ROB GRONKOWSKI HAS A WARNING FOR ALL OF YOU POTENTIAL FANTASY FOOTBALL OWNERS IN 2011: IF YOU DO ONE THING IN ASSEMBLING YOUR TEAM, MAKE SURE GRONK IS ON IT. "YOU PROBABLY MISSED OUT ON WHAT I DID [LAST YEAR], BUT DON'T make the same mistake again," he says. "Get ready to score some points."
Who's going to argue with the Patbgvriots' red zone beast? Last season Gronkowski set franchise records for touchdown catches by a tight end (10) and by a rookie at any position. He also became just the second first-year tight end in NFL history to reach double digits in TDs, joining the Bears' Mike Ditka, who caught 12 in 1961.
Gronkowski credits his relationship with Tom Brady for allowing him to quickly contribute at a position that, because of the need to learn both complex blocking schemes and pass routes, traditionally has been difficult for rookies. "[Brady] has helped me a lot with my route running after practice, before practice, in film-study sessions," he explains. "I'm always trying to learn where he wants me to be on the field. We're constantly working on timing, and I'm always trying to learn from him."
There are other reasons that make Gronkowski attractive in this year's tight end market. First, at age 22, he only has room to improve, whereas many of the other big names at the position—Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, among others—appear to have already reached their ceiling.
Also, once Gronkowski caught on last season, he finished the year strong. From Nov. 1 to the end of the season he led all NFL tight ends in touchdown catches, with seven, and ranked fourth in receiving yards, with 445. If he can translate those numbers over the course of a full year, his owners will hit the fantasy lottery.
And, perhaps best of all, on a team where the top three receivers—Chad Ochocinco, Wes Welker and Deion Branch—are 6' 1", 5' 9" and 5' 9", respectively, the 6' 6", 265-pound Gronkowski stands out as a big red zone target. Last season he had more catches (nine), yards (46) and touchdown receptions (seven) inside the opponent's 10-yard line than any other Patriot.
Gronkowski's scoring prowess was never more evident than in a November game against Pittsburgh, which had the AFC's stingiest pass defense. He found himself on the receiving end of three Brady TD strikes, the only three-score day for a tight end in 2010. While fantasy owners were surprised by the performance—Gronkowski ranked 35th in receiving yards and 34th in catches among tight ends at the time—he was not. "It's just how the game went," he says. "In the NFL you never know what's going to happen. Every player has to be ready to be the target on every play."
If there is one reason to be wary of grabbing Gronk, it is the presence of Aaron Hernandez, New England's other 2010 rookie tight end, who had 45 catches for 563 yards and six touchdowns. The two shared the tight end targets for much of the season and perplexed fantasy owners who tried to predict which Patriot would shine each week. "We have a friendly competition," Gronkowski says. "But we help each other out." With Hernandez out for the last two games because of a right hip injury, Gronkowski broke out for 10 catches and three touchdowns.
That red zone prowess makes Gronk the better of the Patriots to own as well as a good bet for a big season. Just ask him.