By: Rajan Nanavati
As recently as three years ago, if someone told you that before he even turns 30 years old, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski would be outside the top 10 tight ends in the NFL in receptions, yards per reception, and touchdown receptions, you’d probably just write them off as a Patriots-hater.
But three quarters of the way through the 2018 NFL season, that’s exactly where we find ourselves.
There’s no mystery around why the guy wearing the #87 jersey for New England looks like a 6’6, 265lb imposter for the man simply known as “Gronk.” Over the course of his eight-plus years in the NFL, he’s had major injuries to his left ankle (severely strained ligaments), left arm (broken), right knee (torn ACL and MCL), and his back (season-ending surgery).
Simply put, injuries have zapped away the physical abilities of a guy who could’ve gone down as the most dominant tight end in NFL history.
His 18 total touchdowns (17 receiving) in 2011 were the most by any tight end in NFL history. With 78 touchdown catches, he’s already third all-time in most touchdown receptions by a tight end, and was the fastest tight end in NFL history to hit 60 touchdowns receiving, doing so in 110 games. He was the living embodiment of what teams envisioned a tight end to be: too big and strong for defensive backs to cover, too athletic and fast for linebackers to cover. He was the size of a defensive end but could move around like a wide receiver.
But that “Gronk,” who could easily separate from any non-defensive back in the NFL and out-muscle any defensive back in the league, no longer exists. Any objective football fan will see that unless quarterback Tom Brady delivers a pinpoint pass in a place where only Gronkowski can catch it, the latter simply doesn’t produce the way that he used to, because he can’t run away from even the most average defenders who guard him one-on-one.
Heading into Week 13 of the NFL season, Gronkowski is on pace to catch 47 passes for 733 yards and three touchdowns. For a guy who’s averaged more than nine touchdown catches per year, those projected numbers are eye-popping. Through 11 games, Gronkowski has only two touchdown catches; 18 tight ends in the NFL already have more than that.
Whether anyone in the New England organization will admit it or not, this could very easily be Gronkowski’s last year with the Patriots, given his rapid and likely unfixable decline. Injury-ravaged big guys simply don’t get healthier after turning 30 years old and playing almost a decade of professional football.
We all know head coach Bill Belichick’s proclivity for moving on from players before they start to become a burden on the team. That’s why New England nearly had a deal in place to trade away Gronkowski before the season even started, before Gronkowski threated to upend the deal by retiring before showing up to his new team (the Detroit Lions).
Instead of going down that route again, expect New England to simply release him this upcoming offseason. In doing so, they’ll not only open up $10 million of salary cap space, but they’ll only suffer one year of a very palatable amount ($2 million) of dead money against the cap, before he’s fully off the books.
In other words, by the summer of 2020, any last remnants of the Rob Gronkowski era in New England will very likely be nothing more than distant memories.