If Rob Gronkowski was made of adamantium (you know, that stuff in Wolverine's bones), this article would be much shorter. The only point of debate would be if he is the best or second-best tight end in fantasy football.
Alas, The Gronk is fragile and mortal like the rest of us, and discussion of his fantasy stock is much more complicated. He is coming off of a couple of injury-marred seasons. We're not talking about strains and sprains, bumps and bruises; these were torn ligaments and broken bones. Since November 2012, Gronkowski has fewer touchdowns (four) than surgeries (six). Most recently, he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in December. Whether he will be healthy enough to play in Week 1 is uncertain, but owners are still showing a lot of faith as Gronkowski's average draft position (ADP) is in the third round.
If Gronkowski had no injury worries, such an ADP would be considered low. In 2011, he posted the most productive season by a tight end in NFL history with 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He scored 11 times the following year and finished as a top-40 player in all of fantasy despite missing five games due to a broken forearm. In six full games last season, Gronkowski averaged six catches and 93 yards per game. If Gronkowski could have kept that pace up over an entire season, he would have accumulated a record-shattering 1,493 yards with 11 touchdowns. But that's sort of the point, if only he could stay healthy for that long.
Those are numbers most associated with first- or second-round fantasy WRs such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and TE Jimmy Graham. Yes, if Gronkowski plays a full season he can be just as good as Graham. He had the better numbers of the two in 2011 and would have had better numbers than Graham in 2012 if not for that forearm injury. That season, Graham recorded 982 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games. Although he was nagged by a bad ankle in many of those weeks, at least he was on the field. Yet, Gronkowski scored more touchdowns and had only 192 fewer yards despite playing in four fewer games.
On paper, Graham is in the more dangerous offense and is teamed with the better quarterback. But let's not sell Tom Brady short. He is still plenty good enough to get the ball to his beastly tight end 90 times per season. I think a realistic 16-game line for Gronk is 90-1,200-11. That estimate may even be too conservative, and yet only Marshall, A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, and Demaryius Thomas hit each of those marks last season. With that kind of company, it's easy to see why many want Gronk in the second or third round.
But that last sentence can only be said while looking through rose-colored glasses. Again, injury and subsequent recovery are a major part of Gronkowski's story. He fractured his forearm twice during the 2012 season and required four surgeries on the bone over a six-month span due to infections. Then came his back surgery in June. Through all of it, even the most pessimistic among us thought that Gronkowski would be playing again by Week 4. However, he didn't make it back until Week 7. Less than two months later, his right knee was left knee in ruin.
Click to enlarge.
This is a recent draft board from a Scout Fantasy Draft.
Gronk was the tenth pick of the third round.
That brings us to the doorstep of this season. Gronkowski has been able to stay off of the operating table since his knee was reconstructed in January. Even though Gronk is expected to open training camp later this month on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, he hasn't suffered any setbacks in his rehab. There is a belief that he will start the season on time. Such a belief requires neglect of recent history. Remember what happened last year? It's right there in the previous paragraph. An assumed Week 4 debut turned into Week 7. Frankly, it is too early to put much stock into predictions of Gronkowski's timetable. He still has to finish his rehab. He still has to stave off any setbacks. He has to make it through training camp. The point is obstacles remain before Gronkowski can even play in a meaningful game.
When he will actually start playing and for how long he will stay in one piece are real questions that won't have answers before many of you draft your teams. Rust wasn't a problem for Gronk last year as he caught eight passes for 114 yards in his first game after the forearm and back issues. But we are dealing with a big man coming off of a big knee injury. It would be foolish to think that type of injury won't have any lingering impacts on Gronkowski's ability. For me, those questions and concerns are too important to sink a top-30 pick into Gronk.
Tight end is a top-heavy position with only two or three legitimate studs. A healthy Gronk gives an owner a stupendous advantage because of that scarcity. But that doesn't mean it is a thin position. It would be wise to fill up your RB and WR slots in those early rounds, and then take a stable tight end such as Dennis Pitta, Greg Olsen or Kyle Rudolph somewhere in the middle. If you have to satisfy that urge to gamble, do it later on when the stakes are lower with high-potential youngsters such as Zach Ertz or Ladarius Green. Another high risk-reward who will be available in the middle rounds is Jordan Reed. At least you won't be crippling your team if you misfire later in the draft.
Another person will have a different take on Gronk, but because I am so risk-averse, I will not own him in any league this year. If you don't draft him and he turns in another superhuman season, it will sting that you passed him up. I guarantee it won't sting nearly as much as if you do select him in the third round and he gives you only six or seven games again.