Rob Gronkowski is already one of the best tight ends in the recent history of the game, and he’s only 27. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)
As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re looking at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.
2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski
Weight: 265 pounds
Age: 27 (will turn 28 on May 14)
Resume: Where to start? When Gronkowski been healthy, this second-round pick out of Arizona has been one of the most dominant offensive options in the game since he arrived in the NFL in 2010. Over the course of his six-year career, he has 380 catches for 5,555 yards and 65 touchdowns, which includes a career-high 90 catches in 2011 and 82 in 2014. As a red-zone threat, a blocker or as a pass catcher with one of the largest catch radiuses in the NFL, he’s the best and most complete tight end in the game today, and is well on his way to becoming one of the best at his position in the history of the game. The big fella had a nasty two-year stretch where he struggled with injury, but aside from an occasional scare as of late, he’s held up well since the start of the 2014 season, playing in 30 of a possible 32 regular-season games in that span. He’s been named a first-team All-Pro by the AP on three different occasions (2011, 2014. 2015), and four times by Pro Football Focus.
Why we ranked him here: Everything is different when he’s not on the field. Everything. When he’s healthy, the field tilts in New England’s favor. He’s an elite offensive option who can put pressure on opposing defenses from multiple spots, including split wide, in the slot, flush against the tackle or even out of the backfield. If they double- or triple-team him, it opens things up for the likes of Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis or any one of the other pass catchers. When he’s not out there, Tom Brady loses a target with a world-class catch radius, an extraordinary football IQ (more on that in a second) and the sort of occasionally nasty streak that has helped make him an underrated blocker. There are about eighty billion examples of his importance over the last six years, but maybe the best one is last year’s AFC title game. His whole game was a clinic, but his catch on fourth down to keep the chains moving late in the contest and his astounding touchdown reception with less than two minutes left were the sorts of game-changing plays Gronkowski has become known for. Frankly, he’s not just one of the two most important players on the New England roster, he’s one of the faces of the league, and someone who will be fitted for a gold jacket in Canton before it’s all said and done.
Quote: “He’s a smart football player. He understands leverage, he understands position, he understands technique. He understands the concept of what you’re trying to do. … Probably other than the quarterback, the tight end position on our offense is the hardest to play. You have all the protections, all the [work in the] running game, and you have routes from sideline to the middle of the field to occasionally even in the backfield. There are really no plays off mentally for that position. His work ethic, his ability to work with his teammates, whether it’s the quarterback, the offensive tackles, the other tight ends or even with the defensive players, is good.” — Bill Belichick on Gronkowski, 9/23/15
Random Note: Gronkowski ended 2015 with 379 career regular-season catches via Brady, which now puts him second on the all-time list of receptions from New England’s veteran quarterback. (Gronkowski is 184 catches behind the all-time leader, Wes Welker, who finished his time in New England with 563 catches from Brady). Deion Branch is third overall with 328 career catches from Brady, while Troy Brown is fourth with 323 receptions via No. 12.