Why Rob Gronkowski Is the Best Tight End in the NFL

Jimmy Graham might officially become a wide receiver soon, but even if he remains a tight end, he's not the best at his position.

With Antonio Gates on the downslope at the back end of his career, and Tony Gonzalez sitting behind a desk talking about football this year, the discussion to decide the best tight end in the NFL involves only two names: Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski.

And setting aside Graham's possible switch to an official listing as a wide receiver (which would shift his fantasy value a lot more than his real life value to the Saints), the major difference between these two players over the past four years has been health. Graham has been able to stay in the lineup and play a lot more often than Gronkowski, and has therefore had more production overall than the Patriots' tight end.

Last season was no different. Despite battling a couple of nagging injuries of his own, Graham finished atop the tight end totem pole using numberFire's Net Expected Points data this past year. Gronkowski finished ninth on just 66 targets, which is fairly impressive. Why? The top eight all had 84 or more targets, with six of the eight seeing more than 110 looks in the passing game. And since Net Expected Points is a cumulative statistic, Gronk's feat is incredibly impressive.

Gronk and fellow top-10 tight end Jordan Reed were unlike many of the rest of the upper echelon of tight ends in that they saw a strong level of production on limited targets. But unlike Reed, we know that Gronkowski is capable of sustaining that production over a full season, which means we can have fun with the numbers and put Graham and Gronk on a level playing field.

Since they entered the league in 2010, both Graham and Gronk hold a combined four of the top six tight end seasons when judged by Reception NEP, a measure of the number of points added by receivers on catches only. Gronkowski's 2011 is the best in that span, with Graham's 2013, 2011 and 2012 finishing second, third and sixth respectively. But when filtering for only high-volume tight ends (with more than fifty catches in a season) and ranking by Reception NEP per target, we find that Gronk and Gates dominate the top of the list. Using this per-opportunity metric, we find that Gronk has two of the top four seasons since 2010, with Graham not showing up near the top of the list. (His first appearance is eighth, and he's well behind Gronk's less impressive season.)

This impressive advantage on a per target basis hints at what we'll learn when considering how these players would fare on an equal playing field of targets, but let's take a look at the numbers just to confirm.

PlayerReceptionsTargetsREC NEP

This table shows the two players' 2013 production, with the final line representing what Gronkowski would have produced on the same number of targets. Even though Graham had one of the best seasons in recent memory for a tight end in 2013, Gronkowski was still on pace to trump him had he not been sidelined.

Again, this is because Gronkowski is more efficient on a per-target basis, and because the Saints are guilty of targeting Graham so frequently that it actually digs into his overall value to the offense, as we discovered when looking at the numbers behind the usage of Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green in this previous article. This proves to be true not only in 2013, but over the course of the two tight ends' entire careers.

PlayerReceptionsREC NEPTargetsREC NEP/TarSuccess Rate

Again, the first two rows are each player's career production, with the third representing Gronkowski's production if he saw the same amount of targets as Graham. And the results are staggering. Gronkowski would have produced 106 more Net Expected Points over his four year career if he saw the same volume as Graham in his star role in the New Orleans offense. This is due to a better catch rate that leads to more receptions, and a better per-target efficiency, which means more production with every pass thrown his way.

Volume is the enemy of efficiency, so it's not reasonable to guarantee that Gronkowski could maintain his blistering pace over the ridiculous amount of targets Graham has seen. But the gap between the two players is so large, that's it's pretty clear using this particular metric that Gronkowski has been the most consistent and productive player since entering the league. Both players have good quarterbacks (Graham's has been slightly better since 2010), so nearly everything apart from health and usage has been the same.

With Graham possibly transitioning to the wide receiver position to get more money out of the Saints, this argument may be moot moving forward. But if this is the last chance we get to compare the league's two best tight ends, let the record show that Gronkowski trumped Graham handily in every area but health.