Are Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham worth a first round pick?

By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on Jun 14, 2012

John Paulsen's picture

John was named the Most Accurate Fantasy Football Expert by FantasyPros for the 2010 season, finished as runner-up in 2011 and 4th in 2012 for an unprecedented three straight top 5 finishes. Cumulatively, John was the most accurate expert from 2010-13 while also winning the 2011 Fantasy Sports Trade Association award for the most accurate preseason rankings.  Follow John on Twitter: @4for4_John.

The emergence of TEs Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in 2011 has led to an unprecedented question for fantasy owners heading into 2012: Is the first round too early to draft a tight end?

In standard scoring formats, Gronkowski's 1,327 yards and 17 TDs resulted in 241 fantasy points, which would have ranked second only to Calvin Johnson (263 FP) among WRs. Graham's 195 FP (1,310 yards and 11 TDs) would have ranked #5 among WRs, ahead of Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Smith.
 
As a result, the Average Draft Positions (ADP) for Gronkowski and Graham are currently in the second round at 2.02 and 2.07, respectively. According to our ADP data, Gronkowski is going between Larry Fitzgerald (WR2) and Darren McFadden (RB7), while Graham is being drafted between Andre Johnson (WR3) and DeMarco Murray (RB10). Both players are going between Cam Newton (QB4) and Matthew Stafford (QB5), so the TE position is becoming nearly as important as the WR and QB positions.
 
To discover the relative value of a particular player or position, we recommend using our Value Based Rankings (VBR), which can be customized to virtually any league format and scoring system. VBR essentially determines a player's value relative to his position to allow owners to compare player value across all positions. For a more detailed explanation, click here. To illustrate how the values of Gronkowski and Graham can vary depending on league format, let's look at a couple of 12-team boilerplate leagues.
 
League #1: Standard scoring w/6 points per pass TD, starting 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR and 1 TE
 
League #2: PPR scoring w/4 points per pass TD; starting 1 QB, 1 RB, 2 WR, 1 flex (RB/WR/TE) and 1 TE
 
For League #1 inputs, I'm using 2/2/1 for RB/WR/TE while for League #2, I'm using 1.6/2.3/1.1 for RB/WR/TE to account for that league's flex position. If you're a subscriber, you can try it yourself.
 
Here's a look at the top 20 TEs for League #1:
 
Rk Player Team Proj FP/G ADP RV Overall Rank
1 R. Gronkowski NE 12.1 2.02 89 14
2 J. Graham NO 10.7 2.07 66 23
3 J. Witten DAL 8.2 6.08 26 63
4 A. Gates SD 7.5 5.10 15 73
5 J. Finley GB 7.5 6.05 14 74
6 A. Hernandez NE 7.4 5.12 12 78
7 F. Davis WAS 7.1 8.08 7 84
8 V. Davis SF 7.0 6.07 7 85
9 J. Gresham CIN 7.0 11.02 6 89
10 B. Celek PHI 6.9 11.11 5 92
11 T. Gonzalez ATL 6.8 9.11 4 93
12 B. Pettigrew DET 6.6 9.09 0 96
13 O. Daniels HOU 6.4 12.06 -3 101
14 D. Keller NYJ 6.4 15.04 -4 104
15 J. Tamme DEN 6.2 9.01 -6 105
16 G. Olsen CAR 6.0 -- -9 108
17 C. Fleener IND 6.0 10.05 -10 109
18 K. Rudolph MIN 5.0 17.08 -26 128
19 J. Cook TEN 5.0 14.02 -26 129
20 H. Miller PIT 4.7 -- -30 136
 
Proj FP/G: 4for4's projected Fantasy Points Per Game
ADP: Current Average Draft Position
RV: Relative Value compared to the baseline for the position
Overall Rank: Value Based Ranking for the player
 
For League #1, Gronkowski's overall rank of #14 indicates that he holds early 2nd round value. Graham's rank (#23) argues that he should be taken in the late 2nd.
 
Keep in mind that there is some flexibility to these rankings. Gronkowski's RV is only four points behind Chris Johnson (who is ranked #12) and 11 points behind Darren McFadden (#11), so depending on your opinion of the dependability/durability of those players relative to Gronkowski, a case could easily be made drafting Gronk in the first round. 
 
At the same time, Graham's RV is only six points behind Cam Newton (#20), so using an early- to mid-2nd round pick on the New Orleans TE is not at all unreasonable.
 
Here's a look at the TE VBR for League #2:
 
Rk Player Team Bye Proj FP/G ADP RV Overall Rank
1 R. Gronkowski NE 9 16.8 2.02 97 16
2 J. Graham NO 6 16.6 2.07 93 17
3 J. Witten DAL 5 13.0 6.08 36 54
4 A. Hernandez NE 9 11.9 5.12 18 72
5 A. Gates SD 7 11.6 5.10 12 77
6 J. Finley GB 10 11.3 6.05 9 82
7 F. Davis WAS 10 11.3 8.08 9 83
8 J. Gresham CIN 8 11.2 11.02 6 85
9 V. Davis SF 9 11.1 6.07 5 88
10 J. Tamme DEN 7 11.0 9.01 4 89
11 B. Pettigrew DET 5 11.0 9.09 4 90
12 T. Gonzalez ATL 7 11.0 9.11 4 91
13 B. Celek PHI 7 10.8 11.11 0 97
14 O. Daniels HOU 8 10.5 12.06 -5 103
15 D. Keller NYJ 9 9.9 15.04 -13 111
16 C. Fleener IND 4 9.6 10.05 -19 115
17 G. Olsen CAR 6 9.4 -- -23 119
18 K. Rudolph MIN 11 8.3 17.08 -40 135
19 H. Miller PIT 4 7.7 -- -48 138
20 J. Cook TEN 11 7.6 14.02 -50 142
 
In PPR formats, our projections show Gronkowski and Graham to be much closer in total scoring. The Patriots added the very talented Brandon Lloyd, which is likely to put some downward pressure on Gronkowski's targets. Meanwhile, Graham is likely to eclipse the 90-catch mark yet again.
 
Gronkowski and Graham's overall ranks -- #16 and #17, respectively -- indicate that they hold early 2nd round value in PPR formats. 
 

DEVELOPING A TE STRATEGY

 
Many owners are pulling the trigger on Gronkowski and Graham in the late first round after the "stud" RBs (Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and perhaps Ryan Mathews, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew) are off the board. Most of the RBs going in the late 1st/early 2nd carry considerable risk and/or uncertainty, while Gronkowski and Graham are good bets to finish with very strong numbers once again.
 
For example, in the scoring format for League #1, there is only an 11-point differential between Chris Johnson (#12) and DeMarco Murray (#16). Fantasy owners drafting in the bottom half of the 1st round may elect to draft a "sure thing" like Gronkowski or Graham instead of the riskier Tennessee RB, feeling content to draft Murray (or someone like Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles or Marshawn Lynch) in the 2nd round. This is a good strategy for owners that like those stud TEs and don't see much of a difference between the RB7 (Johnson) and RB12 (Charles) or RB13 (S-Jax). There will be a capable RB1 available in the 2nd round, but there's no guarantee that Gronkowski or Graham will be there.
 
Looking down the list of TEs, it appears that after our two "studs," there is a considerable drop-off to our TE3 (Jason Witten), who is only projected to score about 1.4 fantasy points per game more than our TE11 (Tony Gonzalez). In fact, the projected difference between TE7 (Fred Davis) and TE17 (Coby Fleener) is currently only 17 points.
 
If fantasy owners miss out on Gronkowski/Graham in the 1st/2nd, it looks like VBR will recommend that they wait until the value emerges at the position, and that likely won't happen until the 6th round at the earliest. VBR argues that Witten should go in the 6th, Antonio Gates/Jermichael Finley/Aaron Hernandez in the 7th, Fred Davis and Vernon Davis in the 8th. If fantasy owners don't have a TE by the 9th round, it may be wise to wait until the 11th or 12th, when Jermaine Gresham, Brent Celek or Owen Daniels could be had on the cheap. At that point, fantasy owners can draft back-to-back TEs and get a couple of good players with top 10 (or even top 5) upside.
 
The depth of the TE position is reminiscent of the depth at QB before the recent boom, when QB7 didn't look all that much better than QB17. Like QB, once most of your leaguemates have their starting TE, they won't look to draft a backup until they have a backup or two at the other positions, and that means that the 11th or 12th TE off the board is likely slip even further, creating that much more value. In terms of pure ADP, the #12 TE (Fleener) isn't going until the 10th round.
 
So are Gronkowski and Graham worth a first round pick? Provided the league scoring system doesn't penalize TEs, the short answer is yes, given their dependability compared to the other players available in the late 1st/early 2nd.
 
Those owners who don't pull the trigger on Gronkowski or Graham in the 1st/2nd (and don't find value in the middle rounds) should target 1-3 of the following eight TEs in the later rounds. (Gonzalez, Jacob Tamme and Brandon Pettigrew are also worth consideration if they slip into the 10th round or later.)
 
Gresham has the talent to become a bona fide fantasy TE1. His 108 receptions in his first two seasons is the 12th-most in the history of the league. With Jerome Simpson gone, it's unlikely that the 105 targets Simpson saw in 2011 are all going to whoever wins Cincy's WR2 job. That means that Gresham should see an increase in the 92 targets (11th among TEs) he received last season, so his TE13 finish in 2011 may be his baseline.
 
After a very slow start to the season (9-73-0 on an average of 4.2 targets in the first five games), Celek came on strong, posting 53-738-5 in the next 11 games on a healthy 7.0 targets per game. That projects to 77-1073-7 over the course of a full season. Those are TE3 numbers. Celek is a tough player who has played through several injuries in the past. He appears to be completely healthy heading into the 2012 season.
 
Daniels finished the 2011 season with 54 catches for 677 yards and three TDs, but Joel Dreessen is gone, so that potentially frees up 28 receptions and six TDs. The Texans lost Jacoby Jones and don't really have a solid WR2 to lean on, so look for Matt Schaub to look Daniels' way more often in 2012.
 
Keller got off to a good start in 2011, racking up 16 catches for 249 yards and two TDs in his first three games. He then posted just three catches for 19 yards over the next two games (one of which was against a terrible Patriots pass defense). Keller saw 5+ targets in 14 of his 16 games and should see an uptick in redzone targets with Plaxico Burress gone. He's not an exciting pick, but has a good chance to finish as a top 10 TE for a third consecutive season.
 
Olsen finished the season at TE19 with only four targets in his final three games. However, he was on pace for 104 targets after the first eight games. In fact, he was on pace for 60-718-8 after Week 8 (TE8 numbers) before injuries and the presence of Jeremy Shockey slowed him down. Shockey and his 62 targets are gone, so there is nothing standing in the way of Olsen and 100+ targets in 2012. Keep in mind that OC Rob Chudzinski's offense relies heavily on the TE position and Olsen (27 years-old) is still in his prime.
 
If he can get stronger, Fleener has all the tools become the next Rob Gronkowski. Fleener is 6'6", 260 lbs and ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at his pro day. He averaged 19.6 YPC in college. All of those numbers meet or exceed Gronkowski's measurables/stats at the same time in his career. Plus, he has a built-in rapport with Andrew Luck, who also went to Stanford. Keep in mind that while Fleener's YPC was outstanding at Stanford, he was not as productive as Gronkowski at the same age. Also, rookie TEs generally have a tough time making a big fantasy impact.
 
The Vikings are reportedly planning to use Rudolph as the centerpiece of their two-TE attack and the second-year player should benefit from his first full offseason of working with QB Christian Ponder. For what it's worth, Ponder has been raving about Rudolph and it appears that the duo has developed solid chemistry. Given the lack of receiving options in Minnesota, it wouldn't be a shocker if Rudolph finished with the second-most targets (to Percy Harvin) in 2012. Our one concern: The Vikings just gave John Carlson a fat contract (five-years, $25M), which means he's likely to play quite a bit. We're betting that it will be in two-TE formations and not at the expense of Rudolph.
 
Cook really shined at the end of last season, destroying secondaries to the tune of 21 catches for 335 yards and a TD over his final three games. However, he was inconsistent for much of the year, finishing with 40 or fewer receiving yards in nine of the other 13 games. He has a lot of upside, but it's somewhat tempered by the return of Kenny Britt and the addition of rookie WR Kendall Wright.
Filed Under: Preseason, 2012