This past Sunday one of the greatest (if not the greatest) tight end to play the game announced he would do so no longer. Retiring at only 29 years old, Rob Gronkowski absolutely dominated the game while he played. Here are just some of the records he will hold as he retires:
(Sports Illustrated Instagram)
Not only did Gronkowski hold all these records and more, but his contributions go way past what he did statistically: he was a tremendous blocker, leader, and competitor. So how do you replace Gronkowski? The answer is simple: you do not. If you do not replace Gronkowski, what does this mean for the Patriots in 2019 and beyond? To answer this, let’s take a look at the breakdown of the team’s passing attempts over the past five seasons:
Over the past five years, the Patriots have averaged 582 pass attempts. During this same timeframe, their pass attempts to wide receivers has been the most consistent: always between 48-55%. The targets for tight end and running back fluctuates much more but consistently they combine for anywhere between 45-52% of the total targets.
With Gronkowski retiring, Cordarrelle Patterson signing with the Bears, Dwayne Allen headed to Miami, Chris Hogan not signed, and Josh Gordon indefinitely suspended, the Patriots currently have 229 vacated targets from 2018.
Rumors have been flying around about the Patriots gunning for a top wide receiver over the past year. They know better than any other team rookies just don’t produce like veterans. It makes no sense for them to enter into development process with a young receiver or tight end when Tom Brady is already 41 years old. I would look for them to make a big move for a veteran receiver or tight end right before or during the NFL draft. If they do not make a big move for a pass catcher, then this is a huge vote of confidence in either Phillip Dorsett taking a significant step forward or Gordon returning from his suspension.
Even if Julian Edelman just keeps the same targets/game he had last year, he would end up with 144 targets in 2019. This seems reasonable, as he has averaged between 9-10 targets per game in his last five seasons with Brady. Philip Dorsett finished with 42 targets in 2018. Assuming his connection with Brady grows, he could reach 70 targets.
Aside from Edelman, James White the closest thing to a lock for around 100 targets. I find it hard to believe that they do not try to get Sony Michel more involved in the passing game than they did in 2018. Considering the Patriots are throwing the ball to their backs around 30% of the time, I could see him ending the year with at least 40 targets. As you look at the chart you see that when they tight end targets go down, the running back targets go up. Knowing this it makes sense that Burkhead could also see around 40 targets as well.
At tight end they have a massive hole. Jacob Hollister is still on the roster, but in two years as a pro he has a grand total of 16 targets. It would be a huge jump to see him earn anything close to what Gronkowski was getting for his career of 7 targets per game. 50-70 targets would be a significant leap but could be realistic for Hollister. Even if the Patriots draft a tight end, no rookie is making the impact Gronkowski did in his first season.
Putting this all together we have:
This still leaves about 140 targets to account for based on the five year average of 582 passing attempts. How will they fill all of those targets? I think they will have around the same percentage breakdown as they did in 2018, where receivers will have about 50-55%, backs will have around 30-35%, and tight ends will only make up 15%. To do this, most expect the Patriots to draft a rookie, but as we would not expect the rookie to produce right away, don’t be surprised if they pull off some bigger trade which lands them another receiver who can help stretch the field. If they do not, then I have to seriously consider raising Dorsett’s targets significantly and be more open to the idea Gordon could once again have value in fantasy leagues.
What does this mean for your fantasy squads? Buy Edelman with the "old man" discount. Buy James White with the floor of 100 targets. Buy Sony with the possibility of more usage in the passing game and significant touchdown upside. Do not jump head first for whichever pass catcher they may draft, but instead buy the veteran they end up trading to get.