Gronk is back.
Love him or hate him - there's no denying that Rob Gronkowski is often larger than life. When he hung up his cleats after the 2018 season, he said that he would never catch another touchdown from another quarterback...and he was correct. After passing his physical, it was announced that he would be coming out of retirement and the Patriots would be trading him back to his QB in Tampa Bay.
According to Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht, Brady and Gronk "developed the type of chemistry on and off the field that is crucial to success. Rob combines elite-level skills as both a receiver and blocker but what really makes him special is the fact that he's a proven winner who brings that championship mindset and work ethic."
Gronk and Brady played together on three Super Bowl championship teams (2014, 2016, 2018). There's no doubt that the chemistry between them has always been fantastic. In fact, we would go so far as to say that Brady is a much, much better QB with Gronk on the field. With 78 endzone trips, nobody has caught more touchdowns from Brady than Gronkowski - not even Randy Moss who has half that number (39 touchdowns). This duo ranks right up there with Young/Jerry Rice, Marino/Clayton, and Rivers/Gates. They complement each other well as we saw last year when a Gronkless-Brady had one of his lower performing statistical seasons ever.
The two of them together are greater than the sum of their parts - case closed, but what will be interesting to see here is how the fantasy implications take hold.
There are two main concerns that we have as it relates to Gronkowski coming back. First, what kind of shape will he be in and what will his role be? For those of us who recall the dual-TE sets from the Patriots in years past, an O.J. Howard / Gronk combo has the potential to be incredibly effective. With both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin spreading the field, there would be plenty of room underneath for these tight ends to dink and dunk in a very Brady-esque way.
Let's assume that Gronkowski takes the top spot on the TE depth chart (a fairly safe assumption). We're back to where we were during the summer of 2018 asking ourselves how many games we should expect him to play. For all his talent, he has had a difficult time staying on the field. He hasn't played a full season since 2011 and he missed 13 games over his last three seasons with the Pats. He's virtually guaranteed to miss some time - the question is how much?
Having a guy like Gronk (often drafted with an early pick) miss games is awful for fantasy owners. He's not putting up points if he's not on the field, but it may be fair to say that most fantasy owners choose to draft him instead for the potential, and that's where his true draft day value will likely be. Brady's in a new offense with a new coach and new supporting cast. The only thing familiar for him will be Gronk.
There's also the question about what kind of shape Gronkowski is truly in. We've seen this movie before, haven't we? After Randy Moss left the Patriots in 2010, he never saw a 1K yard season again and remained a peripheral figure unable to contribute to the Niners in a meaningful way. Marshawn Lynch came back to play for the Raiders after retiring, and after a decent 891-yard season, he played just 6 games the following year. Brett Favre landed in New York after splitting from the Packers where he missed the playoffs. The next season saw him head over to long-time NFC rival Minnesota where he took the Vikings to within a game of the Super Bowl before ending his career the following season with a losing 6-10 record. It's a mixed bag as to what those past experiences can tell us about Gronk's potential. Historical context may not be as helpful as we'd like.
For just a moment, let's assume that everything goes well. Can you imagine what defensive coordinators are thinking right now? Brady, Gronk, Howard, Evans, Godwin, and Ronald Jones? That's a lot of talent to have to account for - and that's also a lot of mouths to feed from a fantasy perspective.
When we look at our fantasy football tight end rankings, there are quite a few names on the list that you'll need to think about when it's time to draft a TE. Would we draft Gronk over Kelce, Kittle, Andrews, or Ertz? Given some of our reservations, probably not. How about Waller, Engram, Henry, or Higbee? Possibly, but we'd still feel conflicted about it. There's little doubt that Gronk will be taken as someone's starting TE, but he's certainly no longer a first or second round pick like he has been in past years. It's a risk/reward situation at this point, which is why it will be very interesting to watch his movement in our consensus rankings as the season approaches.
Fortunately for fantasy owners, we've got plenty of time before our drafts to ponder where and when to draft Gronk. Assuming COVID-19 doesn't ruin the season, Gronk, Brady, and the Bucs should be a hot topic this summer.
Incidentally, watching the Vegas odds for the Bucs to make the Super Bowl has been just as interesting. Prior to the Gronk announcment, Caesars had them as 17:1, but now they're at 14:1.