Darling To Dud – Rob Gronkowski Won’t Return Draft Day Value

I won’t have Rob Gronkowski on many of my fantasy teams this year.  It’s not that I don’t like the New England Patriots tight end – he was a cornerstone of more than a few 2011 championship rosters – but this year his price tag is too rich for my blood.

Last year you could get Gronk cheap – he was going in the 10th to 12th rounds in traditional redraft leagues and his auction value was scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Last year’s Gronk owners stockpiled talent at other positions and took a lottery ticket on one of the last tight ends off the board.  This year Gronk is a luxury item.  If you want to lock in his upside, you’re going to have to pay.  He’s going in the first two rounds of many redrafts and his auction value is through the roof.  Picking Gronk this year means that instead of filling your stable of running backs and wide receivers, you will watch backs and wideouts (the traditional backbone of championship teams) fly off the board.  You’ll have to hope you can make up the difference at tight end.

Sure, last year’s lottery ticket paid off.  Gronk had perhaps the best fantasy season ever for a tight end, setting single season tight end touchdown and yardage records.  If you can get last year’s stats from Gronk, the gamble will be worth it.  But if Gronk comes back to earth, and there are many reasons to believe he will, that massive investment you made in him could sink your fantasy team.

Record-setting seasons like Gronk’s 2011 are difficult to repeat.  Remember when LaDainian Tomlinson passed the single season touchdown mark back in 2006?  His 31 total rushing and receiving touchdowns (to go along with two passing TDs) propelled many fantasy teams to a title.  In 2007, owners drafted LT expecting something approaching his 2006 heroics.  His next season was good by most standards –  he clocked in at 18 total rushing and receiving touchdowns (with one passing TD) in a full 16 game season and ended up atop the fantasy running back leader boards – but a lot of owners were disappointed that LT’s 2007 output was 100 points or more less than his 2006 fantasy totals.

Similar stories played out the last two times a tight end set or tied the single season touchdown mark.  In 2004, Antonio Gates set a new single season tight end TD record by hauling in 13 scores.  Gates’ mark was matched in 2009 by Vernon Davis.  Gates and Davis are two of the best tight ends in recent memory.  If anyone was going to keep scoring at prolific levels, it would be them.  Still, both guys followed their record-setting campaigns with a significant drop in TD production despite playing in the same number of games – Gates went from 13 TDs to 10 the next year and Davis only managed to pull in 7 TDs after matching Gates’ record.  Gates maintained most of his 2004 value in 2005 by increasing his yardage totals, but Davis owners were let down when 2009’s number one fantasy tight end fell back to the pack in 2010.

Gronk already set the single season yardage record for a tight end.  It’ll be difficult for him to match his 2011 output now that there are more mouths to feed in New England.  Even the great Tom Brady only has one football to work with and the balls going to new Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd will have to come from somewhere.  True, Chad Ochocinco was in Foxboro last season and managed only 15 receptions, allowing Gronk and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez to steal the show.  But Lloyd has spent the last two seasons excelling in the New England-esque offense Josh McDaniels installed in Denver and St. Louis.  It’s hard to believe that with McDaniels and Lloyd together again in New England, Lloyd won’t receive some of those vertical targets that Gronk pulled down last year.  Even if Lloyd only takes a few balls from each pass catcher, any reduction in Gronk’s workload could bring him back to the rest of the tight end pack.  Remember, being the best fantasy tight end is not enough to justify Gronk’s draft status.  For your investment to pay off, he has to be so far ahead of most tight ends that you make up whatever production you lose at running back or wide receiver by sinking a high pick at tight end.  Last year he was.  This year, it’s not so clear.

Don’t forget, defenses have had an off season to prepare for Gronk.  He’s a freak so there may not be much they can do, but every little bit counts when you’re expecting a player to repeat historic numbers.  Also, every team in the league spent this summer dreaming of ways to turn their tight end into the next Gronk.  I think we’re going to see an uptick in tight end production as other offenses incorporate some of the plays New England used to exploit unsuspecting defenses last year.  Jared Cook in Tennessee, Fred Davis in Washington and Jacob Tamme in Denver jump out as a few of the guys who could join the elite tight end class this year.  If a few more tight ends play at high levels, you’ll look silly for spending a ton to get Gronk when late round fliers are pulling in tons of points.

Don’t pay for last year’s production. Gronk’s 2012 certainly could look a lot like his 2011, but chances are it’s at least slightly off the pace. He could even be one of the top tight ends and still not return value where he is going in drafts.  If Gronk’s production drops or the rest of the tight end field comes up to meet him, the hit you had to take at running back and wide receiver to get him could be the difference between winning your league and watching your friends duke it out for the title.  Just ask the guy who locked up Antonio Gates early last year.

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