Gronk’s Retirement Creates Opportunity, Heightens Risk – Who to Buy, Who to Sell Now

Rob Gronkowski’s retirement leaves a massive gap in New England’s offense — and the fantasy impact of Gronk’s retirement is just as big. The all-time great TE teamed up with Tom Brady to wreak havoc on the league for the last decade, winning many people fantasy championships in the process.

Though Gronk’s swan song season was average, the Patriots offense will still look completely different without him on the field. He was a hulking presence in all areas of the field and was one of the best touchdown scorers ever, with 92 touchdowns in 131 total games.1

So how will Gronk’s retirement impact the Patriots and its star players, including Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, James White, Sony Michel, and others?

Pats’ offensive outlook is down

We won’t spend much time here because you already know the gist of this section: Gronkowski was good. Really good. Using the RotoViz Team Splits App, we see just how big of an impact Gronkowski’s retirement could have on the Patriots:

patriots-splits-with-and-without-rob-gronkowski

Since 2010, Gronkowski’s rookie year, the Patriots have been significantly better in every meaningful category when he’s on the field. The Patriots score 3.87 more points per game (PPG) with Gronk in the lineup and 0.5 more points per drive.

The Patriots have still scored a healthy 26.8 PPG without Gronk on the field — so it’s not as though they are completely toast without him — but the 30.67 PPG with him healthy is astronomical.

While Gronkowski’s departure will create opportunity for other Patriots players, it also reduces the team’s overall scoring chances.

Below are some of the key Patriots players who will see an overall reduction in value or an overall boost in value. We’ll also go over some of the current unknowns. 

Tom Brady’s fantasy value takes a big hit with Gronk’s retirement

Tom Brady is the biggest loser in Gronk’s retirement. Brady, much like the Patriots as a whole, operates at a whole other level with Gronkowski on the field.

tom-brady-splits-with-rob-gronkowski

The bottom line: Since 2010, in 112 games with Gronkowski, Brady averaged 25.22 fantasy PPG. In 28 games without Gronk, Brady averaged 21.41 PPG. Brady compiled more touchdowns, more yards, more yards per attempt, and fewer interceptions with Gronkowski in the lineup.

There are no positive takeaways for Brady here.

That 3.8 fantasy PPG difference is massive. It adds up to over 60 total points over the course of a full season. It’s also the difference between Brady performing like an average fantasy QB2 vs. an average fantasy QB7 on a per-game basis.2

From 2015-2017, Brady finished as a top-five QB in terms of fantasy PPG, but in 2018 he finished with 20.6 PPG, good for 18th among quarterbacks. Gronkowski’s retirement — coupled with other factors, such as New England’s run-heavy approach down the stretch in 2018 — only hurts Brady’s future outlook.

Brady will be a borderline top-12 fantasy QB in 2019 rather than the slam-dunk option he’s always been.

Julian Edelman will see even more use with Gronk out

Julian Edelman is a winner in New England’s new-look offense.

Despite entering his age-33 season, things are looking rosy for Edelman in 2019 as the clear top option in New England’s passing attack. Since 2013,3 Edelman has played 47 games with Gronk and 20 without.

With no Gronk on the field, Edelman averaged more targets, more receptions, more yards, and more fantasy PPG. Edelman did, however, score fewer touchdowns per game. Remember, Gronk’s retirement reduces everyone’s scoring chances in New England.

In PPR leagues, the benefits of extra usage are enough to give Edelman an uptick in value in a post-Gronk world.

James White will be a PPR stud again, while Sony Michel should play a bigger role

Running backs James White and Sony Michel also figure to get usage boosts with Gronkowski’s departure.

White’s 123 targets ranked second among RBs (7.7 per game), as did his 22% target market share.4 White’s 7 receiving touchdowns ranked first at the position. He finished the year as the No. 7 running back in PPR leagues.

It’s impossible to project White for even more usage in 2019, but Gronk’s departure ensures that White will remain a massive part of New England’s passing attack again in 2019.

Michel, on the other hand, can be safely projected for more work in 2019. From Weeks 1-10, Michel accounted for 38% of New England’s rushing attempts. From Weeks 11 through the Super Bowl, his market share increased to 55%.

Importantly, over this home stretch, Michel handled 60% of New England’s rushing attempts from inside the 10.

Not coincidentally, the 2018 Patriots also set a five-year high in terms of pass/run ratio inside the 10:

What does this have to do with Gronkowski’s retirement? Throughout his career, Gronkowski routinely accounted for about 20%-25% of New England’s targets inside the 10. Gronk set a career-low mark last year with just 6% team target market share on inside-the-10 targets, coinciding with New England’s heavy lean on the run.

No Gronkowski — one of the best red zone threats in NFL history — will likely mean that New England will lean run-heavy inside the 10 once again in 2019.

Given the role Michel plays in the offense, that’s a boon for his outlook. He might be the only player on the 2019 Patriots whose touchdown expectation increases with Gronk’s departure. Michel is a fantastic fantasy RB2, held back only by his complete lack of usage in the passing attack. 

The great unknowns: Gronk’s replacement, Josh Gordon, and Demaryius Thomas

Here are some quick-hit thoughts on the other factors at play in New England this year:

  • Assuming the Patriots stick with Austin-Seferian Jenkins in 2019, he’ll likely be a decent streaming option with the potential to become a weekly starter, but I certainly won’t be drafting him as my TE1.
  • What about the indefinitely suspended Josh Gordon? The Patriots surprisingly kept Gordon on the roster, perhaps because he clicked so well with Brady.5 If Gordon returns, he immediately becomes a fantasy WR2.
  • The Patriots added 31-year-old Demaryius Thomas to the roster, though he’ll likely open the season on the PUP list.6 If he stays on the roster and the Patriots add no other legitimate threat, Thomas could realistically become the team’s No. 2 option for the final few weeks of the season. You don’t have to draft him, but his health is worth monitoring during the season.
  • Other receivers currently on the roster are Phillip Dorsett, Bruce Ellington, Maurice Harris, and Braxton Berrios. Dorsett is the best bet to have any fantasy relevance, though Ellington could emerge as a PPR bye week flex fill-in. We’ll have to pay close attention to roles during the offseason and preseason to get a better read of the pecking order after Edelman and White.

  1. Including playoffs.  (back)
  2. “QB2/QB7” as used here means the No. 2 or No. 7 overall fantasy quarterback in terms of PPG. Since 2010, fantasy QB2s have averaged 25.09 fantasy PPG, while QB7s have averaged 21.36 PPG. These numbers are in line with Brady’s with- and without-Gronk splits.  (back)
  3. Though Edelman has been in the league since 2009, he didn’t become a big part of New England’s offense until 2013.  (back)
  4. Christian McCaffreywas first in both categories, with 124 targets and 23% team target market share.  (back)
  5. According to our AYA App, among players Brady has targeted at least 50 times, Brady’s best individual receiver connection (in terms of AYA) is with Gordon.  (back)
  6. Thomas tore his Achilles in December 2018.  (back)