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Spotlight: Rob Gronkowski

posted by Jason Wood on Jul 31st


Jason Wood's thoughts

Let's talk a little bit about "regression to the mean." In the realm of statistics, it refers to the concept that random outlier fluctuations in a sample set tend to move closer to the mean (average) outcome over time. In fantasy terms, it's also known as one of the most overused and bastardized notions in the field of football analysis. Seeing as how this is a player spotlight article and not a statistics term paper, we're not going to get into the finer points of why "regression to the mean" doesn't work as well as many would have you believe, but here are the important points to remember:

  • Football is a sport of small sample sizes - small sample pools are not generally useful in leveraging the concept of regression to the mean
  • Fantasy owners tend to pick and choose which players they're going to discount because of "regression to the mean" - negating the theoretical value of the concept

What does this have to do with Rob Gronkowski? Well, simply put, Gronkowski's critics are arguing that last year's season was so extraordinary that he'll HAVE TO regress this year, and therefore not justify his current lofty average draft position (14th overall, 1st tight end off the board).

A Season for the Ages
Everyone knows that Rob Gronkowski had a great season last year, but you may not realize just how exceptional his 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns rank historically.

Rank First Last Year Recs Yards YPR TDs FPTs
1 Rob Gronkowski 2011 90 1,327 14.7 17 240.9
2 Dave Parks 1965 80 1,344 16.8 12 206.4
3 Jimmy Graham 2011 99 1,310 13.2 11 197.0
4 Todd Christensen 1983 92 1,247 13.6 12 196.7
5 Kellen Winslow 1980 89 1,290 14.5 9 183.0
6 Mike Ditka 1961 56 1,076 19.2 12 179.6
7 Vernon Davis 2009 78 965 12.4 13 174.5
8 Jackie Smith 1967 56 1,205 21.5 9 174.5
9 Antonio Gates 2004 81 964 11.9 13 174.4
10 Tony Gonzalez 2000 93 1,203 12.9 9 174.3
11 Dallas Clark 2009 100 1,106 11.1 10 171.7
12 Antonio Gates 2005 89 1,101 12.4 10 170.1
13 Tony Gonzalez 2004 102 1,258 12.3 7 168.3
14 Kellen Winslow 1981 88 1,075 12.2 10 167.5
15 Shannon Sharpe 1996 80 1,062 13.3 10 166.2
16 Tony Gonzalez 2008 96 1,058 11.0 10 165.8
17 Kellen Winslow 1983 88 1,172 13.3 8 165.2
18 Antonio Gates 2009 79 1,157 14.7 8 163.7
19 Todd Christensen 1986 95 1,153 12.1 8 163.3
20 Ben Coates 1994 96 1,174 12.2 7 159.4

Last year Rob Gronkowski scored more fantasy points than any tight end in history. In fact, he scored 17% more points than the next best ever (and I'm guessing Dave Parks' 1965 heroics predate most of our fantasy experience), and 38% more than the prior "modern era" record held by Vernon Davis in 2009.

Defining the "Mean"
The argument against taking Rob Gronkowski in the early 2nd round is that you're overpaying for a career season. That's not ENTIRELY illogical. After all, when you have a season that it's an order of magnitude better than anyone else to ever play the position; it's a better bet that his performance will come back down to Earth. But where the "regression to the mean" argument falls flat is...HOW DO WE DEFINE THE MEAN?

  • Is the mean the average points scored by the top fantasy tight end?
  • Is the mean the average points scored by tight ends playing with Tom Brady at quarterback?
  • Is the mean the average points scored by Gronkowski?
  • Is the mean the average points scored by Top 5 fantasy tight ends?

When you can't define what "mean" you're referring to, how can you possibly discount a player on the basis of regressing to it?

I would argue that Gronkowski is unlikely to match last year's totals; but it's hardly impossible. After all, he's just 23 years old, is entering his third season (typically still a period of growth for NFL players), and plays on an offense that has a Hall of Fame quarterback, a proven coaching staff, and has little to no incentive to change what it's doing until teams can learn to stop it.

How Low Can You Go?
The question everyone should be asking is how much can Gronkowski's stat line regress in 2012 and still justify selecting him as the top overall tight end in the early to mid-second round of redraft leagues?

Let's examine:

#1 Ranked Fantasy TE (2006-2010)

First Last Year Recs Yards YPR TDs FPTs
Jason Witten 2010 94 1,002 10.7 9.0 154.2
Vernon Davis 2009 78 965 12.4 13.0 174.5
Tony Gonzalez 2008 96 1,058 11.0 10.0 165.8
Jason Witten 2007 96 1,145 11.9 7.0 156.5
Antonio Gates 2006 71 924 13.0 9.0 146.4
Average #1 87 1,019 11.7 9.6 159.5

Over the five prior seasons, the # fantasy tight end averaged 159.5 fantasy points (non-PPR), and netted just north of 1,000 yards and just shy of 10 touchdowns. Put that into context of Gronkowski's 2011 feats:

5-Year Average 06-10 87 1,019 11.7 9.6 159.5
Rob Gronkowski 2011 90 1,327 14.7 17.0 240.9
Differential -3.3% -23.2% -20.6% -43.5% -33.8%

In other words, Gronkowski could suffer a 34% decline in his overall productivity, and STILL be likely to finish atop the fantasy standings.

Enough Stats, Don't Forget to Use Your Eyeballs
I love statistical analysis as much as anyone. I think statistics are an integral part of the fantasy football process. Yet, they're not the end all be all. You HAVE to balance your data analysis against empirical study of what ACTUALLY HAPPENS ON THE FIELD. If you haven't done so, take some time to go back and watch the Patriots games from last season. You won't see a lumbering tight end that happened to luck into a bunch of short yardage touchdowns. You will see a dominant, fluid athlete that leveraged a combination of strength, chemistry, spacing, body control and athleticism to dominate in a way no one else ever has. Opposing teams had no answer for him. And it wasn't like they weren't trying. He routinely beat linebackers, safeties, corners (yes, he was matched up against corners at times), double teams, shifts, and on and on. Show me a situation on film that Gronkowski didn't handle well and I'll ask you how long it took you to doctor the video in Photoshop.

The reason your eyeballs matter is because it helps frame how absurd the argument becomes that Gronkowski is due for some massive drop off. Will he catch 17 touchdowns again? Probably not. Randy Moss didn't after his big year. Calvin Johnson probably won't either. But is there every reason to think he can score double digit TDs again? Sure, why not? Remember, Gronkowski scored 10 touchdowns as a rookie on just 59 targets.

OK, You've Convinced Me He's Special - But What About His Health and Focus?
Gronkowski suffered multiple ligament tears in his ankle prior to the Super Bowl, and underwent surgery shortly thereafter. He was also visible throughout the offseason in a variety of settings - including some celebrity-infused party settings. I would argue neither are a major concern. As to the injury, Gronkowski sat out OTAs and mini-camps, but neither he nor the doctors ever waivered from their initial timetable. Importantly, he was fully cleared for the start of training camp and hasn't been limited in any way in early practices. As to the partying...he's a 23-year old, single male with newfound fame. There is ZERO evidence that anything he's done is out of the ordinary. Ask yourselves this question, would Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have re-signed Gronkowski to a 6-year, $54 million extension if they had ANY concerns about his maturity, work ethic, or health?

Positives

  • Gronkowski produced the best season by a tight end in NFL history, in only his second year. At 23 years old, in his prime, there's very little reason to argue for a major regression as long as he remains healthy and Tom Brady is under center
  • The addition of WR Brandon Lloyd will lengthen the field, and the targets aimed at Lloyd are not likely to come at the expense of Gronkowski, but rather from Aaron Hernandez (the move TE that lines up as a receiver much of the time) and the other wide receivers on the roster
  • Tom Brady is one of the most accurate, productive quarterbacks in league history

Negatives

  • Armed with a huge new contract, coming off ankle surgery, and enjoying the celebrity life could argue for a lack of conditioning and focus this year (even though early training camp reports argue against this conclusion)
  • The Patriots have never been afraid to alter their game plan in order to take advantage of league inefficiencies. The addition of Brandon Lloyd could have unexpected effect on the passing targets for everyone else on the roster
  • Given his ADP (14th overall), Gronkowski has to deliver #1 numbers (or a close approximation) to live up to your draft day expectations

Final thoughts

After Gronkowski's rookie season, the fantasy world was divided. Many thought he was a byproduct of an inordinate number of touchdown catches, and that he was less athletic and less likely to deliver huge all around numbers than his teammate Aaron Hernandez. Last year all those expectations were shattered when Gronkowski emerged as one of the best players at any position; shattering all prior fantasy expectations for the position.

It's never wise to bank on historic numbers being repeated, but that's much different than discounting them completely under a false understanding of "regression to the mean." The simple fact is Gronkowski could suffer a 35%-40% decline in his production and STILL be the #1 fantasy tight end. That's the very definition of high ceiling/high floor.

Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are both capable (and likely) to put up numbers that are as good as any WIDE RECEIVER you're going to draft, yet you're getting even more value because of what the other members of your league will get from their TE slot each week. As long as he suffers no setbacks with his ankle in camp, draft Gronkowski with confidence as a cornerstone of your 2012 team.


Quotations from the message board thread

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

Bayhawks said:

With the addition of a more legitimate #2 WR in NE, Gronkowski doesn't seem likely to see 144 targets like last year. In addition, NE doesn't seem likely to throw the all 600+ times again. That being said, NE's run game is not proven, so I would expect more than the 520 attempts that Josh McDaniels' QBs have averaged the last 3 years; the total will probably be more like the 570 attempts that NE averaged when McDaniels was their OC. Last year Gronkowski was targeted on 24% of NE's passing attempts. With Lloyd, I expect them to take a few more deep shots this year, so let's drop that down to about 19%. Out of 570 attempts, that would be 110 targets. Last year he caught 63% of the passes thrown at him, his rookie year, it was 71%. His hands are pretty solid, and with the addition of Lloyd as a deep threat, it will be more difficult for teams to double him with a safety all the time. I'll say his catch % goes up, slightly, to 65%. That would equal 72 catches. Last year his YPC was 14.7. I'll factor in a lower YPC this year, 13.5. He is a red-zone beast, and I don't see that changing. I would expect 12 TDs this year, with the target & catch numbers I've projected.

wdcrob said:

Gronk is, by a mile, the best skill position player on the Patriots not named Brady but the supporting cast did get a bit better with the addition of Lloyd. However, studs get theirs and I think that Lloyd affects Hernandez and the other WRs more than Gronk. So I think he'll see a similar number of targets and catch % this year as he did last. He's averaged a TD every five receptions over his career so far, but that just seems an impossible rate to continue so I'll ding both that and his WR-like 14.7 per reception a bit to get to 90-1200-15. In PPR leagues he should be a lock for 100 VBD points and a redraft selection no later than the 1/2 turn.

sspunisher said:

Taking Gronk in the 1st round is one of the ballsiest strategies in fantasy this year. I have a feeling that many will regret it, especially those who are taking him ahead stud RBs that belong in the 1st round and then pairing him with Graham in the 2nd. One thing I will say is that there are handful of breakout players this year that actually make this a valid strategy. But the risk is immense if you don't get your hands on those players, and any semi-educated fantasy league will have many of the owners targeting these players. Personally I think it's a huge risk and I'd rather limit risk in $ leagues.

Another problem is, even if you get your hands on most of these "breakout players," they will most likely start slow before having that "out of nowhere" breakout that we see every single year. Some Gronk Round 1/Graham Round 2 teams might put themselves in a hole when the season starts.

As for projections, I'm not nearly as optimistic about him as others are. The ankle injury wasn't serious, but playing the massive amount of snaps that Gronk does (on a New England offense which probably leads the leagues in offensive plays), I wouldn't be surprised if he starts to earn an "injury risk" label. Also, he's now the defense's #1 priority. Defenses will focus on Gronk, opening things up for Welker, Hernandez and Lloyd. I expect receptions and yards to go way down. Redzone TDs will be his bread and butter, but the RB situation is the wildcard here. There's some great talent there and if they pan out, they'll significantly cut into those numbers.

TheDirtyWord said:

Of all the standout seasons that were had in 2011, noones IMO was more impactful for their owners than Gronkowski who probably was drafted in the 8th round or later for all his owners and at a position where you are usually happy to get 750/7, Gronkowski established a new ceiling benchmark for what was possible at the position. He's young - probably has many more years left in his prime and from what I'm seeing, people aren't just predicting a pullback...they're predicting an epic pullback. I would not be so quick to discount Gronk's numbers as such an aberration.

1) He had 124 targets. That's less than 8/game and represented 20.2% of all of the targets. This is more than replicatable and it seems to lend credence to the idea that he wasn't overexploited by NE. If you were to ask yourself the question "Is Gronkowski likely to be targeted 124 times in 2011?" - wouldn't you think probably?

2) At 6'6 265 with great hands and good speed for the position, he's a mismatch anywhere on the field. But in the red zone? Deadly - even in his rookie year, when his per game production was much less than Year 2, his red zone production was off the charts. Career; 30 receptions, 21 TD's in this area of the field.

No doubt the Patriots passing game last year seemed to be the NFL's version of Two & a Half Men...(bad joke...I know). But I would think that the player who would suffer in the target re-distribution that NE seems likely to undergo with the addition of Brandon Lloyd would be Wes Welker (172) and Deion Branch (90). Fact is, on a per game basis, Gronkowski even finished behind Aaron Hernandez.

Also, many people are also thinking Brady comes back down to the 550 attempt area? I know he finished with 492 attempts in 2010. But the final 7 games of that season, he averaged less than 27 attempts/game. That's a ludicrously low 16 game projection of 427 attempts. With inexperienced RB's in Vereen/Ridley likely leading the way in the rushing attack, I can't see the Patriots shifting too much away from a 60:40 pass/run ratio, especially after the every down emergence of Gronkowski/Hernandez. Remember, the Patriots passing game went through a significant adjustment when they cut loose Randy Moss in 2010. It's not surprising that perhaps the lower number of attempts that season for them was due in part to Brady getting used to relying on weapons other than Welker (who himself was coming off an ACL tear). And even if he does come back down to 550 attempts, that only brings Gronk's % of targets figure up to 22.6%. Not absurd in the least given his skillset.

Thus, unless Gronk is dealing with injuries, I suspect he'll still be a huge monster for the Pats in the passing game and I do think he's worth his ADP. In fact, with a late 2nd round ADP currently, he may even outproduce it.


Rob Gronkowski projections

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