What would an off-season tight end series be if we didn’t cover the biggest off-season tight end news in years – the return of the great and powerful Rob Gronkowski ?  The time has come.  We took a brief hiatus from deep dives to cover the all important NFL draft in a series of three articles which can be found here, here, and here but, now that the dust has settled and 2020 rosters have taken shape, it’s time to get back to analyzing individual tight end groups and making some kind of assessment for your fantasy needs.  And what better place to jump back in than taking a look at the lovable oaf that recently reunited with his buddy Tom on the most intriguing offense in football?

The Target Distribution Conundrum

One thing we’ve harped on again and again in our tight end analysis is how truly rare it is for one team to have three different players all with over 100 targets.  Not only that, but the fact that it’s even more rare for that trio to include a tight end.  So we figured it was high time we put a bit of that data into a context that was a little easier to digest. 

For starters, over the last five years, there have only been four instances of teams having three guys all with over 100 targets.  For those keeping track at home, that’s four out of 160 teams or 2.5%.  That’s just a bit worse than the odds of correctly picking a single number on a roulette table.  If you aren’t sure, ask your gambling buddies if that’s a smart bet. 

The last two teams to do it were the 2019 Panthers and 2018 Giants but both of those teams had the same composition of players involved which was two wide receivers and a runningback.  No tight end.  In 2017, no team had three players on the same team that all had over 100 targets.  So you have to go back to the 2016 Ravens to find an instance with the tight end involved.  Here is what that looked like in terms of fantasy.  

BAL - 2016 Points POS Rank Overall
Pitta 125.9 10 121
Wallace 166.8 23 75
Smith 148.9 39 95

In that season, the Ravens led the league in pass attempts with 679 (last season the Falcons led the league with 684).  Dennis Pitta had 121 targets, Mike Wallace had 116, and Steve Smith had 101, clearing that all important 100+ target threshold, but just barely.  And why is 100+ targets important? Well, we will tell you why.  Here are the best wide receiver finishes in PPR with less than 100 targets over the last five years.

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015
Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank
AJ Brown 21 Tyler Lockett 16 Stefon Diggs 19     Sammy Watkins 20
Stefon Diggs 24 Calvin Ridley 22 Nelson Agholor 22        
    Emmanuel Sanders 23 JuJu Smith-Schuster 23        

So, in a 12 man fantasy league, you have zero WR1s and nine WR2s in five years, the vast majority of which are field stretchers like Stefon Diggs and Tyler Locket.  If you want to change it to half point PPR you can add 2018 Mike Williams , 2017 Nelson Agholor , and 2016 Tyreek Hill , all of which finished outside the top 20.  It doesn’t change the narrative.  100 targets is the hard barrier to entry to be a WR1 and a soft one to be a WR2 given that 100 percent of the WR1s had 100 targets or more and 85 percent of the WR2s had 100 targets or more over the last five seasons.  That’s 93.5% of the top 24 receivers over five years in PPR or 90% in half point.  90+% is a number that I typically consider “almost all of them”. 

Here are the tight ends who finished as top five tight ends in PPR with less than 100 targets.

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015
Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank Player Rank
Mark Andrews 5         Jimmy Graham 4    
                   
                   

That’s the list.  And both Andrews and Graham had 95+ targets those years.  Andrews for instance needed 98 targets and 10 touchdowns just to finish as tight end five in PPR. Over that same five year span, every single top five tight end was either the number one target-getter on their team or number two. Every. One.

I don’t know if you have gathered by now but I’m a big tight end guy.  So in my 10 or 12 man leagues that have one tight end spot, you won’t see me drafting a guy and saying “I like him because his upside is tight end seven”.  In the wise words of Tom Hardy’s character in Inception, you mustn’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger, darling. 

I think at this point we have illustrated why being a top two target on a team is the best indicator that a player even has a chance at 100 targets. And why 100 targets is so important when determining the ceiling of that player.  Perfect. Now let’s tell you why Rob Gronkowski may be the rare exception to that rule we just worked so hard to lay out.     

Robert “Gronk” Gronkowski

Everyone knows that Gronk is a “special” guy but he’s special to us because he has broken one of our guidelines for elite tight ends on multiple occasions.  In fact he did it pretty consistently.  Annoying.  That of course is the rule of thumb that elite pass catching tight end should be blocking on no more than 10% of pass plays.  Now, it’s obviously not a hard and fast rule but it makes a lot of sense – if you are blocking on any more than one out of ten pass plays, you are missing a big chunk of the pass catching opportunities.  We want our tight ends to be part of the attack – not the protection.  Yet here is a list of the misdeeds of Rob Gronkowski

Year PPR TE Rank Pass Block %
2017 2 10.8%
2015 1 12.1%
2014 1 11.6%
2012 5 18.2%
2011 1 11.6%

What the heck Rob?  Most elite every-down tight ends like Zach Ertz or Travis Kelce fall within the preferred range of 5% to 10% which is expected for tight ends playing every play.  Neither has ever been higher than 8.2% and are typically closer to 5% than 10%.  Guys who are strictly pass catchers and come off the field at times for blocking situations block on even fewer pass plays like Mark Andrews (1.3%), Jared Cook (2.3%), and Eric Ebron (2.3%).  Blocking on a ton of pass plays yet catching a lot of passes really should be called the Gronk Exception (and henceforth, will be).  Gronk’s 2012 season may be the biggest anomaly in fantasy tight end history outside of the miraculous mislabeling of Marquise Colston as a tight end for his rookie season.  Gronk blocked on nearly one of every five pass plays he was in on and he still caught 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns, finishing as tight end 5 on the season.  Oh, and he missed FIVE GAMES. 

The closest thing e have to prime Gronk right now would be George Kittle , largely considered the best two way tight end in the league while challenging Travis Kelce for the title of best fantasy tight end as well.  What has allowed Gronk to overcome this is his high end efficiency metrics in other key areas.  In this article that I linked a couple paragraphs ago, we laid out some guidelines for identifying top tight ends.  And despite not meeting the pass blocking one,  Gronk has been hyper elite in two of the other categories making up for the perceive deficit.  Namely, his red zone prowess and his average depth of target. 

We don’t need to explain that Tom Brady knows how to throw it to Rob in the endzone so that Gronk can spike it like a drink from Sebastian Janikowski .  Instead let’s look at average depth of target.  One of the big issues with “blocking tight ends” beyond blocking more than they go out is that, when they do go out, they tend to stay close to the line of scrimmage.  Let’s take a look at the last couple years for some guys considered to be more of blocking tight ends versus pass catching tight ends.

  2019 2018
Jonnu Smith 5.8 5.3
Jack Doyle   6.5 5.3
Tyler Higbee 6.6 6.8
Travis Kelce 9 9.5
Eric Ebron 9.5 9.4
Jared Cook 10.4 8.3

There’s a pretty clear line between them.  The “blocking” tight ends clearly run their routes closer to the line of scrimmage while the pass catchers are getting down field.  Mark Andrews only had one year of data but you’d probably guess that he’s high too and you would be right – 10.6 yards on average per target.  Kyle Rudolph ? 6.4.  Hunter Henry ? 10.4.  Nick Boyle ? 6.1.  We could play this game all day but you get the deal.  That of course makes sense too since it’s easier to set a blocker up for play action or use them as a safety valve since the defense expects them to be blocking.  Or they just generally aren’t as good of route runners.  Either way, they are hanging at home about as much as we are during April and it’s simply harder to accumulate yards or friends that way.  Rob Gronkowski has a lot of yards and friends so here are his numbers in his recent seasons. 

2018 12.7
2017 12.1
2016 13.1
2015 10.4
2014 9.8
2013 10

Goin down town.  Thus is the nature of Gronk – he’s a great blocker so naturally they ask him to do that but when they ask him to go out, he goes full Miami Beach and goes “OUT out”.  So the shortage in routes run while blocking can be made up for with high efficiency route running and red zone prowess.  If he comes aback anything like the Gronk of yesteryear, that is. 

The Verdict

To be honest, this is a tricky one.  The existence of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on that team certainly limits Gronk’s upside.  The numbers are the numbers in terms of three guys getting elite targets and, barring injury to one of those two players, he certainly has a difficult path to being the best tight end in fantasy as he was very recently considered.  There is also obviously another tight end there, a pass catching back they just drafted, and a plethora of the smart, Caucasian slot guys that Tom Brady seems to love.  Did you know that Justin Watson went to Penn, an Ivy League school?  If not then you will hear it any time he catches a slant from Tom.   

Gronk’s not only coming off a year without football but he also has a limited training camp with the COVID 19 pandemic.  Typically a situation like that limits his upside to being definitively outside the top 5 and likely even outside the top 10 but, given his rapport with Brady, his efficiency, and the trend away from elite tight ends in general, Rob Gronkowski is the one guy who could find a way to sneak into the top 5 with a heavy dose of touchdowns.  If Brady comes out gunning, that offense could be potent and Gronk could be capping a lot of drives with his signature spike.  Just remind him the cannons on the pirate ship go off when he scores and that should up his TD rate 10%.  Sure he’s older now but he just turned 31 yesterday and he’s had a year of rest so he’s not ancient.  Jason Witten was 37 last year and he caught 63 balls and scored four touchdowns.  Coming off a year with no football.  To finish as tight end 11 in PPR and make me look stupid.  I feel like that is somehow Jim Bowden’s fault. 

My recommendation is that any tight end with a clear path to being top two in targets on their team likely needs to come off the board before Gronk.  Evans and Godwin simply loom too heavily.  At minimum, as of the writing of this article, those tight ends would be Kelce, Kittle, Ertz, Andrews, and Waller.  We aren’t necessarily doing full rankings yet because it’s May, but I’d have a hard time taking him over Evan Engram or Hunter Henry at the very least as well.  These guys are football players in their prime who have been playing football while Gronk has been wearing turtlenecks and drinking Mai Tais.  After that you are entering a world where there are question marks on everyone and guys facing the same target distribution issues that Gronk should face so you’re no longer crazy to consider him.  At any given time he has the ceiling of 10+ touchdowns, especially playing with Tom Brady .  Just remember that, for the first time since he was a rookie, Gronk has a low floor and it’s not just based on his typical injury risk. 

Oh yeah and I feel like I should say something about O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate here too.

No.

Statistics for this article were provided by the author, Andrew Cooper, with help from ProFootballFocus.com, PlayerProfiler.com, ProFootballRefence.com, AirYards.com, and SharpFootballStats.com. Follow Coop on Twitter @CoopAFiasco.