Tom Brady’s Suspension, Rob Gronkowski, And Run-Heavy Schemes
May 12, 2015 | C.D. Carter
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The central fantasy-centric question in the wake of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension is this: how will Brady’s absence impact a month’s worth of production from Rob Gronkowski, who’s being valued as a top-6 re-draft pick.
The foundation of said concern is that New England, without their unofficial official head of deflation, will resort to a run-heavy offensive attack, mitigating the potential errors of backup signal caller Jimmy Garappolo during the season’s first four weeks. The question, making such an assumption, becomes: Can Gronkowski be the same dominant force for the season’s first month even if the Patriots commit to grinding it out one hand off at a time, counting the minutes — the seconds — until Brady’s return.
Predicting any offensive scheme — especially a Bill Belichick one — is something between ambitious and foolhardy. Is it impossible that the Patriots run some version of a spread offense with Garappolo primarily in shotgun? Is it unfathomable that Patriots game planners will create a nice, safe scheme designed to make their backup quarterback efficient and somewhat mistake free, without leaning on the run?
We know that Brady is a starkly different fantasy producer with Gronkowski in the lineup, as Tommy notches about 7.5 fewer fantasy points — and a full touchdown toss less — with Gronk on the shelf.
This is the season of (good and bad) assumptions, however, so I wanted to look at games in which New England went decidedly run heavy and how that approach impacted Gronk’s opportunity and production. Opportunity, after all, is a key component of any player’s output, especially tight ends. Tight ends who don’t run somewhere around 25 routes per game are decidedly risky propositions.
I examined Patriots games from 2013 and 2014 in large part because it might be misleading to include games during the Aaron Hernandez era. The team’s offense was most definitely different with Hernandez on the field, with Patriots coaches scrambling for ways to replace or compensate for Hernandez’s permanent absence. It should be noted that Gronk’s myriad injuries — his forearm, his back, his knee, his head, both pinkie toes — aren’t factored into this analysis.
Below are Gronk’s numbers in games that saw the Patriots run the ball almost, as much, or more than they passed during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
|Year/Week||Targets||Receptions||Yards||Touchdowns||Pass routes||Run blocks|
|2013 Week 8||5||2||27||0||23||11|
|2013 Week 9||10||9||143||1||28||21|
|2014 Week 2||5||4||32||0||14||12|
|2014 Week 5||11||6||100||1||31||32|
|2014 Week 11||5||4||71||1||25||36|
|2014 Week 15||6||3||96||1||33||24|
|2014 Week 16||10||6||31||1||23||3|
|2014 Week 20||8||3||28||1||33||35|
Gronkowski’s average production in games that saw the Patriots resort to all sorts of grounding and pounding isn’t all that bad: he scores 15.7 PPR fantasy points and runs a good number of routes. If you could sign up for your fantasy tight end to run 26 routes a game, you certainly would.
The concern about Gronk’s role in a Brady-less New England offense is closely related to his run blocking acumen. That makes sense. Or rather, it made sense until recently. Gronk, after finishing as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 ranked run-blocking tight end in 2010, took the top-ranked run-blocking spot in 2011. PFF rated him the NFL’s fifth best run-blocking tight end in 2012.
Then there was a marked drop off.
Run-blocking grades are subjective, of course, and I’ve seen more than a few reasonable arguments for discounting any sort of player grading, whether it’s judging a guy’s pass route running, pass blocking or run blocking. With that giant grain of salt, it’s worth noting that PFF rated Gronkowski the league’s No. 29 run-blocking tight end in 2013, and the 31st best in the 2014 season.
Perhaps this is linked to the way in which the gargantuan tight end was deployed in the Patriots offense after his horrifying knee injury, or some other aspect of the New England attack that was tweaked when Gronk finally returned to the starting lineup.
The fact remains: Gronkowski, over the past two years, has been rated as anything but a dominant run blocker. Maybe that’ll quell the fears of fantasy owners ready and willing to draft Gronk as a top-6 pick who fear his once-dominant run blocking ways will make him a stud in point-per-block formats, but nothing else.
The above numbers should also offer confidence to Gronk enthusiasts that even in contests that see New England run as much or more than they pass, he converts a limited number of targets into pretty good output. The red zone maven scored six touchdowns in the eight games examined above, despite occasionally little usage.
Gronkowski in 2014 converted 18 red zone targets into an incredible 12 catches and nine touchdowns. He scored on fully half the red zone looks he saw from Brady. The lesson: No matter what approach the Patriots take during the season’s first four weeks, Gronk remains the NFL’s premiere red zone target, and for good reason.
That might be reason enough not to wet your pants this season if and when you go all in on Gronkowski in the first half of the first round in re-draft leagues.