Fantasy Football: The Curious Case of Rob Gronkowski in Round 1

When debating the optimal fantasy football draft strategy for the 2016 season, one will inevitably consider drafting New England Patriots‘ tight end Rob Gronkowski in the first round. The reasons in support of this selection are, on the surface, very convincing. First, Gronkowski will be the best tight end in fantasy football for the upcoming season. Second, he plays on a team that will be a Super Bowl contender in 2016.  Third, he catches passes from one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Tom Brady and is the best tight end red zone target in football. Fourth, he will be so much more productive than any other tight end that drafting him in round one gives you an incredible advantage over all competitors. These are all completely clear and concise arguments. However, there is one slight problem:

All of those statements are false.

The Curious Case of Drafting Rob Gronkowski in Round 1 of Your Fantasy Draft

1.  Rob Gronkowski will be the best tight end in fantasy football for the upcoming season.

How many times has Rob Gronkowski finished as the number one fantasy football tight end in his seven year career? Three (2011, 2014, and 2015). How many times has Rob Gronkowski finished as the number one fantasy football tight end without Brady as the quarterback? Zero. Currently, Brady is scheduled to miss the first four games of the season due to his Deflategate suspension. All the diehard Patriots‘ fans will argue that backup quarterback Jimmy Garappolo is a fantastic replacement. But where is the data to support that conclusion? The Eastern Illinois University product has career NFL stats of: 20 for 31, 188 yards, and one touchdown. While many will cite the 2008 season of former Patriots’ backup quarterback Matt Cassel as the harbinger of Garappolo’s success, there is a difference between Patriots’ team success and individual fantasy football success. Is it reasonable to conclude that losing a future Hall of Fame quarterback for 29% of the fantasy football regular season (31% if your playoffs start week 13), could cause Gronkowski to drop in the tight end rankings at year’s end? It’s not just reasonable, it is likely. Unless, of course, you believe the Patriots offense will perform just as well with Garappolo as it did with Brady. Good luck with that argument.

2. Rob Gronkowski plays for a team that will be a NFL contender in 2016.

Let us turn our attention to Las Vegas to support the counter argument here.  The Patriots have won 12 or more games each of the past six years. Their current Over/Under win total for this year as per the Las Vegas sports books is 10.5 wins. Obviously, they are predicting a Patriots regression, and that means this may not be the typical year we are used to seeing out of New England. No Brady for four games, and an offense that had a terrible running game in 2015 (30th overall)? Could the Patriots be a championship contender? Absolutely.  Will they be a championship contender without Tom Brady for four games?  Uncertain. And that uncertainty doesn’t support the round one fantasy selection of Gronkowski.

3.  Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end red zone target in football.

Here are the tight end red zone targets from the 2015 season (nflsavant.com):

Rank Name Team Comp Targets Comp % TDs
1 Gary Barnidge CLE 9 24 37.5 8
2 Jordan Reed WAS 16 23 69.57 11
3 Greg Olsen CAR 13 21 61.9 6
4 Rob Gronkowski NE 11 20 55 7
5 Benjamin Watson NO 12 19 63.16 6
6 Richard Rodgers GB 12 18 66.67 8
7 Delanie Walker TEN 14 17 82.35 4
8 Tyler Eifert CIN 12 16 75 11

Gronkowski was fourth in red zone targets and fifth in touchdowns. However, he did end 2015 as the top ranked tight end, and was tied for second with 11 overall touchdowns. This means his ranking was bolstered by yardage (1,176 yards, first overall) and non-red zone touchdowns (six, most overall). Both of these numbers will clearly suffer without Tom Brady for four games. Also, besides Gary Barnidge, the red zone completion percentage was lowest to Gronkowski at 55%. It would be foolish to not predict a drop off without Brady throwing the passes near the goal line.

4.  Drafting Rob Gronkowski in round one will give you a huge advantage

It is this last argument that needs to be explored in detail.  Those that support drafting Gronkowski in round one will argue the “value-based drafting” idea. The person that selects him will get a player that holds significant value over every other player at the tight end position.  While there are other players (running backs, wide receivers) who will score more individual fantasy points, the other tight ends will score well below what Gronkowski will over the course of the entire season, therefore he should be drafted in round one.  Let’s examine the seasons where Gronkowski actually finished as the TE1:

Year Targets Rec Yds TDs FPTS Pts > TE2 PTS Per Week >TE2
2015 120 72 1176 11 183 25 1.79
2014 131 82 1124 12 177 30 2.14
2011 124 90 1327 18 232 45 3.21

The 2011 season was historically great.  In fact, Gronkowski finished not only as the top tight end but would have been the second best wide receiver (behind Calvin Johnson). In that season, Gronkowski was absolutely worth a first round pick. But in the last two seasons, the difference between his fantasy point total and that of the rest of the available tight ends has gotten smaller, while the number of elite fantasy wide receivers and running backs has also been drastically reduced. It isn’t so much that you are picking Gronkowski, but rather the players you are not selecting in round one that becomes the issue. Here are the actual draft results (first five rounds) from a person who drafted Gronkowski in round one of a twelve team, standard scoring league in 2015:

Round  Selection Player Position Rank Players Missed
 Rank
1 9 Rob Gronkowksi TE TE1 Adrian Peterson RB2
Antonio Brown WR1
Odell Beckham WR5
Demaryious Thomas WR13
2 16 Matt Forte RB RB9 AJ Green WR8
Julio Jones WR2
Calvin Johnson WR9
Lamar Miller RB6
Brandin Cooks WR12
Mark Ingram RB15
Emmanuel Sanders WR18
3 33 Andre Johnson WR WR59 Greg Olsen TE4
Golden Tate WR34
4 40 Jordan Matthews WR WR20 DeAndre Hopkins WR6
Jarvis Landry WR16
Chris Ivory RB8
Amari Cooper WR23
Jonathan Stewart RB17
5 57 Russell Wilson QB QB3 Brandon Marshall WR3

Overall, the drafter did a decent job after round one. He got an RB9 in Forte in round two to go with the TE1 of Gronkowski. The problem, however, is illustrated clearly  after that selection. This was a three wide receiver league, which meant he had to draft perfectly in the subsequent rounds because he missed out on the top wide receivers. His round three Andre Johnson selection bombed, which meant the Jordan Matthews pick (decent at WR20) was diluted because that was his best wide receiver. He missed out on Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, etc. Wilson provided a great last five game stretch, which only allowed a late season push to an overall 5-9 record. Unless Gronkowski produced a 2011-esque season, he was in trouble from the very start.

The “value based” argument also takes a hit when you look at the production of the other tight ends.  Gronkowski’s competition has been creeping closer. Look at the average draft positions of the top ten tight ends from last year:

 

Rank Name FPTS ADP
1 Rob Gronkowski, NE 183 12.8
2 Gary Barnidge, CLE 158 >300
3 Jordan Reed, WAS 157 168.31
4 Greg Olsen, CAR 150 53.7
5 Delanie Walker, TEN 149 115.33
6 Tyler Eifert, CIN 139 114.6
7 Travis Kelce, KC 117 55.7
8 Benjamin Watson, NO 116 210.1
9 Richard Rodgers, GB 102 173.3
10 Zach Ertz, PHI 95 102.5

Both Delanie Walker and Tyler Eifert were selected on average in round nine, meaning they could have been paired in the early rounds with a top wide receiver and running back, or even two top wide receivers. It is extremely difficult to find top ten receivers or backs in round nine or later. It was a much better draft strategy to pick a top wide receiver or running back in round 1, and wait until later to select a tight end.  Even though Gronkowski had a great year, getting an extra 1.79 points per week at the tight end position simply didn’t justify the first round selection.

To summarize, there is no doubt Rob Gronkowski is the premier tight end in fantasy football. He plays in a great offense, for a great coach, and is a high reception, yardage, and touchdown producing player. However, as you strategize for the 2016 fantasy football draft, please keep the following sentence in mind. Unless you feel certain that Rob Gronkowski will finish as the TE1 and that he’ll be at least three fantasy points per week better than any of the other tight end options, it would be a smarter fantasy football draft strategy to pass on him in round one.