When Gronkowski plays a full season, or the majority of one, he's money in the bank. He's ranked first, fifth, first and first in tight-end PPR scoring in his four most productive seasons, and one of those years was only an 11-game campaign. His touchdown rate was oddly down last year, but he also averaged a ridiculous 21.6 yards per catch. With Tom Brady still churning along at a high rate, Gronkowski enters every season as a threat to score double-digit touchdowns. But the obvious fly in the ointment is that Gronk gets hurt, a lot. He missed 24 games in the last five years, with a laundry list of injuries: forearm, back, hip, hamstring. Last year it was a strained back, a punctured lung and a pectoral strain. Gronkowski looked healthy at press time; he was a full participant at May OTAs, and the team didn't even bother to hold him out of rain-marred practice sessions. Spring is the most optimistic time on the NFL calendar, but it's encouraging to see Gronkowski doing his thing without reservation. Tight end is one of the biggest collision positions in the NFL, so almost anyone you grab is going to be subject to risk. Are you upside- or floor-driven with your early picks? That probably answers how to approach Gronkowski in 2017.
Another chapter was added to the Legend of Gronk last season. Gronkowski set an NFL record for tight ends with his fifth double-digit TD season, averaged 16.3 YPC to tie (Vernon Davis) for the highest of any 50-catch TE since 1979 and led the position in yards for the third time in his career, a number only three TE since the merg-er have exceeded. And those three - Tony Gonzalez (7), Shannon Sharpe (5), Todd Christensen (4)- needed 17, 14 and 10 seasons, respectively. Gronk has played six (and two were cut short by injury). He led TE last season with five 100-yard games (no other had more than three) and never went more than two weeks without scoring. He also led the position with 22 catches of 20-plus yards (4th in the NFL) and five of 40-plus. All of which is to illustrate the obvious – Gronk is unstoppable. His burst in and out of cuts, huge catch radius, massive hands, speed and size are too much for slower linebackers and smaller DBs, whether it's at the goal line (11 targets inside the 10, five TDs) or in the open field (549 YAC, 1st). A knee injury cost him Week 13, but health is less a concern this year after consecutive 15-game seasons. And while the Patriots signed Martellus Bennett, the last time Gronk shared the position for a full season - in 2011 with Aaron Hernandez - he went 90-1,327-17.
Gronkowski's status as the league's best tight end was never doubted, but his durability entering last season caused the risk-averse to hesitate after he missed 14 games the previous two years and was coming off ACL and MCL surgeries. Gronkowski was still getting healthy when the season started last year and averaged just three receptions for 37 yards in the first four games as Tom Brady and the offense struggled with the team's playmaker at less than 100 percent. It didn't take long for him to put injury concerns to rest, however. Weeks 5-16 he averaged six catches and 88 yards a game. He also scored nine touchdowns in that span as his surgically repaired knee was no concern. Gronkowski led tight ends in yards, touchdowns (tied) and catches of 20-plus yards (19), and he did it in 15 games because he sat out a meaningless Week 17. At 6-6, 265, with 4.68 speed, a huge wingspan (34-inch arms) and good leaping ability (34-inch vertical), Gronkowski is simply uncoverable. He's too fast for linebackers and too big and physical for defensive backs. The Patriots line him up in tight, in the slot and split wide, creating mismatches he easily exploits. In the red zone he is nearly unstoppable, catching 11 of 16 targets for nine touchdowns last season. With Jimmy Graham now in a run-first offense in Seattle, Gronkowski is in a tier of his own.
Gronkowski missed the first six games last year recovering from forearm and back surgeries stemming from the previous season and then missed the last three weeks after tearing his ACL and MCL. The seven weeks between, though, were an incredible display of sheer talent. Over 16 games, Gronkowski's yardage pace would have broken his own NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end set in 2011. His 11.9 fantasy points a game ranked second to only Jimmy Graham (13.6). His 10 plays of 20-plus yards ranked eighth -- or the same number Julius Thomas had in twice as many games. More telling for the Patriots, their passing offense ranked 17th in the league in the first six weeks and 18th in the last three weeks without Gronkowski. In his seven games, he elevated the New England passing game to third in the league. And he did it all against double teams, extra safety help and defensive gameplans designed to take him out. At 6-6, 265, with good speed, great hands and Tom Brady at quarterback, Gronkowski is nearly impossible to defend. Of course, no one questions his skills. It's his durability that's worrisome. As the preseason closed, his recovery from knee surgery was on schedule, and with no reported setbacks, Gronkowski is on track to play in Week 1.
Gronkowski was putting up historically good numbers for the second year in a row when a broken forearm derailed him in Week 11. He missed the next five games before returning Week 17 only to break his arm again in the divisional round of the playoffs. He ultimately required four arm surgeries, as an infection complicated matters.
When healthy Gronkowski was easily the league's best tight end. He averaged 13.2 fantasy points per game in standard formats, tops among tight ends and third among all receivers, and his 11 receiving touchdowns ranked fourth among all receivers – this despite playing only 11 games.
At 6-6, 265, Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Using his size, Gronkowski can cut inside or out, shielding the defender from making a legal play on the ball. As a result he's made several highlight-reel diving catches in the end zone of which few tight ends are capable. Gronkowski's 17 red-zone targets last year were second among tight ends to Heath Miller, who had only three more despite playing four more games.
The bottom line: Gronkowski's health is the only thing capable of slowing him down, and it just might as he also had back surgery in mid-June that typically requires a 12-week recovery, putting his return date sometime in September. As a result, there's a decent chance Gronkowski misses a game or two, and it's even possible the team places him on the PUP list, forcing him to sit out the season's first six weeks.
Although he shared targets with Aaron Hernandez (124-113), Gronkowski posted the best statistical season for a tight end in NFL history. His 1,327 receiving yards were not only the most ever by a tight end but were sixth overall in the league last season. His 18 touchdowns – 17 receiving and one rushing – were also a single-season record for the position. Hernandez turned in a noteworthy season himself and actually was targeted by Tom Brady more often in the red zone (25-24) and a surprising 10 more times inside the 10-yard line (17-7) than Gronkowski, all while playing two fewer games. At 6-6, 260 and with great hands, Gronkowski snared 73 percent of his targets, tops among qualified tight ends. He also benefited from running the tight end routes in the Patriots offense, as opposed to Hernandez’s usual underneath routes, which gave Gronkowski a distinct advantage up the seam against undersized linebackers and safeties. That, and a brutal stiff arm, allowed him to post a position-high 22 catches of 20-plus yards. Gronkowski, who averaged 10.7 yards per target, got stronger as the season wore on. Over the final nine regular season games, he totaled 77 targets, 12 receiving touchdowns and 832 receiving yards.A couple possible hiccups loom, however. The most obvious is the ankle injury he suffered in the playoffs. He underwent ankle surgery in early February and was in a walking boot through April. He’s expected to be ready for the season, though the injury should be monitored in training camp. Perhaps more significant is the Patriots’ addition of Brandon Lloyd, which likely will cost Gronkowski looks. And, of course, Hernandez is still around, vying for tight-end targets.
New England drafted two tight ends last season – Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – which worked out well for the Patriots but made things difficult for fantasy owners. Gronkowski finished with 10 touchdowns, tied for the best mark at the position, though three scores (and 156 yards) came in the final two games when he got extra targets because Hernandez was sidelined. Gronkowski and Hernandez negated each other's value for much of the season as both were used interchangeably. Gronkowski had a monster game Week 10 at Pittsburgh with three touchdowns and 72 receiving yards, but also had seven scoreless weeks with no more than 25 yards receiving. Gronkowski received 16 red-zone targets in 16 games to Hernandez's 10 in 14 games. Should Hernandez go down with injury an again, Gronskowski's value would soar. Tom Brady likes to look for his tight end near the goal line (the duo combined for 16 targets inside the 10), and that would benefit the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, who is also considered the better blocker of the two. With Hernandez healthy, though, Gronkowski will have to settle for splitting targets again this season.
The second tight end taken in the 2010 draft,
Gronkowski could emerge as the starter for the
Patriots at some point this season. A mammoth
target at 6-6, 264, Gronkowski will look to fill
the void left by Ben Watson and Chris Baker. Of
slight concern is his injury history — he missed
16 games his last two college seasons, including
all of 2009 with a back problem. Alge Crumpler
likely will begin the year as the starter, mentoring
both Gronkowski and fellow rookie Aaron
Hernandez. But the rookies have more upside
and likely will be utilized in the red zone while
Crumpler focuses on blocking.