The performance of tight end Rob Gronkowski over the last year-plus has been nothing short of impressive. The second-round pick out of Arizona has 94 catches for 1,255 yards and 18 touchdowns in 25 career regular-season games in New England, and has become one of the game’s elite tight ends in a relatively short period of time.
It got us wondering about the greatest tight ends in Patriots’ history, and whether or not Gronkowski already deserves a spot on the list. Here’s our choice for the five best tight ends in franchise history:
5. Rob Gronkowski (2010-present): Twenty-five games as a professional is a rather limited sample size, but the 22-year-old has already made his mark as one of the best in the league. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is built like Jason Witten, but even Witten wasn’t this good this soon. Gronkowski has become one of Tom Brady’s most dependable targets (he’s been targeted a remarkable 132 times by Brady since the start of last season, and is second on the team this season behind Wes Welker with 73 targets). Currently, Gronkowski has 18 touchdowns since the start of the 2010 season, the most among all NFL tight ends. In addition, Gronkowski is on pace to finish with 92 receptions for 1,260 yards. The Patriots record for most receiving yards by a tight end is Ben Coates with 1,174 in 1994. The team record for most receptions by a tight end is 96 by Coates in 1994.
4. Jim Whalen (1965-1969): I’m not going to pretend that I saw him play, but one look at his numbers earns him a spot on this list. The Bay State native and Boston College product was taken in the fourth round of the 1965 draft, and in five years with the Boston Patriots, had 153 catches for 2,487 yards and 17 touchdowns. His career year came in 1968 when he notched 47 catches for 718 yards and seven touchdowns, a season that earned him All-AFL honors from the Associated Press and Pro Football Weekly. He played briefly with the Broncos and the Eagles before retiring in 1971.
3. Marv Cook (1989-1993): Taken by the Patriots in the third round of the 1989 draft out of Iowa, Cook, was one of a handful of positive players in a time where Patriots’ fans didn’t have a lot to cheer about. Cursed with a subpar cast of characters around him, he was able to become a two-time Pro Bowler, with his finest season coming in 1991 when he caught 82 passes for 808 yards and three touchdowns, earning him All-Pro honors. In total, his 80-game career with the Patriots saw him catch 210 passes for 1,843 yards and 11 touchdowns. He played single seasons with the Bears (1994) and Rams (1995)
2. Ben Coates (1991-1999): Like Cook, Coates was an under-the-radar prospect -- taken in the fifth round of the 1991 draft, Coates came out of Livingstone College. His first two years in the league were fairly ordinary -- he had a combined 30 catches in his first two years with New England. That all changed when he met Drew Bledsoe and Bill Parcells. The new quarterback and the coach came on board before the 1993 season, and Coates became the focal point of the New England passing game. In 1994, he finished with 96 receptions (most ever for a tight end to that point in league history) for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. That season, he would be voted to his first of five Pro Bowls. In his nine-year career with the Patriots, Coates would finish with 490 receptions for 5,471 yards and 50 touchdowns. He retired following the 2000 season with the Ravens. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.
1. Russ Francis (1975-80, 1987-88): Not just the best ever to play for the Patriots, but one of the best tight ends of all time because of his unique blend of athletic ability, toughness and soft hands. A first-round pick of the Patriots in 1975, he went on to play 13 seasons in the NFL, eight of them with New England. With the Patriots, he had 207 catches for 3,157 yards and 28 touchdowns, and ended up going to three Pro Bowls. The Hawaiian native was a different kind of guy -- he rode a motorcycle, tried pro wrestling (his father was a noted wrestling promoter), went skydiving and generally marched to the beat of his own drummer. In 1980 he decided to retire after seeing his roommate Darryl Stingley paralyzed following a hit from Jack Tatum, but was talked back into playing by 49ers coach Bill Walsh and ended up playing a key role on San Francisco’s 1985 title team when he ended up with a career-high 44 receptions. He came back for one final cup of coffee with the Patriots, but retired after an 11-catch season in 1988.
Best of the rest (in no particular order):
Don Hasselbeck (1977-1983): Taken in the second round of the 1977 draft out of Colorado, Hasselbeck had 99 catches for 1,444 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven seasons with New England. Before finishing with the Giants, Vikings and Raiders. His best season with the Patriots was 1981 when he had 46 catches for 808 yards.
Jermaine Wiggins (2000-2001): The East Boston native had rather pedestrian numbers in his relatively brief career with the Patriots (30 catches, 336 yards, five touchdowns), but was a big target for New England in the 2001 postseason. In the 2001 divisional playoff game against the Raiders, he had a game-high 10 catches for 68 yards, coming up big time and again in the snow. And in Super Bowl XXXVI, he had a pair of catches in New England’s win over St. Louis. He also played for the Vikings, Panthers, Colts and Jets over the course of seven years in the NFL.
Christian Fauria (2002-2005): After seven years in Seattle, Fauria joined the Patriots and won a pair of Super Bowl rings, racking up 79 catches for 790 yards and 13 touchdowns in his four seasons in New England. He evolved into a dependable red-zone presence, as he had a career-best seven touchdowns in 2002, but overall, his best season with the Patriots came in 2003 when he finished with 28 catches for 285 yards. Fauria also played with the Panthers and Redskins before calling it a career following the 2007 season.
Mike Vrabel (2001-2008): Strictly speaking, Vrabel made a living as a linebacker, but he worked enough on the offensive side of the ball (especially in the postseason) to earn a spot on our list. Over the course of his Patriots’ career, including the playoffs, he had 10 catches for 14 yards and 10 touchdowns while lining up at the tight end position. Those receptions included key touchdown catches in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers and Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles. (With two sacks and a touchdown catch, he’s still the thinking man’s choice for MVP of that title game against Carolina.) According to Cold, Hard Football Facts, no other player in NFL history has as good a record of converting receptions to touchdowns.
Lin Dawson (1981-85, 1987-90): Like so many of the others on this list who were drafted by the Patriots, Dawson was a relatively unknown collegian who would go on to make his bones in New England. Drafted in the eighth round out of North Carolina State in 1981, he would go on to play nine years with the Patriots, finishing his career with 117 catches for 1,233 yards and eight touchdowns. In 1984, he had 39 catches for 427 yards and four touchdowns. (Dawson suffered a bad knee injury early in Super Bowl XX and sat out the following season.) He was named the Patriots Team of the Decade for the 1980s.