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Spotlight: Rob Gronkowski

posted by Matt Waldman on Aug 6th


Matt Waldman's thoughts

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart of NFL tight ends. You can't have a discussion about one Patriot without addressing something about the other. Both had eye-popping moments as 2010 rookies and individually, both have 1000-yard, double-digit touchdown talent. However unless one member of the duo suffers an early-season injury, their combined 2011 totals may only amount to the 1000-yard, double-digit TD range.

Bummer.

The bright side for fantasy owners is that they each possess upside. Each is a low-end TE1 with elite potential. The momentary downside is that predicting which player will have the better game is the most difficult question facing fantasy owners. The safe road is to project close to a 50-50 split and go with the average ranking that my fellow Footballguys staffers are giving to Gronkowski (TE10) this summer.

Gronkowski is worth his price because he and Hernandez have different roles in the offense that prevents them from competing for offensive snaps. However, considering that Hernandez (ADP 152) is going an average of 51 picks later than Gronkowski (ADP 101), I think that Hernandez is the better buy. Hernandez's skill set of a TE/WR hybrid increases his ceiling of production. Whereas Hernandez's hybrid role gives him 1000-yard upside regardless of Gronkowski's presence on the field, I believe Gronkowski's production ceiling only rises to elite status with an injury to Hernandez.

Last Season's Stats

Comparing the rookie seasons of Gronkowski and Hernandez side by side, the 2010 stats appear similar.

TE Gms Tgts Recs Yds YperR TDs FPT RANK
Gronkowski 11 59 42 546 13.0 10 115 5
Hernandez 7 64 45 563 12.5 6 97 11

The only significant differences between the two players are games started and touchdowns. The touchdowns are what has a lot of fantasy owners more excited about Gronkowski. However, it's important to understand that Gronkowski started four more games than Hernandez to earn those four additional touchdowns. But WHEN did these two rookies earn their production? Does this have something to do with the momentum that I think Gronkowski has generated among fans and fantasy experts? I think so.

Gronkowski is Fan-Favored Due to the Illusion of 2010 Momentum

The game splits tell the story.

Gronkowski Hernandez
WK OPP TARG REC YD TD FPT WK OPP TARG REC YD TD FPT
1 CIN 1 1 1 1 6.1 1 CIN 2 1 45 0 4.5
2 NYJ 2 1 14 0 1.4 2 NYJ 6 6 101 0 10.1
3 BUF 3 3 43 1 10.3 3 BUF 7 6 65 0 7.8
4 MIA 1 1 4 0 0.4 4 MIA 5 5 29 0 2.9
6 BAL 1 1 24 0 2.4 6 BAL 6 4 61 0 7.9
7 SD 2 2 10 1 7 7 SD 8 5 54 0 5.4
8 MIN 3 1 5 0 0.5 8 MIN 3 2 33 0 3.3
9 CLE 8 4 47 0 4.7 9 CLE 9 5 48 2 16.8
10 PIT 5 5 72 3 25.2 10 PIT 2 0 0 0 0
11 IND 1 1 25 0 2.5 11 IND 1 1 8 1 6.8
12 DET 5 5 65 0 6.5 12 DET 1 1 18 0 1.8
13 NYJ 2 1 12 0 1.2 13 NYJ 5 3 51 1 11.1
14 CHI 6 5 43 1 10.3 14 CHI 4 2 19 0 1.9
15 GB 2 1 25 0 2.5 15 GB 5 4 31 2 16.7
16 BUF 7 4 54 2 17.4 16 BUF
17 MIA 10 6 102 1 16.2 17 MIA
TOT 59 42 546 10 114.6 TOT 64 45 563 6 97
9-Jan x 21 14 148 3 32.8 9-Jan 46 34 436 2 58.7
17-Oct 38 28 398 7 81.8 17-Oct 18 11 127 4 38.3

Gronkowski's second-half production came at the expense of a hip injury that cost Hernandez two games late in the year. Moreover, the three additional touchdowns Gronkowski scored during the second half of the season came during those two weeks that Hernandez was in the training room. What no one talks about during Gronkowski's late season glory surge is that despite a hip injury, Hernandez was just as prolific in the red zone as Gronkowski as the Patriots headed into week 16.

Because Gronkowski earned more opportunities at Hernandez's expense and did a good job with them, his performances are the last thing most fans remember at the end of the 2010 season. This is understandable. It's only human nature that as Hernandez's volume of production dropped, fans stopped feeling as good about him. However, the stats show that Hernandez was quite productive in the second half in terms of the efficiency of his opportunities. Gronkowski caught a touchdown at a rate of every four passes in the second half of the year. Hernandez caught a touchdown at a rate of less than three passes. Not a great sample size, but it is a small indicator that when he was on the field, Hernandez was still a favored target.

This should not detract from any assessment of Gronkowski's skills. However, Hernandez's injury shouldn't inflate an observer's view of Gronkowski as THE red zone option of the two when this is not remotely clear.

Both TEs are versatile, but Gronkowski benefits most from Patriots offensive personnel
Gronkowski's natural position is tight end. But in an offense with Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez the Patriots can dictate match ups with Gronkowski in the slot because the team can find specific match up advantages depending on how the defense chooses to defend Hernandez. With Welker, Deion Branch, and Chad Ochocinco the Patriots can change the personnel formations with Gronkowski and Hernandez before the snap:

  • 11 personnel, three-receivers with Hernandez as the H-Back/Fullback.
  • 10 personnel, three-receivers with Hernandez and Gronkowski as a two-tight end set.
  • Empty personnel with Gronkowski and either Hernandez or Welker in the slot.

Depending on the defensive personnel as the Patriots approach the line, Tom Brady can change to run or pass and dictate viable mismatches, which other teams can't do. This benefits Gronkowski because if defenses play nickel or dime, the tight end will have a true size advantage. If the defense is in a 3-4 or 4-3, Gronkowski receives the benefit of the slowest defensive player because of Hernandez. Also, the faster Hernandez creates more consideration from the safety in the zone, which opens seams for Gronkowski. Even without Ochocinco last year, this is one of the reasons why Gronkowski had a higher percentage of catches on intermediate and deep routes than Hernandez.

One advantage Gronkowski does have in the red zone over Hernandez is when the Patriots do go to a two- or three-tight end set that incorporates him with Alge Crumpler and rookie Lee Smith. In this case Gronkowski will undoubtedly be the first option on play action passes or pre-snap adjustments where Brady splits the tight end away from the formation.

Positives

  • Gronkowski benefits from choice mismatches thanks to the flexibility of the Patriots' personnel to dictate them to the defense.
  • He has enough athleticism to play enough in the slot as well as stretch the seam.
  • When the Patriots use short yardage sets Gronkowski will be one of the primary targets, which could translate to great red zone opportunities.

Negatives

  • Gronkowski lacks the route running prowess and after the catch skills to play the slot like his counterpart Hernandez, which means that the inline TE might earn some huge mismatch opportunities, Hernandez will likely see more frequent targets due to the quick-hitting mismatches he'll garner in the offense.
  • Hernandez's injury opened the door for Gronkowski's big finish in 2010, and it was Hernandez who was the more productive and regarded target in the beginning. It could revert back to a Hernandez-focused passing game in 2011.
  • Gronkowski will not only be competing with Hernandez, but Chad Ochocinco is an excellent threat in the intermediate rate of the field. As much as Ochocinco will create more room for Gronkowski to operate, it will also present more competition for targets in the passing game.

Final thoughts

Gronkowski is an excellent tight end with potential to remain a top-five performer at his position for years to come. If Aaron Hernandez gets hurt Gronkowski should benefit immensely. The fact that Gronkowski is very likely to accumulate low-end TE1 stats regardless of Hernandez's health diminishes his downside as a pick in the second half of fantasy drafts. However, if I'm going to draft a tight end this late, I'm looking for upside. Gronkowski's upside is better than a lot of tight ends after him, but I don't believe his teammate Hernandez is one of them. Expect Gronkowski's numbers to take a slight downturn in yards and touchdowns as long as Hernandez is healthy: 40 receptions, 460 yards, and 8 touchdowns.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Iwannabeacowboybaby! said:

When I watched Patriot games last year I paid close attention to the TE position. I watched who was on the field and in what situations and it was clear to me that Gronkowski was the favored TE for the NE Patriots. He is a guy who can block as well as get downfield to make a tough catch. He's also a huge redzone threat due to the mismatch he creates with his size. I fell in love with this guy early on last year and even game him a nickname, The White Rhino. I think he's in for a very solid year and definately a very good TE for leagues that are more TE friendly.

houndirish said:

I think what New England did with their rookie tight ends last year was impressive as both were able to make immediate impacts. If I was pressed to list a preference I'd take Gronkowski. I'm a big believer in the notion that a tight end that is a strong blocker with above average receiving skills is in a position to be a valuable fantasy producer because he'll be on the field more than an offensive specialist type. The only exceptions being the tight ends that seem to play almost exclusively as H-Backs and who also rarely leave the field. Hernandez has excellent offensive skills but is a liability as a blocker so he won't be an everydown player. Gronkowski is a strong blocker and also possesses mismatch opportunity for the offense. Hernandez is the superior offensive player but Gronkowski is the superior all around player. IMHO that makes Gronkowski the more valuable fantasy player due to increased opportunity and the ability to fool defenses. Hernandez while difficult to cover, won't surprise the defense. They know why he's in the game and what he'll be doing. With Gronkowski's ability to block he can also catch the D off guard and slip into routes where due to his size he's a huge target and a load to tackle. That's part of what makes him a great red zone option. He'll be lethal inside the 10 yard line his entire career. I think you can make an argument that some of Hernandez's effectiveness is tied to the fact that the Patriots have the luxury (due to Gronkowski) to use Hernandez solely as a pass catching threat because they have have a strong blocking tight end that can also provide protection. So Gronkowski actually makes Hernandez better. The opposite cannot be said.

fdctrumpet said:

To break it down, Hernandez was a run-blocker on 178 plays, Gronkowski on 447 plays. When I calculated their rating on a per play basis, Hernandez was even closer because he had less opportunities, landing close to the top-5 at the TE position. Gronkowski still ahead, but the difference was far less than the cumulative results on the season.

My point is that the two points that are made to prefer Gronkowski in this comparison are his blocking ability (I've proven it is not a huge difference based on a per play basis) and red zone production (skills), which Gronkowski only had a slight advantage in red zone production in 2010. Hernandez however has a huge advantage in the areas of athletic ability as a pure receiver, use as a joker in the modern tight end position and run after the catch capabilities.


Rob Gronkowski projections

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