Rob Gronkowski owners, it's time to accept this harsh reality: It is impossible to replace fantasy's No. 1 tight end off the waiver wire.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Survival -- and let's not mistake the strategy for anything else -- is your goal until Gronkowski's potential late-season return. To do that, you must reassess the strengths and weaknesses of your roster, perhaps seek outside help (via waivers on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, or trade before Wednesday's noon ET deadline in ESPN standard leagues), and adjust accordingly. Let's explain.
Gronkowski, whose breakout fantasy game occurred exactly two years and six days ago (25 points, in Week 10 of 2010 at the Pittsburgh Steelers), had carved out a place as the most consistent player in fantasy football, being worthy of a start 61.9 percent of the time in his career and 80.0 percent of the time in 2012, both of those league bests at his position. He has been a fantasy "Stud" 14 times in his career, second most of any player (at any position) since the start of 2010, underscoring his rare "safe," consistent and high-upside trifecta of skills in our game.
"Safe" and consistent are hardly words you could use to describe the potential waiver-wire replacements. Among those available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, the only ones with a Consistency Rating of 30 percent or greater -- that percentage means players who have been worthy of having in your starting lineup in just three of 10 games thus far -- this season are Joel Dreessen (40.0 percent), Marcedes Lewis (30.0 percent), Brandon Myers (30.0 percent) and Dennis Pitta (30.0 percent). The only one with a number at least that good since the start of 2010, meanwhile, is Dreessen (33.3 percent).
The closest one to that description would be Myers, whose three "Starts" have come in his past six games. In that six-game span, he has averaged 7.8 targets and 5.7 receptions, and has been targeted in the red zone 10 times and within the opponent's 5-yard line five times. His consistency numbers don't entirely do him justice, and if your goal is to find the lowest-downside fill-in, he would be your target.
CONSISTENCY RATINGS BENCHMARKS
Using 2012 statistics, and fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, the charts contained in this column rate players based upon how consistently reliable they are. To familiarize you with some of the terminology:
Start: The number of times the player's point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league.
Stud: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the top at his position.
Stiff: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
These are the benchmarks for what constitutes a "Start," "Stud" or "Stiff" performance, numbers identifying the player's rank at his position:
Sat: The number of times the player missed a game. Players are not charged "Stiff" points for sitting out, but it hurts their overall Consistency Rating.
%: The player's overall Consistency Rating, calculated as number of "Start" performances divided by scheduled team games.
What about shuffling resources, seeking a more consistent, lower-downside player at another position, and aiming higher at tight end? Among some of your greater (occasional) "Stud" candidates at the position -- potential top-two scorers among tight ends -- are Kyle Rudolph (available in 44.7 percent of ESPN leagues) and Dallas Clark (available in 96.2 percent). Rudolph this season has been a Stud twice, a number exceeded by only three other tight ends, and his six touchdowns are third-best at the position. Clark, meanwhile, has averaged five targets and 3.6 receptions in his past five games, totaling six targets in the red zone and two inside the opponent's 5. Despite lacking eye-popping Consistency Ratings numbers, Clark has been an increasingly involved member of a resurgent Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass attack, and his history with the Indianapolis Colts supports his candidacy as a potential bargain bet.
Here are two recommended routes:
1. Grab a tight end in the 4-7 fantasy points per game range -- a Myers, Brent Celek or Dreessen -- and make a move for one or two high-upside candidates at other positions. Players such as C.J. Spiller (3 "Stud" games), Mikel Leshoure (3) or Randall Cobb (2) could be affordable trade targets with the potential to fill some of the points lost during Gronkowski's absence. It's a much more risk/reward strategy, but for a team fighting simply to qualify for the postseason, it's probably the way to go.
2. Take weekly chances on the highest-upside tight ends available -- Rudolph or Clark, or perhaps favorable individual-week matchups such as Martellus Bennett's Week 13 (@WSH), Dwayne Allen's Week 14 (TEN) or Dustin Keller's Week 15 (TEN) -- and lock in your safer plays at other positions. Trent Richardson (70.0% Consistency Rating, 0 "Stiff" games), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (70.0% and 0) and Percy Harvin (5 "Starts" in his 9 games, 1 "Stiff") could be three such affordable trade candidates.
And here's a final thought to those who go the second route: A quarterback such as Colin Kaepernick might be an even smarter pickup for Gronkowski owners than a fill-in specifically at tight end. As discussed in this space nine weeks ago, rushing quarterbacks are the ones with the least downside, meaning the best chance at a weekly minimum of 10-plus fantasy points. If Kaepernick starts the remainder of the year, he would be a wise backup policy to your current starter, affording you the luxury of slotting him in when your starter faces his worst matchups -- Tony Romo's Week 15 against the Pittsburgh Steelers comes to mind -- while you take a chance on someone like, say, Keller.
It's all about total roster composition during Gronkowski's recovery; don't simply assume injuries like this are always a sub-for-starter thing.
Consistency Ratings chart
Players are initially ranked in order of their Consistency Rating, calculated as the percentage of the player's scheduled games -- not games played, scheduled games -- in which his fantasy point total registered a "Start" score. All categories are sortable both ascending and descending; just click on the headers to sort. Players must have met at least one of the following minimums for inclusion in the chart: 20.0 percent Consistency Rating in standard scoring leagues, 20.0 percent Consistency Rating in PPR formats. All defense/special teams are included, regardless of whether they met those minimums.
These statistics are for 2012 only. Statistics for games since 2010 can be found here.