Fantasy Football: We Should Be Paying More Attention to the Patriots' Tight End Situation
"Brian -- did you see Gronk bought a new pad in Miami?!?!"
Listen you guys, -- this isn't easy for me. With every pound of muscle mass Rob Gronkowski loses in the early months of his retirement, a piece of my soul dies. Don't get me wrong, I love seeing him live his best life, but I'm happy for him in the way that you're happy for your best work-friend who gets a promotion. Sure, it's great that they're reaching their potential, etc. etc. -- but now you've got no one to send Andy Reid GIFs to, and the new guy who now sits at his desk calls you "bruh" and isn't aware of the impact that microwaving broccoli has on an office.
This emotional reaction to Gronk's retirement is something Bill Belichick simply doesn't relate to. He lost an asset, and in Belichick's typical, dispassionate manner, corresponding transactions were made to remedy the loss of that asset.
A Busy Offseason
Prior to the retirement of the future Hall of Fame tight end, the Patriots had declined Dwayne Allen's option and signed free agent Matt LaCosse to a two-year, $2.8 million contract with $500,000 guaranteed. The sudden opening at the top of New England's depth chart also spurred reports that the Patriots were serious players in the bid for free agent Jared Cook, but ultimately they ended up signing Austin Seferian-Jenkins after Cook inked a deal with the Saints.
Eventually New England added Ben Watson, who later received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance enhancing drug policy. ASJ was then released after failing to report to mandatory minicamp due to "personal reasons." To cap things off, the team added veteran Lance Kendricks to the mix last week -- a player Josh McDaniels has familiarity with from their time with the Rams.
What Are the Fantasy Ramifications?
As it stands, the only two Patriots tight ends who should be even remotely on the fantasy radar are Watson and LaCosse. Watson is currently taking a lot of the first-team snaps in training camp, but LaCosse is off to an excellent start, as well. At this point, it's fairly clear that LaCosse is the odds-on favorite to be the go-to guy in Watson's absence.
Whether or not you consider LaCosse a viable fantasy option this season depends entirely on the context of your league and what your approach to the tight end position will be in your draft -- something that has been spoken about at length over the past few weeks by our Editor-In-Chief, JJ Zachariason. If you miss out on drafting (intentionally or otherwise) a leg of the elite tight end triumvirate -- Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Zach Ertz -- the eventual mid-tier tight end you select is likely going to come with some question marks given the volatility and general lack of production historically from the position's middle to late-round tiers.
If this is your strategy, or if you're planning on fading tight ends entirely in your draft and going with a streaming approach, here's why you could do a lot worse than taking a super-late-round flyer -- or using a week-one waiver pickup -- on LaCosse.
First, if you're sourcing depth pieces to fill out your roster or looking to gain ownership leverage in DFS, you're looking for upside. LaCosse is projected to have the Pats' starting tight end role to himself over the first four weeks in an offense that has ranked fifth, first, second, and fourt over the past four seasons in passing DVOA, according to FootballOutsiders.com. And, with that positive situation comes opportunity.
The question, of course, is how much opportunity.
What Has the Offense Looked Like Sans Gronk?
The good news is that, given the amount of time Gronk has missed due to injury, we've got a bit of data to go off of. I went back over the past three seasons (an admittedly arbitrary cutoff point) and compared the 13 regular season contests that Gronk was inactive for to the 35 in which he was active. What I found was that the Patriots' offense actually relied more on the passing attack sans Gronk. They ran 1.23 more plays per game (67.23 vs. 66.00) when Gronk-less, and the volume of drop backs increased by two per game, despite the team going 11-2 and facing a ton of positive game scripts in the split.
There were two noticeable impacts an inactive Gronk had on the Patriots' offenses over that span. The first was efficiency. According to numberFire's Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the offense averaged 0.29 Passing NEP per drop back with Gronk, and 0.24 Passing NEP per drop back without him.
The second and much more noticeable impact was target distribution. Since 2016, Patriots tight ends have averaged 8.4 targets per game -- a 24.26% target share -- with Gronk active. Without him, those figures dropped to 3.46 targets per game, good for a 9.55% target share.
What was also interesting was how running back targets were affected. With around five extra targets per game available, running back targets actually dipped from 9.71 per game (28.05% target share) to 9.31 (25.61% target share). Naturally, this lead to a large spike in wide receiver targets -- from a 47.69% share to 64.76%.
Regardless of the sample size and millions of other variables I probably failed to account for, I think an important component of these numbers to consider is that they were achieved by a roster that was adapting on the fly to Gronk's unavailability -- as opposed to this year's team, which has been constructed with the knowledge that Gronk is no longer in the mix.
Consider also that the Patriots' tight end target situation could be in line for some positive regression. Their tight end target share percentages over the past three seasons are 18.54% in 2016 -- a year in which Gronk missed half of the regular season -- 23.08% in 2017, and just 14.54% a season ago. Yes, the greatest tight end in recent NFL history is gone, and, yes, the league's overall tight end target share is slightly decreasing on an annual basis, but Josh McDaniels and the Patriots are still going to want to be able to access each aspect of their scheme -- and a major piece of that scheme is passing from "power" formations and utilizing play action when trapping dime defenses on the field against their 11-personnel looks.
I've charted each of the Patriots' offensive snaps over the past two seasons, and in 2018, they utilized 11 and 21-personnel a combined 81% of the time. Those also happened to be their two most efficient passing-game packages, earning 0.27 expected points added (EPA) per drop back from 11-personnel and 0.24 EPA per drop back from 21-personnel.
Plus, unlike other Patriots passing game targets such as N'Keal Harry and Phillip Dorsett, who will be jockeying for snaps when the offense isn't in a three-wide look, LaCosse's projected role as the primary tight end in September should make him immune to personnel package deployment. Through the first four games of 2018, New England only ran two plays from scrimmage without a tight end on the field.
Listen, no one is saying Gronkowski's shoes are being filled, and I'm certainly not suggesting that Matt LaCosse is being criminally undervalued in consensus rankings -- he's currently going outside the top-20 tight ends in half-PPR formats, per Fantasy Football Calculator -- but there is certainly some upside here.
LaCosse has reportedly looked good in camp so far, he's slated for a great opportunity early on, and it's an opportunity in what is annually one of the league's best offenses. And if somehow using a late-round dart toss or an early waiver claim on LaCosse secures one top-five tight end week in early September, it sure could go a long way toward lowering the amount of hours per week I spend shuffling through Gronk's Instagram.
I'll never let go.