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Fantasy spin: Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury

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Every game, all season

Dave Dameshek, he of podcast and "Fantasy and Friends" fame, has a theory about NFL player's I'm quite fond of. He calls it "The Jenga Theory," and it refers to the importance of key players on teams who, if removed, cause the team to crumble like an ill-constructed Jenga tower. Whenever the discussion of this theory arises, Rob Gronkowski is almost always considered among the league's most essential Jenga pieces. With news breaking Thursday that Gronk will undergo back surgery and miss several weeks, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the fantasy outlook for the Patriots is about to feel a seismic shift.

Fantasy impact on the Patriots offense as a whole


Let's start with the big picture. This is a net loss for the scoring opportunities of the whole Patriots offense. A threat like Gronk is a consistent option in the red zone, and draws specific coverages on most plays, freeing up other players to find space and produce. Since 2010 (Gronkowski's rookie year), the Patriots offense averages 4.3 more points per game with the big tight end in the starting lineup (31.2 versus 26.9). Touchdowns will be slightly harder to come by in New England now, and we'll need to see how Tom Brady adjusts without his top target.

Fantasy impact on Tom Brady


The loss of an elite talent like Gronk knocks Brady down a peg in the quarterback rankings. Since 2010, he averages .4 fewer touchdown passes, 33.2 fewer passing yards, and 3.7 fewer fantasy points per game without Gronk, per the RotoViz Game Splits app. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating all take significant hits as well. Brady will still be a strong option at quarterback the rest of the season, but won't carry the "must-start" tag he previously owned, even in poor matchups.

Fantasy impact on the Patriots WRs, RBs and Martellus Bennett


Looking at the span of Week 5 to Week 10, when Gronk was and playing a full complement of snaps, he saw 19.7 percent of the passing targets. That's a large piece of the pie to redistribute among the remaining skill position players. Fortunately for us, Weeks 11 and 12 provide a brief snapshot of how the Pats offense could operate in a Gronk-less world, as he missed the first game entirely and left the second early with the back injury now costing him the rest of the season. Here's a look at the Patriots target distribution in that dominant Gronk span versus the past two weeks.

Percentage of Targets, Patriots offense
Player Name: Weeks 5-10 | Weeks 11-12 | Difference
» Julian Edelman:   26.3 | 31.1 | +4.8
» Martellus Bennett:  16.2 | 7.8 | -8.4
» James White:   17.4 | 16.7 | -0.7
» Malcolm Mitchell:  3.6 | 13.3 | +9.7
» Dion Lewis:   n/a | 13.3 | +13.3
» Chris Hogan:  8.9 | 10* | +1.1
*only counts Week 12, as Hogan missed Week 11

The biggest takeaways from this chart are the rise of Malcolm Mitchell and the return of Dion Lewis. Mitchell's playing time jumped significantly with Gronk and Chris Hogan out of the lineup for parts of the last two weeks, as he played 26 percent of the snaps from Weeks 5-10 versus 67 percent of the snaps in Weeks 11 and 12. What's important to note regarding Mitchell is that he keeps making plays when given opportunities, with nine catches, 140 yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks. That kind of production will keep him in the good graces of the Patriots' coaching staff and Brady, which makes him a valuable waiver-wire target now that Gronk is out. Bennett is dealing with injuries of his own (ankle), so it's foolish to assume he'll replace Gronkowski on a 1-to-1 level. He'll still be a starting tight end from here on out, but he has the look of a volatile play given his usage in this offense to date. Edelman owners who were sweating out the start of the season can now sleep easy. A 26.3 percent market share is sizeable enough, but the 31.1 share he's seen the last two weeks rivals the top target hogs in the league. It'll be worth watching if Dion Lewis earns more looks as he returns to full health. James White played well in his absence, but a full-strength Lewis is a far better player and the Patriots know it. He's a more enticing waiver-add now with more opportunities up for grabs.

Replacing Rob Gronkowski on the waiver wire


All right, now for the burning question on Gronk owners' minds: Whom to add off the waiver wire to replace him? Tight end was already a wasteland prior to Gronk's injury, so the pickings will be slim. However, there are a few nice options still available in plenty of leagues. I'll break them down quickly below, ranked from highest ownership percentage to lowest:


   »Cameron Brate, TB (25.6 percent owned): Owns 25. percent of the red-zone targets since becoming the starter in Week 3. Has great scoring potential this week against the Chargers.
   »Eric Ebron, DET (21.1 percent owned): Don't let last week's disappearing act scare you. If Ebron was dropped after that, pick him up for an extremely favorable matchup with the Saints this weekend.
   »Ladarius Green, PIT (15.8 percent owned): He's still getting way out-snapped by Jesse James, but Green is basically being treated as a wide receiver. His breakout game could come this week against the Giants.
   »Vernon Davis, WAS (8.1 percent owned): His value is on the rise with Jordan Reed battling a serious shoulder injury. Davis posted and 8-129-1 line on 10 targets in the two games Reed missed earlier this season.
   »Jared Cook, GB (7.4 percent owned): Extremely volatile, but owns a ceiling worth chasing in the right matchups (which probably isn't this week against Houston).
   »Vance McDonald, SF (5.7 percent owned): Has seen six or more targets in five straight games, with 50-plus receiving yards or a touchdown in his last four games. Not sexy, but a safe option.
   »Lance Kendricks, LA (1.8 percent owned): Has seven targets in each of Jared Goff's two starts. A risky play, but could be worth an add if his usage trends up with Goff the rest of the season.

If I had to pick one to add, it'd be Ebron. After that, I really like Davis and Brate, while McDonald shouldn't be overlooked as well. All of these options are viable, though, so best of luck grabbing one (or two to play the matchups) on the waivers this week. Just remember, none of them will fill the Gronk-shaped hole that has been spiked through your heart in Week 13.

-- Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar

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