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Rob Gronkowski has an impact on the Patriots’ red zone offense even without seeing regular targets

One of the NFL’s best red zone weapons is hardly used that way.

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After slowly starting into the 2018 regular season, the New England Patriots’ offense has turned the corner over the last three weeks. Thanks in part to the emergence of rookie running back Sony Michel and Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon becoming bigger parts of the passing offense, Tom Brady and his teammates scored an average of 39.7 points over their last three contests – all wins, by the way.

This is a noticeable improvement when compared to the 19.0 average the unit had through the first three games this year. One of the key reasons for the team’s recently improved output is its success in the red zone: the Patriots scored touchdowns on 10 of their 14 red area trips over the last three games; they are also 7 of 11 when it comes to converting goal-to-go situations.

When looking at the season-long statistics, New England has now improved to 15 of 22 in the red zone. Furthermore the team scored six field goals, and had one turnover. While not perfect, there is a lot to like about the efficiency deep in the opponent’s territory – and one reason why the Patriots have had plenty of success inside the opponents’ 20-yard line is a player that has seen a limited number of passes thrown his way in the red area this season.

Rob Gronkowski, he of 56 red area scores to his name in his career, was the target of just two passes counted as red area throws: he caught a 21-yard touchdown in week one (a penalty had pushed New England back, but it still counts as a red zone trip), was the target of an incompletion in week four, and saw a pass knocked out of his hands for an interception in week five.

When compared to the Patriots’ other receiving options, Gronkowski is having a quiet season so far in terms of red zone usage. Overall, four players have seen more than his three targets in this part of the field:

RB James White: 9 targets

WR Phillip Dorsett: 5 targets

WR Josh Gordon: 4 targets

WR Julian Edelman: 4 targets

All four players have proven to be valid red zone threats but it is still noteworthy to see them receive at time noticeably more targets than a 6’6, 265 lbs tight end who is one of the best red zone receivers of his era. That being said, Gronkowski is still having an impact on New England’s red zone offense simply because of his presence: having him on the field forces defenses to account for him, often with more than just one player.

This, in turn, frees things up elsewhere and allows players like James White to take advantage. While it would be nice to see Gronkowski get more red zone targets – effectively speaking he was thrown just one pass inside the 20, the same number as fullback James Develin – he still plays a big role. This role does not come up on the stat sheet, sure, but it is important nevertheless. It also could change again in the future.

With James White, Julian Edelman, and Josh Gordon all available now, defenses are faced with a “pick your poison” situation. Should they continue focusing on Gronkowski? Or should they try to stop one of the other players that have seen more red zone targets than him? This decision opposing coordinators will have to make could again create more opportunities for the NFL’s best tight end.

And of course for James Develin as well.

For the sake of completeness, here is the full table of the Patriots’ red zone targets through six weeks:

RB James White: 9 targets

WR Phillip Dorsett: 5 targets

WR Josh Gordon: 4 targets

WR Julian Edelman: 4 targets

TE Rob Gronkowski: 3 targets

WR Cordarrelle Patterson: 3 targets

RB Rex Burkhead: 3 targets

WR Chris Hogan: 2 targets

FB James Develin: 1 target