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The Patriots’ ‘Best All-Around’ Player Might Be a Sleeper Tight End

New England Patriots rookie Zach Sudfeld t
New England Patriots rookie Zach Sudfeld t

May 3, 2013; Foxboro, MA USA; New England Patriots rookie Zach Sudfeld talks with the media during rookie minicamp at Gillette Stadium. Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a 6-foot-7-inch 253-pound pass-catching beheamoth wreaking havoc on the New England Patriots’ training camp defense and grabbing the attention of one Tom Brady. His name, somehow, is not Rob Gronkowski.

He’s un-drafted free agent tight end Zach Sudfeld, and if Gronkowski does indeed miss the early part of the season—up to six weeks, perhaps—Sudfeld could be an exceedingly cheap fantasy football commodity for those committed to waiting to draft the position.

Sudfeld, who went un-drafted after an injury-plagued career at the University of Nevada, has asserted himself in Patriots’ training camp this month, drawing praise from his all-world signal caller, his coaches, and beat writers watching every snap of every practice.

It’s hardly speculation to charge that Sudfeld, should Gronkowski miss time—and with Aaron Hernandez‘s permanent NFL vacation in motion—is the favorite to fill the massive void left in the New England offense.

Running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Julian Edelman could also absorb some of that opportunity once afforded Gronkowski and Hernandez, as reports have trumpeted in recent weeks, but Sudfeld should be smack dab on your fantasy football radar as a late-round flier.

Below is a quick look at measurables for Hernandez, Gronkowski and Sudfeld. And fret not — I’m not saying they’re the same guys. I’m just saying.

Player Height Weight Vertical 40 time Broad jump
Rob Gronkowski 6’6” 264 33.5 4.68 118”
Zach Sudfeld 6’7” 253 37.5 4.79 113”
Aaron Hernandez 6’1” 245 33 4.64 111”

Much-respected Patriots beat writer Ben Volin wrote Aug. 4 that Sudfeld “may be the best all-around member on the field right now,” adding that the rookie is a “tall red-zone target, the most fluid athlete on the field, and was graded as the best blocking tight end in this year’s draft.”

I suppose those elite blocking skills could get in the way of our chasing of cheap fantasy points. Volin also mentioned that the replacement-level tight end Daniel Fells is taking most first-team snaps in training camp. But, as usual, I digress.

Below might be the most generous assessment of how Sudfeld has performed in his short time with the Patriots. NESN reporter Doug Kyed doesn’t mince words after watching the rookie practice.

“Sudfeld is a step (or two or three) faster than the rest of the tight ends and hasn’t looked like a rookie during training camp,” Kyed wrote. “Sudfeld has shown off dependable hands, great speed, nice movement after the catch and a veteran demeanor (not to mention flowing blond hair that makes him easy to pick out of the group). The rookie had numerous surgeries as a collegian at Nevada, but if he can stay healthy, he could be the main beneficiary of snaps while Gronkowski recovers.”

Kyed, in an Aug. 7 Twitter exchange I had with him, wrote that the Patriots’ tight ends got “pretty equal reps” with the first-team offense, though Sudfeld was “far and away the quickest and fastest” among the lumbering pass catchers.

Patriots coaches have apparently noticed Sudfeld’s versatility, lining up the big man as an in-line tight end, in the slot, and as a flex tight end. Kyed points to Sudfeld as the only guy on the New England roster who could replace Hernandez.

Fantasy Production on a Per-Route Basis

There would be bushel of pass routes to go around should both Patriots’ superstar tight ends miss the early part of the season. We know one most certainly will.

No one is going to produce fantasy points at Gronkowski’s startling rate, and while Hernandez’s per-route production is achievable, it’s very much unlikely for anyone on the Pats’ roster. Our quick peak at Sudfeld’s possible fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) prospects starts with a review of Gronkowski’s and Hernandez’s route-running workload.

Player Year Routes run per game
Rob Gronkowski 2010 16.9
Aaron Hernandez 2010 21
Rob Gronkowski 2011 34.9
Aaron Hernandez 2011 34.4
Rob Gronkowski 2012 29.5
Aaron Hernandez 2012 35.2

Excluding 2010, when both New England tight ends were rarely used as route runners, Hernandez averaged 34.8 pass routes per contest and Gronkowski ran 32.7. That means there would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 67 routes to be shared among the remaining Patriots’ pass catchers.

The team could go in a decidedly run-heavy direction, as they did when late-career Corey Dillon headed their backfield and toted the pigskin 345 times, while Brady attempted just 474 passes. With two legit running backs in New England, this is a possibility, however unlikely.

Sudfeld, if he could scrape away just a third of the Gronkowski-Hernandez route running—around 22 routes per game—and average the .21 FPPRR we look for in useable pass catchers, could be good for upwards of five fantasy points a contest. That, as you can see, is the most conservative of FPPRR projections.

If Sudfeld was afforded half of those pass routes (33.5) at the .21 FPPRR, he’d be good for around seven fantasy points per game

We should remember that fantasy-relevant tight ends don’t always run endless pass routes. Martellus Bennett, 2012’s No. 13 fantasy tight end, ran just 26.3 routes a game, and Dennis Pitta —fantasy’s No. 7 tight end—recorded 24.7 routes per contest.

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