There is no bigger risk/reward pick in fantasy football this year than New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
A lot of fantasy leagues are going to be won (or lost) in 2013 because of the fourth-year pro.
If Gronkowski misses only a few games due to the back surgery he underwent in June and then returns to form, he represents one of a precious few players at any position who offers a decided edge over your competition.
With that said, if the injury lingers and Gronkowski misses substantial time, the early-round pick required to obtain his services could be a season-killer.
So what's the deal with Gronkowski? At what point does the potential reward that could come with rostering Gronkowski outweigh the risk involved in drafting him?
Let's take a look, beginning with the good news.
Over the past three seasons, Gronkowski has emerged as a truly elite option at the tight-end position, both in the NFL and in fantasy football. His monstrous 2011 season was the greatest fantasy season by a tight end since, well, ever.
If you look at his fantasy production on a per-game basis compared to the other top-five tight ends (according to this year's average draft position at My Fantasy League), Gronkowski's impact on fantasy leagues becomes even more evident.
Over the past two years, only two tight ends have averaged more than 10 fantasy points per game. Gronkowski has scored nearly three more points per contest than the other one, Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints.
Due in large part to his red-zone prowess, Gronkzilla has been stomping his way through the NFL for the better part of the past three years.
However, at this point, the bad news comes in.
Gronkowski broke his forearm last November against the Indianapolis Colts. The 24-year-old returned for the regular-season finale, only to re-fracture the arm in the second round of the playoffs.
An arm infection ensued after the operation, forcing a mandatory follow-up procedure. And another. And another. Just those four surgeries were enough to raise doubts about Gronkowski's fantasy prospects this year.
Then Gronkowski's back acted up, resulting in surgery back in June.
This wasn't the first time that Gronkowski's back was an issue. Gronkowski missed the entire 2009 season at Arizona and the NFL Scouting Combine the following February after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc.
Drew Rosenhaus (Gronkowski's agent) was quick to dismiss the second back operation, saying it was "not a serious matter" at the time in an interview with WQAM Radio (per CSN Northeast):
This is a new injury and it’s minor, it’s not as significant [as the prior back injury]. I don’t think it’s a big deal, I think it’s more preventive maintenance than anything else. It’s something that, although he needs it, he’s had it for a while and he’s been able to function.
However, despite rumors that Gronkowski could open the regular season on the physically unable to perform list (which would cost him six games), Gronkowski still had an average draft position at My Fantasy League of the early third round on July 12.
That ADP was buoyed by hopes that Gronkowski would be ready by Week 1. A month or so later, it had become abundantly clear that was not going to happen.
That in turn sent Gronkowski's draft stock tumbling, and brings us to where we stand today.
As you can see, Gronkowski has now dropped to anywhere from the middle of the fourth round to the middle of the fifth in 12-team fantasy football leagues.
At that point, wise fantasy owners will pull the trigger.
That isn't to say that there isn't risk involved with the decision, especially if it has to be made before Saturday. The Patriots could still elect to leave Gronkowski on the PUP list into the regular season, which would be a crushing blow to fantasy owners in leagues with 13-week regular seasons.
However, with Gronkowski already participating in some drills, the general consensus is that isn't going to be the case.
The prevailing school of thought now is that Gronkowski will miss two-to-four games, with Mike Reiss of ESPN recently reporting that a return to action in late September "might not be that far off the mark."
If that proves to be the case, and Gronkowski hits the field at anything close to his old self, fantasy owners who rolled the dice are going to be handsomely rewarded.
We're talking about a player who finished inside the top five at his position in fantasy points last year despite missing five games. The departure of Wes Welker and release of Aaron Hernandez makes Gronkowski by far the most familiar face for Tom Brady in the New England passing game.
Make no mistake. Gronkowski, if healthy, would be targeted a lot.
This isn't a pick for the faint of heart. However, the risk can be mitigated somewhat. Veteran tight ends such as Owen Daniels of the Houston Texans and Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers are regularly available in the 10th round or later.
Young upside options such as Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns and Tyler Eifert of the Cincinnati Bengals are available even later. All of those players can hold down the fort until Gronkowski returns, and are at least serviceable insurance policies if the injury lingers.
It may not be the safe route, but here's a tip: The safe route doesn't win fantasy leagues. It gets you an 8-5 record and a first-round playoff loss.
Rob Gronkowski, on the other hand, can be a big part of you bringing home the championship. He's a good pick in the fourth round, and phenomenal value in the fifth.
After all, no guts...no glory.
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