Grading Rob Gronkowski

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It was fate that led to Rob Gronkowski being drafted by the New England Patriots back in 2010. The story of the 42nd pick in the 2010 draft is quite peculiar. Typically, when someone trades for a pick, they intend to use it. It’s very rare that the pick is traded again. This is why it was so strange that this pick would end up being traded three times.

Originally, the tenth pick in the second round belonged to the Chicago Bears. However, the Bears traded their pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for defensive end Gaines Adams. The pick would change hands yet again when the Buccaneers would trade the pick, as well as their fifth-round pick, to the Oakland Raiders to move up to the 39th spot, where they would select wide receiver Arrelious Benn. The pick wasn’t done being traded yet, as Oakland would end up trading the pick to New England for the Patriots second- and sixth-round picks. Finally, the pick would find some peace, as the New England Patriots used it to draft the best tight end of all-time.

On April 23rd, 2010, the New England Patriots selected a young tight end from the University of Arizona by the name of Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski initially had a first-round grade, but there were injury concerns. He had missed the entire 2009 season after back surgery, and he had missed three games the year before. The Patriots looked past the injury concerns and took a chance on Gronkowski.

Grading Rob Gronkowski

It didn’t take long for Gronkowski to reward the Patriots, catching 42 passes for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie. These numbers were impressive, but it wasn’t until the next year that everyone realized just how dangerous Gronkowski was, as he registered 90 catches for over 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns. He established himself as one of Tom Brady’s most dangerous weapons that season.

Today, Gronkowski, better known as Gronk, has scored 66 touchdowns, the most by a tight end not named Tony Gonzales or Antonio Gates. He’s caught more touchdown passes than Shannon Sharpe, Kellen Winslow, or Dave Casper. He’s lapped some of today’s biggest stars as well, scoring more touchdowns than Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, or Vernon Davis. While those numbers are impressive, there’s another that’s even more surprising.

Rob Gronkowski is only 26 years old. He’s only been in the league for six years. And in those six years, he’s missed 15 games. He’s almost missed an entire season of his young career to injuries, and he’s already statistically among the best of all=time. If Gronkowski were able to maintain his pace, and play as long as Jerry Rice (20 seasons), who holds the record for most touchdowns (197) in a career, he would catch 217 touchdowns, obliterating Rice’s record. And he’s a tight end. It’s worth noting that Tony Gonzales, the active leader for tight ends with 111 touchdowns, played for seventeen years. At this pace, it would only take Gronkowski four more years to pass him. It seems like a given that if Gronkowski isn’t already the best tight end in history, he soon will be. Though, there are a couple arguments.

The Passing Era

Of course, it’s not that easy. Firstly, this is the most pass-friendly era in NFL history. Teams are throwing the ball more and more, and the numbers are being inflated. Beyond that, the rules have changed. It’s so much easier to get open in the modern NFL, and considering that Rob Gronkowski is 6’7″ and 265 pounds, you have to empathize with the poor linebackers and defensive backs that have to try and cover him without being too physical.

The response here is obvious. While it’s true that the modern NFL makes it easier for quarterbacks to move the ball down the field, it isn’t like those rules apply strictly to teams playing the Patriots. All 32 NFL teams have to play by the very same rules. Beyond that, Antonio Gates is still playing, and Tony Gonzales only retired in 2013. Both of those players have had the opportunity to play against rule-enforced soft defenses. And it’s not just those two, it’s every tight end in football. Every single tight end, or receiver for that matter, plays by the same rules. The big difference is that only Rob Gronkowski is putting up these kinds of numbers.

The Surrounding Talent

The most popular theory enforced by critics of Gronkowski is that he’s not catching passes from a normal quarterback. While most fans like to believe that their team has found the franchise quarterback that will lead them to the Promised Land, most fans don’t have a quarterback like Tom Brady. Tom Brady is an 11-time Pro Bowler, a three-time First-Team All-Pro, a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, a two-time MVP, and a four-time Super Bowl champion. Tom Brady is considered by many, myself included, to be the very best quarterback that has ever played the game of football. Obviously, being a receiver in an offense featuring a player of Brady’s caliber gives Gronkowski an unfair advantage.

This is also a valid point, but it’s just as easily dismissed as the last. Firstly, Rob Gronkowski is not the first tight end to play with Tom Brady. Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Graham, Ben Watson, Tim Wright, Alge Crumpler, Kyle Brady, Chris Baker, and Scott Chandler have all also played tight end for Tom Brady, and none of them broke 20 touchdowns in their time with the Patriots. Gronkowski has already passed twenty touchdowns three times over the last six years.

Of course, when you mix very good and good, sometimes you get great. But other great NFL quarterbacks have had good tight ends, and they haven’t seen the same production. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have connected for a touchdown 73 times, but they’ve done it over the course of ten years (four more seasons than Brady and Gronkowski). In his prime, one of Peyton Manning’s favorite targets was Dallas Clark. Manning and Clark were a dynamic duo, and they connected for touchdowns only 44 times over the course of eight years.

Beyond that, the other great quarterbacks of the modern era just don’t seem to have had the same success. Even going back to Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow in the 80’s, Winslow only caught 45 touchdowns over his nine-year career. The biggest difference between Brady and Gronkowski and all of the other great quarterback and tight end duos of all-time is that none of the tight ends were as good as Gronkowski is.

Rob Gronkowski is about to turn 27 years old, and even with some nagging injury concerns, the end is nowhere in sight for New England’s stud tight end. Tom Brady won’t be there to help him forever, and at some point, playing with a young quarterback might hurt his numbers. Interestingly enough, we’ll get a good glimpse at how Gronkowski can help a young quarterback while Brady serves his four-game suspension this season. Deflated balls aside, Patriots fans can rest easy, knowing that even without Tom Terrific, they have the best tight end in the history of pro football. And to think what may have happened if one of the three teams had decided not to trade the 42nd pick back in 2010.

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