Rob Gronkowski has been a fantasy force since entering the NFL in 2010. His efficiency per target has been off the charts and his dominance near the goal line rivals any target in the league. A receiving touchdown rate of greater than 15% in a season would be ripe for regression, but Gronkowski has bucked the trend with three consecutive seasons of higher than 18%. He has a staggering 39 touchdowns in 43 career games. Since the NFL merger the only pass catchers with more touchdowns in their first three seasons, both with more games played, are Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. Gronkowski has been historically dominant. In 2012, Gronkowski was at it again, totaling double-digit touchdowns in just ten games as the Patriots were finishing up a blowout win against the Colts in Week 11. Then, it all changed.
Gronkowski broke his forearm blocking on a late-game extra point of all things and he missed the rest of the regular season outside of a two-catch cameo appearance in Week 16. One of the more prominent storylines this offseason has been the oscillations in the ongoing story of Gronkowski's forearm surgeries as well as a back surgery to boot. With the tight-lipped nature of the Patriots organization and the likely absence of Gronkowski in the preseason, mystery will surround him leading up to the regular season. From a health standpoint, Gronkowski will carry that uncertainty with him.
Back on the field, the Patriots offense has seen significant change this offseason. Wes Welker, the Patriots all-time leader in receptions and Tom Brady's long-time security blanket, has moved on to join Peyton Manning. Welker's departure creates an annual 100-reception vacancy that the newly-signed Danny Amendola hopes to stay healthy enough to fill. On the outside, New England has nothing but uncertainty at receiver from ho-hum veterans Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones to rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Finally, the elephant in the room is the fast-moving story of Aaron Hernandez' legal issues and release by the organization. Hernandez actually had more targets and touchdowns inside the five-yard-line over the past three seasons than Gronkowski. The duo of Hernandez and Gronkowski opened minds in terms of attacking defenses with tight ends that are matchup nightmares. The loss of Welker, Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd from 2012 leaves over 27 targets per game unaccounted for entering this season. In 2011 and 2012, Gronkowski was a seven-to-eight target per game player. There is upside to even those strong numbers at the tight end position with the missing weapons.
What will the Patriots offense look like in 2013? First off, they will run the ball often. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen form a strong pair of running backs that can carry the offense. The Patriots are one of the more flexible teams in the league in terms of molding the offense to the available weapons. Look for New England to take the air out of the ball more often than the Randy Moss and Wes Welker days a few years ago and the more recent version with Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. They simply do not have the horses to be the high-flying passing attack of old.
Gronkowski is the lone passing target to carry over from previous seasons for Tom Brady. Considering the lack of success Danny Amendola and the rest of the receivers have had close to the goal line, Gronkowski could very well be in line for a historic volume of targets at point-blank range. For tight ends, the key aspects for production are target volume and red zone involvement. Gronkowski is one of the best combinations of volume and red zone opportunity in the league. The final aspect of tight end performance is the strength of his quarterback. With Tom Brady in tow, Gronkowski has one of the most enviable situations in the league.
- Through three seasons Gronkowski has been one of the most dominant weapons in NFL history
- The absence of Aaron Hernandez paves the way for Gronkowski to dominate the team's goal line targets
- Gronkowski is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and rarely leaves the field
- A new back injury and surgery gives pause as Gronkowski fell in the NFL draft due to similar concerns
- The New England offense has the makings of a run-heavy unit that would lighten the load on the passing weapons
- The beginning of the season for Gronkowski is in question and requires a high risk tolerance to spend an early draft pick
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The cloud of uncertainty around Gronkowski is having an impact on his average draft position this summer. He can routinely be had in the third round. Gronkowski is one of a small handful of certified difference-makers in fantasy football. Any discount this season for his perceived risk should be gobbled up by savvy owners. Other than Jimmy Graham, who is drafted long before Gronkowski, there is not another trump card at the tight end position with routine big-game upside. While a handful of missed games is certainly a concern, Gronkowski's presence down the fantasy football stretch will be his most significant impact. With the depth of the wide receiver and quarterback positions in the middle rounds and running backs being the name of the game in rounds one and two, Gronkowski is in a perfect position to be the missing dominant piece of a championship puzzle.
Aaron Schatz of FootballOutsiders.com discusses the changes in the Patriots offense without Aaron Hernandez here.
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