Rust vs. Rest: Can you trust Rob Gronkowski to give you a full season of fantasy production?

For years fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field. Given the COVID-related question marks surrounding this particular offseason and the durability concerns of some star competitors, I decided to get a professional medical opinion before drawing any conclusions. And so was conceived … Rust vs. Rest.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For nine glorious seasons, Rob Gronkowski put the fiesta in fantasy. From 2010 to 2018, the Patriots’ Y posted 79 spikes over 115 games and managed five top-five FF finishes (seven top-12). In the two years he wasn’t able to complete a full 16-game slate, and therefore couldn’t put up TE1 fantasy numbers, he still averaged impressive per game stats. In fact, Gronk has averaged 13.3 fantasy points per effort over his nine years in New England, which would make him a top-three producer in nearly any season.

While the victories (virtual or otherwise) have been plentiful, they’ve also come at a cost. By his own admission, Gronk has gone under the knife nine times — including an operation to repair a ruptured disc in 2009 ahead of his junior year at Arizona — and has suffered upwards of “20 concussions.” Surgeries endured by the three-time Super Bowl Champ per body part break down accordingly: Ankle (1), knee (2), back (3), and forearm (4).

In his last pro effort — which, coincidentally, was SBLIII — the Rams’ Cory Littleton levied a low hit on Gronk in the second quarter, momentarily forcing the tight end from the game. We all know, of course, that the All-Pro talent made his way back onto the field and set up what would become the game’s only score, and in the process, clinched his third Super Bowl title. What we haven’t heard as much about is the discomfort associated with the above-mentioned quad contusion and how that final physical blow was a major factor in Gronk’s (temporary) retirement.

Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots in the end zone during Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams
Rob Gronkowski made his mark in Super Bowl LIII — but it came at a heavy cost. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

According to Gronkowski, the bruise in his thigh was so deep that during the next month, over three separate treatments, a liter of blood was drained from his leg. He also admits that the intensity of the pain prevented him from sleeping for more than 20 minutes a night. In fact, it seems that a full recovery from this particular ailment was essential to Gronkowski’s return to sport. The star athlete said this past April, “That’s like one of my last final things I’ve got to get fixed on my body. It’s that quad contusion I took from the Super Bowl over a year ago. There’s still a little dent in my quad from it.” He also added, “My body, 100 percent, needed rest.”

Heading into 2020, Gronk has reunited with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, seemingly rested and ready to play for the entirety of the season. While he personally feels up to the challenge, is it medically probable or even possible? As I’ve done over the past four weeks, I asked Dr. Alex Weber his professional opinion on Gronk’s realistic availability heading into the fall and throughout the winter.

What to expect from Gronk on the Buccaneers

The orthopedic surgeon and team physician for USC agreed that the time spent away from the game will aid in Gronkowski’s comeback, saying, “An athlete’s frame, obviously, takes an incredible beating. There is undeniable power in sitting out a season and letting one’s body recover. What these guys do is incredibly taxing on their bones and joints. So for Gronk to get a year of rest allows for all of the nagging bumps and bruises to heal up and provides with him unquestionable benefit.”

He did not believe, however, that it was enough to protect the stud tight end from missing additional time, adding, “You lose a step when you go away from the game. That’s the ‘rust’ we’ve discussed in previous articles. And while I think Gronk will gain that step back fairly quickly, I also think he’s at high risk for re-injury, particularly a season-ending injury. Whether it be lower back, a ligamentous knee injury, or a concussion … he is absolutely at high risk.”

Even if Gronk doesn’t sustain a season-ending injury, it makes sense that he’d be continually hampered by chronic pain, particularly given the numerous back procedures that he’s experienced.

Dr. Weber half-quipped that orthopods have a saying: “The only thing that comes out of spine surgery is more spine surgery.”

Speaking specifically about Gronk’s history he explained, “All of Gronk’s surgeries seem to be disc related. The discs cushion the space between the vertebrae, but when you take hard hits and lift heavy weights and do all of the things that football players do, those discs can herniate. It looks almost like the filling leaking out of a jelly donut. And when the disc herniates — or squeezes out from in between the bones — it pushes on the nerves in the lower back. This often results in symptoms of discomfort presenting in a patient’s legs. Basically, the consequence of having multiple discs partially removed — which is what Gronk has had — is that there is now less cushion or support in the lower back. As a result, undoubtedly, he now has some degree of arthritis.”

If the doctor’s assessment is correct — whether Gronkowski is dealing with arthritis or just recurrent lower back stress — it seems that he’s likely to begin the season much differently than how he’d finish it. Of course “wear and tear” is common for every athlete, but Gronk’s situation appears way more tenuous.

When I expressed this sentiment to Dr. Weber he agreed, offering, “At the bare minimum, I would say that the Tampa Bay medical staff will be dealing with week-to-week strategies to keep his back feeling healthy enough to continue to play. At the worst, he has a flare-up of his back that causes him to miss significant time. Honestly, if he’s productive in Week 16, I would be blown away. I don’t see him starting more than eight games.”

But that doesn’t mean that Gronk won’t be productive. It just means he won’t be productive late in the year. He’s still entering his 10th pro campaign on 18 months of rest. Plus, he’s the only pass-catcher on the squad who has established chemistry with the team’s signal caller. Brady pretty much lured him out of retirement in order to guarantee the existence of at least one security blanket. Therefore, I expect the 31-year-old to be targeted early and often.

Admittedly, Gronk’s strength of schedule isn’t ideal. Opening the season on the road at New Orleans should be a challenge, but the Saints’ dominant pass rush (51 sacks in 2019) figures to have Brady locked in on his former teammate ... who is likely to get loose again in Week 2 when the Bucs host the Panthers’ ultra-green defense. Traveling to Denver in Week 3 and facing off against All-Pro safety Justin Simmons could get dicey, as could dealing with the Chargers standout Derwin James in Week 4.

Ultimately, however, Gronk has proven to be matchup proof. I do anticipate a steep decline as the weeks progress, and I don’t like the quick turnaround he’ll have to manage between Weeks 4 and 5 when he flies from Tampa to Chicago to take on the Bears’ top-ranked defense on Thursday Night Football. However, there is no doubt in my mind that 2020 will kick off with a buffet of Gronk Spikes.

Get ready for a September to remember… and be prepared to sell high (before the month is over).

Which tight ends are you targeting in 2020? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF.

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