernandez, Branch, Woodhead...)

  • What are your projections for each tight end? Who will be the better option for receptions, yardage and touchdowns?

  • The New England backfield is quite crowded as well - BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Woodward, Vereen, Ridley - how will they impact the passing attack, and the Red Zone offense?

  • From a fantasy perspective, when does each tight end become a value pick in a draft? PPR and non-PPR - perhaps the best way to answer this is as TE#11, TE#13 off the board, etc.
  • Feel free to expound upon the above or add your own insights.

    Matt Waldman

    I believe the reason Aaron Hernandez is an undervalued commodity in the 2011 preseason has a lot to do with Pasquino's initial roundtable question: Do you think the Patriots will use two tight end formations as its base offense?

    Most teams don't use two tight end sets as its base offense, therefore most fans can't imagine Aaron Hernandez seeing enough looks in a game to warrant a strong fantasy ranking despite the fact that both Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski had strong fantasy production for two rookies on the same team. The conventional thinking is that New England will use Gronkowski more often because he is the best in-line tight end of the duo.

    However, Hernandez has unique skill sets that makes him the exception to the rule. He's technically a tight end, but he is more like a big wide receiver with excellent quickness, lateral agility, and skills after the catch. Whereas Rob Gronkowski physically draws comparisons to Jason Witten, I think you have to go back to Ozzie Newsome - a former All-American WR at the University of Alabama who was used at tight end but not deemed good enough early in his career to be used extensively as a run blocker - to find a player that compares physically to Hernandez.

    As with Newsome, Hernandez is a gifted receiver capable of working on the line of scrimmage, in the slot, split wide, or even in the backfield. Moreover, the Patriots have no problem using Hernandez as a receiver or H-back rather than a tight end. Whether it's a fullback (Larry Centers/Rocky Bleier), and H-Back (Redskins of the first Gibbs era), a slot receiver (run and shoot or Wes Welker in recent years), or a tight end (Antonio Gates/Jermichael Finley), strong offenses find ways to use these players as "Jokers," to draw match-up advantages.

    Hernandez is a like an extra bishop, knight, or rook on the chessboard during the end game and Tom Brady is a chess master when it comes to reading the board and maximizing the use of his pieces. This is the role of "the joker," a role that defies a firm definition because the role is constantly re-defined according to its need in a given situation. This is why viewing Hernandez as a second tight end is the perception problem that results in depressed fantasy projections. The same perception problem will arise if he's considered a third wide receiver in the offense. Fantasy owners logically presume that a third wide receiver in an offense is highly unlikely to see skyward of 500-600 yards.

    The most accurate way to envision Hernandez is as a "Joker." Dallas Clark and Austin Collie trade off that Joker role with the Colts. Collie more so than Clark. He's found both in the slot and split wide depending on the defensive look and where Peyton Manning chooses to place him after his initial pre-snap read. We're going to see Tom Brady do the same thing with Hernandez. This actually makes Hernandez one of the first two options more often than fantasy owners currently imagine.

    Think of it from another perspective. Mathias Kiwanuka was a defensive Joker early last year. He was statistically dominant prior to injury despite the fact that his technical fantasy position of strong side linebacker is considered among the worst of the IDP positions to own. Von Miller is a strong side linebacker in the Broncos 4-3 defense, but he's actually going to be spending a lot of time as the open side defensive end. In a sense, he's a joker. Don't be surprised if Miller leads the Broncos - and all rookies - in sacks this year.

    I believe Aaron Hernandez is going to see 70 receptions, 800 yards, and 6-8 touchdowns in this offense. It won't matter whether Chad Ochocinco catches onto the offense or he's on the bench the entire year. Hernandez is the best match up nightmare the Patriots own. Gronkowski is a terrific tight end capable of 60 receptions, 650 yards, and 6-8 scores. Moreover, Wes Welker should see 80 catches 900 yards and 4-6 scores.

    I've mentioned three players in this offense and we're only accounting for 2350 yards and at most, 22 scores. I think Brady is clearly capable of another 4000-yard, 35-touchdown season. Split 1650 yards and 13 scores among Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead, and the other running backs. I think that's reasonable. I can envision Ochocinco earning 1000 yards 8 scores with crumbs to the rest or it could be a more even split among the former Bengal, Branch, and Woodhead.

    Fantasy-wise, what does this mean to me? First, as I've been hinting initially in the Spotlights I wrote about both Pats tight ends, and then more explicitly in my rankings and Gut Check columns, Hernandez is a steal right now. I think he's going to be every bit as productive as the tier below the elite at the TE position (Vernon Davis, Marcedes Lewis, and Owen Daniels) with even more upside because of his quarterback. The fact he's still available after round 10 is fantastic, because in an era of fantasy sports where the term "sleeper" rarely applies, Hernandez personifies it in 2011.

    Gronkowski might also be slightly underrated because fantasy owners are also lumping him into the limited constraints of how they envision offensive personnel usage in New England. Because they can't imagine Hernandez as a joker, it is restricting the upside of Gronkowski's projections. They presume Gronkowski and Hernandez competing for targets from the same position when in fact they are actually in very different roles 80-90 percent of the time. I'd be happy drafting both players in a PPR flex league where you can start two tight ends or four receivers.

    David Dodds

    I think both are headed for huge years. This is the offensive look the Patriots are going to use a lot in 2011. And it makes sense. Defenses had no answer for it and that was with a lot worse personnel than they will use this year. Wes Welker is finally healthy, Ochocinco is an upgrade over Branch to stretch defenses, the RBs are younger with strong skillsets and these tight ends are in their second year in this system.

    Do you foresee New England using two tight ends as a base offense? Where does each tight end rank as far as likely targets for the Patriots? (such as Welker, 85, Gronk, Hernandez, Branch, Woodhead...)

    Yes, I think it's going to a common formation for the team particularly anytime they go to the no-huddle offense. Imagine 2nd and short. Are they running, throwing, etc? They have the two tight ends in close and defenses are trying to stop the run (and first down). They gain a few yards on a pass to Hernandez or Welker and then go no-huddle to keep the defense in a formation where there is a complete mismatch going on. They stay no-huddle until they score the TD a few plays later. In the last 8 games last year, Brady threw for 22 TDs and ZERO interceptions. Defenses had no idea how to stop what New England was doing last year. I expect to see even more of this with more variation out of the same base packages.

    Hernandez is categorized as a tight end, but he is a hybrid WR/TE and will split out from this base formation often. Gronkowski is your typical looking blocking TE, but he possesses soft hands and great route running skills. He should be a redzone machine again. I have the catches looking like this: Welker 85, Gronkowski 57, Hernandez 55, Ochocinco 48, Branch 43, Woodhead 35.

    What are your projections for each tight end? Who will be the better option for receptions, yardage and touchdowns?

  • Gronkowski - 57 catches, 678 yards and 8 TDs
  • Hernandez - 58 catches, 690 yards and 7 TDs
  • I favor Gronkowski slightly, because I don't think linebackers are fast enough to stay with him and cornerbacks/safeties can't defend someone so big. I also think more teams will gameplan to try and stop Hernandez and Welker. Gronkowski isn't someone you consider double-teaming for the most part. But with single coverage, Brady could be playing catch with him all game long. I also believe Gronkowski will stay on the field when they run just 1 TE sets because of his superior blocking skills. In my view, this gives Gronkowski a slightly higher ceiling.

    The New England backfield is quite crowded as well - BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Woodward, Vereen, Ridley - how will they impact the passing attack, and the Red Zone offense?

    I think the new kids (Vereen and Ridley) are younger (and eventually more talented versions) of the guys that sit in front of them on the depth chart. As they learn the system (or the starter gets hurt), they should see more and more opportunities. Although New England will have success running the ball, I think we are going to see this team throw a lot in 2011. I won't be shocked in the slightest when Brady leads all QBs in passing yards this season.

    From a fantasy perspective, when does each tight end become a value pick in a draft? PPR and non-PPR - perhaps the best way to answer this is as TE#11, TE#13 off the board, etc.

    I have them as TE7 and TE9 in both formats. I am targeting both after 10 TEs have been selected. Both have huge upside even from my lofty projections. Both have an outside shot at being TE1 at the end of the year.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Do you foresee New England using two tight ends as a base offense? Where does each tight end rank as far as likely targets for the Patriots? (such as Welker, 85, Gronk, Hernandez, Branch, Woodhead...)

    Obviously, that answer will change from game to game depending on the weaknesses of the opponent, but I think Gronkowski gets on the field a ton no matter what, and when Hernandez is on the field, it is to catch passes from Tom Brady, so even 30 snaps in a game can be plenty for him. I would put Gronkowski as a 3rd/4th target any time he is on the field after the WRs (and potentially Woodhead/Vereen), except on plays designed to go to him in the red zone. Hernandez would only be behind Welker in the target pecking order on most of his snaps.

    What are your projections for each tight end? Who will be the better option for receptions, yardage and touchdowns?

    I see Gronk around 45/600/9 and Hernandez 70/800/5 - Hernandez is better PPR option by far, but in non-PPR they are both low-end TE1s, with Gronk having more ups and downs because of the touchdowns.

    The New England backfield is quite crowded as well - BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Woodward, Vereen, Ridley - how will they impact the passing attack, and the Red Zone offense?

    Green-Ellis will still get his in the red zone and will approach last year's value for as long as he is healthy. Woodhead/Vereen will still catch 3-4 balls a game/.

    From a fantasy perspective, when does each tight end become a value pick in a draft? PPR and non-PPR - perhaps the best way to answer this is as TE#11, TE#13 off the board, etc.

    Gronk is a value around the 10th in non-PPR, 12th in PPR, Hernandez around 10th in PPR, 12th in non-PPR.

    David Yudkin

    Part of the big issue with a team like New England is keeping in mind the big picture of total team offensive production. I have seen many folks projecting multiple players having great years, but the fact of the matter is that the sum of the parts has to fall within a reasonable range. While the Pats have a high flying offense, they can't total 10,000 yards of offense with 100 touchdowns. Here were my projections for the New England offense for the upcoming season . . .

  • Brady 370-555-4420-34-10, 30-50-1
  • Hoyer 15-25-150-1-1, 10-0-0
  • BJGE 175-780-10, 10-75-0
  • Woodhead 100-450-3, 30-270-1
  • Faulk 25-100-0, 10-80-1
  • Vereen 75-350-2, 5-60-0
  • Ridley 40-160-1, 5-45-0
  • Welker 85-975-7
  • Ochocinco 50-600-5
  • Branch 45-540-4
  • Edelman 10-125-1
  • Price 20-325-2
  • Hernandez 70-900-4
  • Gronkowski 40-525-9
  • Others Receiving 5-50-1
  • Totals

  • 385-580-4570-35-11 Passing
  • 455-1890-17 Rushing
  • 385-4570-35 Receiving
  • As far as Hernandez and Gronkowski are concerned, at the mid point last season, Hernandez was on pace for a 70 catch, 900 yard, 4 TD season and nearly 100 targets. Gronkowski at that point had only produced 14-148-3 through the first 8 games. With Hernandez banged up, Gronkowski played a much greater role on the offense. Hernandez, while still suiting up each week, saw only 19 targets the rest of the way.

    Heading into the 2011 season, Alge Crumpler is gone (at least for now), and Hernandez and Gronkowski are the only tight ends on the Patriots roster. I would suspect that given his size that Gronkowski will be asked to block more. Hernandez is effectively a wide receiver playing as a tight end, and his combination of size and speed make him a nightmare to defend. Gronkowski provides trouble for defenders as well, as his height makes him a big target for Brady to find in the middle of the field.

    I still think Hernandez will be used all over the field and will line up on the line, in the slot, out wide, and in the backfield. This would be very similar to how the Patriots utilized him last season and how they have played him in the preseason.

    As far as the questions go . . .

    Do you foresee New England using two tight ends as a base offense? Where does each tight end rank as far as likely targets for the Patriots? (such as Welker, 85, Gronk, Hernandez, Branch, Woodhead...)

    I see Hernandez seeing the second most targets after Welker. I would believe the hype when it comes to Ochocinco that he is struggling and has not taken to the NE offense as of yet. To date, he should be considered closer to Joey Galloway than Randy Moss in terms of his grasping the playbook and how he's fit in so far.

    I do think Ochocinco at some point will start to be productive, but in the first half of the season I think he will not be a big cog offensively. The best way to describe Ochocinco at the moment is he's coming to camp as a rookie with hardly anytime to adjust to a new team and a ne system . . . but also having lost a step and the ability to separate like he used to. Not a great combination to start the season,especially given the limited amount of teams had to work together post lockout.

    What are your projections for each tight end? Who will be the better option for receptions, yardage and touchdowns?

    See above.

    The New England backfield is quite crowded as well - BenJarvis Green-Ellis, Woodward, Vereen, Ridley - how will they impact the passing attack, and the Red Zone offense?

    From my perspective, BJGE will be the guy at the red zone and likely the one back to get the biggest workload (but far from bell cow territory). Woodhead should be the between the 20s guy and in on passing downs.

    It's hard to guess what will happen with Vereen and Ridley, as both have missed time in camp with injuries. It's debatable how much Belichick will use rookies. Yes, he has utilized them in the past, but typically not when there are incumbents already on the roster.

    Kevin Faulk is still in the picture, too, but will miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season on the PUP list. His role should be greatly reduced, but one has to wonder why they would have re-signed him for another season when he was hurt if they had no plans to ever play him. Why waste the money and the roster spot if he can't or won't play?

    From a fantasy perspective, when does each tight end become a value pick in a draft? PPR and non-PPR - perhaps the best way to answer this is as TE#11, TE#13 off the board, etc.

    As evidenced by my projections, I see Hernandez holding more fantasy value than Gronkowski. I think Gronkowski's ADP is close to where it should be (TE 10-12 range), but Hernandez will be a steal at TE15, especially in PPR leagues. It remains to be seen if Hernandez can stay healthy and avoid fumbling, both concerns so far in his time as a Patriot.

    The Pats have a lot of mouths to feed on offense and Brady has mastered the art of targeting the open receiver. Be prepared for any Pats player to feast one week and be rarely targeted the following week depending upon the defensive game plan and what mismatches that New England can design to exploit defensive coverage.

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