After coming within a few plays of a Super Bowl birth in 2012, the biggest news of the offseason for the Falcons was the Tony Gonzalez retirement announcement. Whether he wanted to leave the game before his body started to break down (can you blame him?) or if he wanted to channel some Ray Lewis juju (again, can you blame him?), the football community was ready to accept that 2013 was the last year we would be able to watch the future Hall of Famer on the gridiron. Many were even hoping that it would be the year that he hoisted his first Lombardi Trophy. Alas, after a dismal season where the Falcons went 4-12 , it looks like we’re in for an offseason we haven’t seen since…well Brett Favre. There have been rumors recently that Gonzalez is not set on retirement. It’s hard to walk away from the game when you know you can still contribute, especially when your last season ended the way it did. So here’s the question, should Gonzalez make one more run with the Dirty Birds, and if so, can he remain an elite option?
Should Gonzalez come back?
From a football perspective, there’s no doubt that Gonzalez has at least another season. The knock on him going into 2014 is going to be his age. He’ll be 38 by the time the season starts, older than any non-kicker in the league. Putting your body through 17 seasons in the NFL is going to catch up to him at some point, but that doesn’t seem to be any time soon. While he isn’t getting any younger, his production has stayed consistent. His average yards per game last year was his third lowest of his career (53.7) though he did score 8 TDs, tied for the most TDs (8) he’s had in a season in the past 5 years. He also had 83 receptions on route to a top 4 finish among tight ends. When looking at his statistics, there’s one number that stands out the most: 16. Gonzalez has played 16 games a whopping 15 times in 17 seasons. In the other two seasons, he only missed one game each year. The main concern I have with a Gonzo return is if he’ll be able to handle another year mentally. His competitiveness that may fuel his comeback also drained him emotionally after last year. During the season he said that he was “tired of the roller coaster” and that things were “the complete opposite of what I thought it would be.” Gonzo is one of the rare athletes where the mind and will may be a step behind the body. If he can find the passion to play one more year, there’s very little doubt in my mind that he’ll play all 16 games again, and have another productive year.
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If he does return, can he still be an elite fantasy tight end?
This is a more complicated question compared to the first, as we’ll have to look at both Gonzalez himself and the competition. In term’s of Gonzalez’s production, I don’t see any reason why his numbers should decrease in 2014. He’s finished as a top 5 tight end for the past three years and a huge part of that is his TD production. While his yards and receptions have fluctuated, he’s also finished in the top 5 in terms of receiving TD’s for a tight end in each of the past 3 years. He’s almost almost perfected boxing out defenders for position, especially in the red zone. 95.6% (22/23) of his TD’s in the last three years have been inside the red zone. While his breakaway and separation speed may not be what they once were, the TD opportunities and production will still be there. When asked how he’s had to adjust as he’s gotten older, Gonzalez said “Now I’m more like Michael Jordan in his later years – I pick my spots.” In general, it’s not a wise idea to go after players who are TD dependent. That being said, tight end is the one position where you can get away with it, and Gonzalez is a red zone monster.
On the other side, who does Gonzo have to beat out to claim a top 5 spot? Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Julius Thomas will finish in the top 5 barring injury, so that leaves two more spots. Each of the other tight ends have question marks surrounding them as well. Who will be throwing Jordan Cameron the ball next year? Will Rob Gronkowski, the anti-Gonzalez in terms of health, miss any games to start the 2014 season and will he be the same player? Jason Witten is no spring chicken either. There will be guys who have more upside than Gonzalez does in next year’s drafts, but I still feel pretty good about his chances of staying in the elite, non-Jimmy Graham tier of tight ends.
All things considered, I hope that the Falcons can convince Gonzalez to not hang up the cleats next year. They need to sell him on the fact that they’ll have a full roster, and that 2013 was a fluke. If they can bring him back, fantasy owners should feel confident in drafting him as a top 5 tight end, potentially at a discount. Let your league mates be scared of his age, and let them go after the sexier “next Julius Thomas/Jordan Cameron” while you snag the Hall of Famer who brings nothing but consistency and elite production.