Gronk and Graham. It sounds like it should be a band name.
In 2011, these two tight ends put up the most historic numbers we’d ever seen at the position from a fantasy perspective. Rob Gronkowski scored 18 touchdowns en route to posting 241 fantasy points, and Jimmy Graham scored 11 of his own for a 197 point total.
Part of the reason why they were so valuable last season, however, was because they were taken in the middle to late portions of drafts. In 2012, everyone knows what they’re capable of producing. Because of this, the two could end up being an early round drafting mistake.
What History Tells Us
First and foremost, there’s an absolute possibility that Gronkowski and Graham will finish as the top tight ends again in 2012. Since 2000, we’ve seen multiple instances where players at the position continuously finished at the top. I don’t think the player inconsistency from one season to another is something we should be concerned with.
What we should worry about is the typical number of fantasy points scored by tight ends. As I mentioned, the totals posted by Gronk and Graham were historic. From 2000-2010, the number of points top tight ends would typically score ranged from 123 to 174. Last year, Graham had 197 and Gronkowski scored 241.
And honestly, even with the change to more athletic tight ends in the NFL, 2011 marked the first big spike at the top of the tight end rankings. In 2000, Tony Gonzalez was the best tight end and scored 174 points. In 2004 and 2005, Antonio Gates averaged 172 points. But in 2010, the best tight end, Jason Witten, scored 154 fantasy points.
Last season was clearly an outlier. It makes sense when you consider the outrageous offensive numbers we saw across the league. But in the second round of your draft, are you certain that you want to bank on something that’s happened just once?
What Value Based Drafting Tells Us
While VBD is most beneficial when used with projections, we can still look back at completed seasons to come to some conclusions.
I’ve done this exercise many times before, but let’s pretend you’re in a 10-team league. And in this league, each team starts one tight end. The worst tight end started on any team would be the 10th ranked tight end.
Using VBD, we look at how a player’s production stacks up against his peers’. From the highest level possible, we should look at the top tight end to the worst tight end, and see the difference in fantasy points scored. This could also be described as the advantage a team with the best tight end has, across an entire season, to the team with the worst tight end.
Last season, the difference between Gronk, the top tight end, and Brent Celek, the 10th ranked tight end was 130 points. It was easily the highest margin we’ve ever seen at the tight end position.
But when you compare this number to the margins at other positions, it’s not nearly as extreme. At running back, Ray Rice, the top runner in 2011, scored 142 points more than 20th ranked back, Ahmad Bradshaw. (We’re comparing to the 20th ranked player because we start multiple running backs and receivers in a typical lineup.) At wide receiver, Calvin Johnson scored 118 points more than the 20th ranked receiver, Dwayne Bowe. And lastly, at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers produced 144 more points than the 10th ranked Mark Sanchez (in leagues that start one quarterback per team).
From the perspective of “being better than your peers”, the historic numbers produced by Rob Gronkowski were less valuable than that of Ray Rice and Aaron Rodgers in 2011, and barely better than Calvin Johnson. And it was far and away the best season we’d seen from a tight end in NFL history.
So purely looking at point values, we shouldn’t necessarily value Rob Gronkowski higher than we do the top running back or quarterback – which we aren’t. Keep in mind, this idea is reflected with the average draft positions of these tight ends. It’s not as though we’re drafting Gronkowski ahead of Arian Foster this year. All elite quarterbacks and wide receivers are usually selected by the time Gronk and Graham are taken too.
But the second round is still too high for these tight ends. Why? Because you can get a viable one in the 13th round. It’s opportunity cost, folks. When you draft Gronk or Graham in the second round, you’re giving up the opportunity to have a top wide receiver or running back (I won’t mentioned quarterback because of my stance on them). One of your starting wide receiver or running back positions is now a round worse when you get a tight end that early.
I won’t get into all of the math here. I’ve written about this in my book, The Late Round Quarterback. You’re not just sacrificing one player, one spot, and one position when you draft a non-wide receiver or running back in the early parts of your draft. You’re shifting your entire lineup down a whole round. Your WR2, for example, becomes the equivalent to another team’s flex player. And your depth becomes worse.
From a VBD standpoint, we’d need Graham and Gronkowski to almost produce what they did last season for them to be valuable in the second round. When you’re starting just one tight end, you can make up lost points much more easily in the early rounds with running backs and wide receivers. Remember, there won’t be many talented ones when you get past the 6th or 7th round of your draft. And this point is further supported when you consider the fact that you can draft a starting tight end at the end of your draft.
What the Personnel Tells Us
Many people are staying away from Brandon Lloyd this season because “Tom Brady won’t be able to make four of his targets fantasy relevant.”
I understand the logic. If he’s going to throw for, let’s say, 5,000 yards, then we can’t necessarily expect the world from Lloyd. But, in addition to that, we shouldn’t expect the world from Gronkowski either, right?
It’s clear that you’re drafting Gronkowski for scores. Nearly 45% of his fantasy production last season came from touchdown receptions. That’s higher than 2011 20-touchdown scorer LeSean McCoy (42.5%). But if Brandon Lloyd is there now, and if Tom Brady is going to throw for relatively the same number of touchdowns, don’t you think Lloyd may get a little piece of that touchdown pie? Or what about Aaron Hernandez? After all, he didn’t play a full season last year.
If Gronkowski comes back to Earth and posts a modest 10 or 11 touchdowns, we’re talking about a sub-200 point tight end. (By the way, Gronkowski was the first tight end to ever get over the 200-point mark in fantasy football). And this new point total is also assuming he’ll have another 1,300-yard season. We’re talking about a lot less value at the position, people. And not only that, this is believing that no other tight end breaks out this season, which doesn’t seem all that likely considering how deep the position is.
I see Graham having more value than Gronkowski this year because he has less competition to get targets. There’s no Aaron Hernandez in New Orleans, Robert Meachem left, and there were no huge receiving additions in the off-season. Out of the two, he’s more likely to repeat his 2011 performance.
What to expect in 2012
I think there are two reasons to believe the early-round tight end is a bad idea for 2012. The first, as noted above, is that we’re basing our drafting decisions off of one record-breaking season. Should we really expect Rob Gronkowski to repeat his 18-touchdown performance, or even get close?
Second, we’re not realizing value when we get Gronk and Graham in the second round. Even using their remarkable numbers last year, they were still less valuable than players at other positions. And when you consider the fact that you can get a high-upside sleeper at tight end in the late-rounds of your draft, you notice that these players’ value decreases even more.
More and more offenses are looking for tight ends that can be central parts of their system. That’s why I believe the position in 2012 is so deep. I not only expect the numbers from Gronkowski and Graham to go down, but I anticipate the other starting fantasy tight ends to get a boost in point totals.
In the second round, continue to think running back and wide receiver. Don’t think quarterback for obvious reasons (buy my book – it’s just $4.99!), and snag a late-round tight end as well. You’ll not only have a solid foundation at running back and receiver, but you’ll gather depth that can help you throughout the season.