Gronkowski Set to Reclaim the Tight End Throne

Gronk returns with sky high expectations of production

After being listed as questionable on the New England Patriots injury report for five consecutive weeks and toying with the emotions of Patriots fans and fantasy owners alike, Rob Gronkowski made his much anticipated debut to the 2013 NFL regular season in New England's Week 7 matchup against the New York Jets.

The Jets, playing before their home crowd, managed to outlast the Patriots in an overtime thriller 30-27 with a Nick Folk 42-yard field goal. Folk was set up by a controversial unsportsmanlike penalty call on New England defensive tackle Chris Jones for pushing a teammate in an attempt to block a 56 yard field goal attempt.

It certainly wasn't a story book ending for the Patriots, but there was a tremendous bright spot that should give hope to all of the New England faithful and fantasy owners: Rob Gronkowski played the entire four quarters plus part of an overtime and did not reinjure his back or forearm.

He's Back...

Gronk ended the day with team highs of eight receptions totaling 114 yards on a ludicrous 17 targets. Although he did not record a touchdown, he was missed by Tom Brady multiple times which should have resulted in scores, and he was also tackled on the one-yard line. Brady had another sub-par week as he struggled with missing throws, dropped balls, and seemed as if, at times, he was rattled by the NYJ defense. Brady completed 22 of his 46 passes for 228 yards and one interception. He has now thrown only a single touchdown to three interceptions over his last three games, while completing only 47 percent of his passes during that span.

The New England offense during the first seven games this year isn't at all what we have been accustomed to seeing over the past decade. Struggles with dropped balls by the likes of Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have seemingly haunted Brady every week. Making matters worse, the heir apparent to the departed Wes Welker's 3rd down throne, Danny Amendola, has been sidelined with a slew of injuries, most recently a concussion in Week 6.

Without making excuses for the lackluster performance of the New England offense and quarterback Tom Brady up to this point, it would be wise not to discount Brady's proven track record and the impact that Gronkowski has had over recent years.

Inside the Numbers

Let's examine how the past can possibly help predict the future with help from: current (not too seriously injured, I hope) phenom TE of the New Orleans Saints Jimmy Graham, Atlanta Falcons fountain of youth TE Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Cowboys perennial Pro Bowl TE Jason Witten, and San Diego Chargers 5 time All-Pro TE Antonio Gates

As a refresher from previous articles, net expected points (NEP) is a metric we use at numberFire to determine how many points a player is contributing to his team’s output. Broken down further, there’s an expected point value for an offense during every game situation on a football field. If a player helps that expected point value with a big play - a run for a first down or a 16-yard pass on 2nd-and-10 - he’s effectively increasing his personal NEP, whether it be passing, rushing or receiving.

NEP valuation works because it ignores the basic (boring) numbers used in a lot of analyses. Third downs are more important, and turning the ball over matters more, too. It gives us an idea of how good a player is for his team above or below expectation, something a stat line won’t tell you. Think of it as going behind the numbers, if you will.

Using combined statistics of the 2010-2012 seasons, here's a quick look at just how impactful Gronkowski can be not only with his touchdown scoring ability, but also with regards to the net expected points he adds for the New England offense.

PlayerGames PlayedTargetsReceptionsTouchdownsTotal NEP
Rob Gronkowski4326218738266.40
Jimmy Graham4632821525236.01
Tony Gonzalez4835124321245.93
Jason Witten4839528317260.77
Antonio Gates3823416324223.29

Quite simply, when Superman incarnate: Robert James Gronkowski plays football, he does so very well. In a smaller amount of games, Gronk has impacted the Patriots bottom line more than any other elite tight end in the league. And, as you can tell with his touchdown totals, he's doing work in the red zone, too.

The Gronkowski Tide Raises All Ships

The fantasy impact that Gronk will have on the entire New England offense can not be overstated. Running lanes will be opened due to the linebackers and safeties shading towards the big tight end. Eight-man boxes near the goal line will be a much more of a risky scenario for the defense because a simple fade to Gronk is nearly unstoppable one-on-one. Safeties will no longer run free in the secondary with receivers on deep routes, as Gronkowski will ravage the middle of the field.

Expectations for the rest of the season for Tom Brady will most likely mirror those numbers of his career averages: 63% passing completions with a 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio as opposed to the dismal 55 completion percentage and 8:5 touchdown to pick ratio thus far in 2013. A stat line of 3,100 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions wouldn't be out of question for the remainder of the year for Brady, though our algorithms are a little more skeptical, placing Brady as a low-end QB1 in fantasy.

Gronkowski should produce at near career peak numbers given the current situation the Patriots roster is in, which would mean 60 catches, 650 yards and eight touchdowns could be easily within reach for 2013. A more realistic stat line of 500 yards and six scores is probable.

The Patriots have lacked a true red zone threat without Gronk, but if history is any indication for what's in store for the remainder of the 2013 NFL season, there will be plenty of "Gronk Spikes" in Foxborough to say the least.