Fantasy Throwdown: Jimmy Graham vs. Rob Gronkowski: Who Is The #1 Tight End

by Will Overton

Five years ago and you wouldn’t have seen any tight ends being talked about among the top 25 players in fantasy football. Now we have a couple of guys in that late second round/early third round mix and it’s certainly an interesting topic.

Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski? Which one should be taken first? Whichever one you think should be taken first, how high should they go? The argument isn’t that these guys are necessarily equal to the receivers you can take at this point. The argument is there is a much bigger drop off at tight end if you wait a couple extra rounds then at wide receiver.

These are good questions and there important questions, because how you view the answer to these can have a big impact on how your draft shakes out. I’m going to start by breaking down each of this year’s top two tight ends and then we’ll discuss which one should be taken first and where they should go.

Jimmy Graham
The last two seasons Jimmy Graham has been the epitome of consistency. Graham caught four or more passes in all but one game last season. In 2011 he had at least four catches in every game he played. Almost just as important, especially in this debate, he has played in all but one game the last two years. If you’re looking for someone who is going to get you something week in and week out and has proven to be pretty reliable as far as health, Graham is the guy.

The knock on Graham right now, and a very legitimate concern, is that his production dropped off late, especially his TD production which almost completely fell off at the end of last season. After catching eight TD’s in his first nine games played Graham only caught one TD in his last six games.  A big part of a TE’s value comes from their ability to score TD’s as big red zone targets. It’s nice to have Graham and his 80+ catches, but if he isn’t scoring TD’s he isn’t close to worth a third round pick.

In fairness to Graham though and the Saints as a whole, last season was an odd year. The coaching staff was in shambles last year as was the whole team. The running game couldn’t stay healthy enough to provide any kind of relief to the passing game. Also, while Brees production didn’t drop off, the other big red zone target, Marques Colston wasn’t catching TD’s late in the season either.

In what seems like a down year and especially a down last half of the year, Graham still had 85 receptions and 9 TD passes. It is a small worry that the Saints have so many weapons, but Graham should be good for 80 – 90 catches and double digit TD’s with the Saints returning back to normalcy again.

Rob Gronkowski
In three NFL seasons Gronkowski has caught double digit TD’s in all three seasons. Combined in these three seasons he has 38 TD catches, most in the NFL. The next guy on that list would be the consensus first round selection, Calvin Johnson, he has 33 TD’s in the same three seasons. Gronkowski was a late first or at worst early second round pick last season after catching 17 TD’s in 2011. Owners were salivating at the thought of a 20+ TD season and who could blame them.

Gronkowski was largely playing up to his draft position last season too. Through the first ten games of the season he had 53 receptions, 748 yards and 10 TD’s. Putting him on pace for 85 receptions, 1,197 yards and 16 TD’s, a season that would’ve been worthy of a first round pick no matter what position he plays.

Unfortunately in that tenth game of the season Gronk broke a bone in his forearm causing him to miss six weeks. He played in one regular season game and one playoff game in which he re-broke the same arm in a slightly different place requiring a second surgery. He followed this up with two more surgeries in the offseason because of an infection in the arm.

All of this was followed up by spinal surgery in June because of back and hip problems he was having. It is worth mentioning that he had more back problems in college that required a surgery. At this point it’s up in the air whether or not he’ll be ready to play week one or not, but the expectation is he shouldn’t miss much time if any, so we’re told.

The reality is that no one really knows that for sure. One can expect him to be back early in the season, but these are pretty serious issues. He may make a full recovery, but the threat of injury will always be there looming over him you have to think.

The Patriots cleaned house intentionally and unintentionally when it came to their crop of pass catchers this offseason. So if Gronkowski can and does play a full season at close to or completely full strength, the sky might be the limit for what he could do statistically. The guy is a stud when he’s on the field and honestly if I knew he was healthy he’d be worth an early second round pick easily. I just don’t know what to expect and that scares me.

Early indications are that Graham is going early third round and Gronk is going late third round. I think fantasy owners have that in the right order. Graham may not have the same kind of statistical ceiling that Gronk has, but he’s so much safer of a pick it isn’t funny. Gronk is the ultimate boom or bust pick this year while Graham at his worth is probably getting 75 catches, 800 yards and 8 TD’s. You can’t always play it safe, but I think you have to here. If you see Gronkowski slide a round or two, then maybe he’s worth all the risk.

As far as Graham and his draft position it depends on what you think of him honestly. His numbers were comparable to guys like Victor Cruz and Randall Cobb last year who are going in a similar range as he is in drafts right now.

I only caution you not to overrate Graham or any TE’s numbers just because they’re a TE and you think TE is a weak spot, cause that’s changing. Two guys caught more passes than Graham last season, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, both guys are going three rounds later.

I believe Graham is the best tight end out there and I believe he is about as safe of a pick as you can make. I just don’t think he is going to out produce guys like Demaryius Thomas and Percy Harvin who he is sandwiched between on the ADP list right now and I won’t take him just because of his position. That’s the call that you have to make.

Make sure to check out all of our 2013 preseason rankings:

Fantasy Throwdown: Montee Ball vs. Eddie Lacy: Which Rookie Running Back Should Be Taken First?
Fantasy Throwdown: Wes Welker vs. Danny Amendola

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