Rob Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham: Who Will Be 2012's Top Fantasy TE?

Chet Gresham@Chet_GFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2012

Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Rob Gronkowski, New England PatriotsJim Rogash/Getty Images

Rob Gronkowski had the best season for a tight end ever. His numbers from last season looked more like elite receiver numbers than tight end numbers. He’s fast, strong, tall, has great hands and has Tom Brady and the Patriots offense in his corner. Let’s take a look at some of his insane numbers.

His 17 receiving touchdowns broke Antonio Gate’s record of 13. His 1,327 yards broke Kellen Winslow’s record of 1,290 receiving yards. His 27 touchdowns in his first two seasons beat Mike Ditka’s record of 17 by more than enough. And those are just the obvious records!

His season was one of the best seasons by any player ever. How often does a player break both the total yardage and total touchdown records for their position?

So with this kind of dominance, why even question his No. 1 tight end status in the fantasy football draft rankings? Well, because Jimmy Graham had a pretty good season himself.

If it wasn’t for Gronkowski’s record-breaking year, it would have been Graham's record-breaking year. Graham finished the season with 99 receptions (nine more than Gronkowski), 1,310 receiving yards (17 less) and 11 touchdowns (six less). So really, the only difference in fantasy production was the extreme touchdown production of Gronkowski. 

Will Gronk be able to keep that kind of production up?  Let’s take a look at some more numbers after you take a look at a big picture of Jimmy Graham.

Rob Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham

Total Targets: 124/149

Graham beat Gronkowski in targets here fairly easily. Gronkowski, of course, was more productive with his targets, but this is still a good stat to win.

Percent of Targets: 12.8 percent/25.3 percent

Graham saw a quarter of all of Drew Brees’ targets last season, while Gronk saw half of that number. Brees is looking for Graham early and often, and there is no ambiguity there. Brady has eyes for others.

Red Zone Targets: 24/28

Inside the 10: 7/13

Inside the 5: 2/6

The closer to the end zone, the more often Tom Brady went to Aaron Hernandez, who had a league-high 17 targets inside the 10-yard line. On the other hand, Drew Brees feels most comfortable going to Graham, the closer the Saints close in on the end zone. 

Touchdown Ratio to Receptions/Targets: 1-to-5/7 and 1-to-9/13.5

This is obvious, but should be pointed out. Gronkowski got into the end zone once every five receptions, while Graham got into the end zone once every nine. Will these numbers change? Maybe, maybe not, but if they do, they most likely won't get better for Gronkowski, whereas they could easily stay the same or maybe even improve for Graham.

Touchdowns: 17/11 

As stated before, the 17 touchdowns for a tight end are just insanely insane. When you look to the past to predict the future, there are zero wide receivers or tight ends to increase or repeat touchdown totals over 15. Over the last 10 seasons there has been an 83 percent chance that a tight end who scored seven or more touchdowns will have less the next season. 

When you take a look at the above numbers, we can see a lot of room for Gronkowski to inch back down into the realm of mortal man. Of course, there is a possibility that the Gronk isn't mortal and he'll somehow keep up this immortal production...but then walked in Brandon Lloyd and Josh McDaniels.

Brandon Lloyd is not Randy Moss circa 2007, but they do have a similar skill set, and there’s no reason new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels won’t want to utilize those skills in a similar way to his last two seasons with Lloyd in Denver and St. Louis and his seasons with Moss in New England.

Moss and Lloyd are both great deep threats and can make bad ball/circus catches in tight coverage. Take a gander at a few of Lloyd's amazing receptions here, and don't tell me he doesn't have ability. Moss just took it to an insane/Hall of Fame-level when he wanted to.

Last season, Wes Welker had 17.9 percent of the Patriots' targets, Deion Branch had 9.3 percent, Gronk with 12.8 percent and Aaron Hernandez with 11.7 percent. When you insert Brandon Lloyd into this mix, besides making defensive coordinators soil themselves, you’ll most likely see Lloyd’s percentage rise above Branch’s. He won’t get near to Moss’ 27.5 percent of 2007, but if he even gets up to around 12-to-15 percent, he’ll start dipping into Gronkowski's targets.

In 2007 in Josh McDaniel's system, Randy Moss led the league with 33 red-zone targets, while Wes Welker had 26. Lloyd won’t get that number, but last season Welker had 22, Deion Branch 15, Gronk 24 and Hernandez 25. Once again, Lloyd will become a big part of those numbers.

Josh McDaniels has returned to where he helped put together possibly the best offense of all time in 2007. He was Tom Brady’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, and then resurrected Brandon Lloyd’s career in Denver.

Lloyd won't need to learn a new system having been under McDaniels the last two seasons, and he now has a much better quarterback throwing him the ball than Kyle Orton or Sam Bradford. Lloyd took less money to go to New England because he believes in McDaniels and McDaniels seems to believe in him. I just don't see Lloyd being thrown onto the garbage heap.

And what about Aaron Hernandez? Last season, Hernandez had 25 red-zone targets and Rob Gronkowski had 24. And those numbers came with Hernandez missing two games due to an injury—you can also scrap his first game back from the injury, because he was not up to speed.

A healthy Hernandez wouldn't have derailed Gronkowski's huge season, but the fact that Hernandez wasn't 100 percent all season and that he's one of the best tight ends in the league, doesn't help in my target prediction for Gronk.

When we switch our gaze to "The Reverend" Jimmy Graham, we just need to use the eyes of the newly highest paid quarterback and record breaker for most yards passing in a season, Drew Brees. His blinders for Graham last season will most likely continue this year.

The Saints lost Robert Meachem and gained nobody. Meachem’s loss isn't a huge boon for Graham, but it’s much better than gaining a player the caliber of Brandon Lloyd. Marques Colston and Darren Sproles are Graham’s major competition for targets, but they were last year as well.

So what does this all mean? If I were drafting one of them for my real NFL team, I would probably go with Rob Gronkowski. Even though it's close, I believe he's an all-around better football player.

But when you are drafting for your fake team, I believe Jimmy Graham is the safer of the two picks this season. He won't have nearly the competition for targets, especially in the red zone, and he has room to improve while Gronkowski will be hard pressed to keep his numbers the same.


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