The world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are loaded on offense. The team has three top receivers, plus several other potential contributors. The Buccaneers also have a group of at least four running backs that fantasy players have rostered. All of it led by veteran Tom Brady.
That also includes the tight end group. When the Buccaneers were able to coax Rob Gronkowski out of retirement before the 2020 season, it set the fantasy community ablaze. Many expected big things from Gronk as he reunited with Brady in Tampa Bay. While it started slow, many got their wish.
Gronkowski finished as TE8 in 2020. Better yet, he looked like the Gronk of old at times in the post-season. Gronkowski saw seven targets in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs, catching six of them for 67 yards and two TDs. All that has fans bullish for more in 2021.
But is Gronkowski the best bet?
A Look at the 2020 Season
Gronkowski played all 16 games for the Buccaneers, finishing with 77 targets, catching 45 of those for 623 yards and 7 TDs. Gronk finished third on the team in targets and tied for second on the team with touchdowns. That about matched expectations from fans heading into the season. Combined with his Super Bowl performance, it tracks with the expectations of a repeat in 2021.
But a closer look suggests reasons for thinking differently. Gronkowski did a lot of his damage later in the season when he was the primary option. To start 2020, things looked a little different. During the first four weeks of the season, Gronk shared the position with O.J. Howard. In those first four games, Howard saw 19 targets, catching 11 for 146 yards and two TDs. During those first four games of the season, Howard was TE17 while Gronk was TE36.
An injury ended Howard’s season, but Tampa Bay continued to rely on multiple tight ends. Cameron Brate saw 34 targets over the course of the season, catching 28 passes for 282 yards and two TDs. He was also a factor in the post-season. While Gronk was the man in the Super Bowl, Brate was a big factor in the playoffs. He caught four for 80 against Washington, four for 50 yards against the Saints, and three for 19 yards and a TD in the NFC Championship Game.
From Week 5 to the end of the season, while Howard was on injured reserve, Gronkowski finished as TE4 while Brate was TE28. As with other positions, the implication is that the Buccaneers’ offense isn’t locked into a single contributor at any position.
Looking Ahead to 2021
The Buccaneers are bringing the band back together in 2021. That means Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown all back at receiver, in addition to Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson. It means Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn all back at running back, with the addition of Giovanni Bernard. And it means Gronkowski, Howard, and Brate all back at tight end. That’s a plethora of weapons that will make the Buccaneers a formidable team to beat on the field and potentially a nightmare to handicap for fantasy players.
Evans was the only receiver to play all 16 games in 2020, seeing a team-leading 109 targets. Godwin, who received the Franchise Tag in 2021, saw 84 targets in 12 games. Meanwhile, Brown saw 62 targets in just eight games. It stands to reason that if all three play full seasons, that’s going to be the lion’s share of the available targets.
And the first four games of 2020 suggest that when Howard is on the field, he and Gronk split work. While Howard saw 19 targets and caught 11, Gronk saw 14 targets, catching nine passes for 88 yards and no TDs during those first four games.
Best Fantasy Value
Currently, Gronkowski is going as TE12 in PPR and TE8 in Standard leagues. That’s hardly a surprise given his career, his finish in 2020, and what people saw in the Super Bowl. Howard, meanwhile, is going as TE30 in PPR and TE26 in Standard. Howard is a value in terms of drafts, but does that mean he’s a value for fantasy players?
The four-game stretch together in 2020 suggests a split, possibly favoring Howard. Howard was at one point a First-Round draft pick, but he’s never seen more than 53 targets and caught more than 34 passes in a season. While 2020 looked like a potential breakout season, an injury cut the campaign short. In addition, it’s possible that Gronkowski, who sat out the 2019 season and had limited off-season work and no pre-season in 2020, needed to round himself into shape. His strong finish could support that view.
Brady threw the ball 610 times for 40 TDs in 2020. If we assume a similar production, maybe up to 650 attempts with an additional game, a picture begins to form. I suspect all three receivers will see 100-plus targets, leaving about half Brady’s attempts to be split among backs, tight ends, and other receivers. The three TEs—Gronk, Brate, and Howard—saw 128 targets combined in 2020, adding 11 of the team’s passing touchdowns.
I suspect that group sees about 130-150 targets in 2021 and about 10 TDs. With Howard playing a full season, that feels like about 60-65 targets each for him and Gronk. I think both finishes in the Top 24, neither cracking the Top 12. Given their ADP and expectations, Howard is the value in 2021, especially given he will hit the open market following the season.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard football fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, the newest addition to the Campus2Canton Podcast Network!