Rob Gronkowski is considered the most dangerous tight end in football. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO — Rob Gronkowski is widely considered the most dangerous tight end in football. He’s also the biggest nightmare for a defensive back assigned to cover him, especially when he’s split wide from the line of scrimmage.
Hall of Fame corner Mike Haynes covered his share of great receivers in his day but rarely, if ever, a tight end in a game.
But in practice, that was a different story.
“I can’t ever remember ever playing being locked on a tight end,” Haynes told WEEI.com Wednesday at Super Bowl media headquarters. “But I did lock on Russ Francis in practice. They were trying to simulate some of the challenges he was going to face. I know how difficult that can be. I wouldn’t be welcoming that kind of challenge because of the weight difference, the height difference, the strength difference. And generally when you’re covering a guy like that size, if he turns around and looks at the quarterback, I can no longer see the quarterback because of his height and his width. It’s a challenge.”
But for as much as Patriots fans remember the hey-dey of Russ Francis and catching passes from Steve Grogan as a traditional tight end, there’s another former tight end Haynes thinks of as a comp to the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski: Don Hasselbeck, who stood an inch taller than Gronk but weighed 20 pounds less.
“It wasn’t something I had to do on a regular basis and I wouldn’t have been looking forward to do that on a regular basis. I actually think that Gronk is more built like Hasselbeck was than Russ Francis,” Haynes said. “He’s tall and a long-strider. A lot of times I wonder if they had used Don Hasselbeck the same way they use Gronkowski, what would he have been like? They didn’t. It was a different game in those days.”
Hasselbeck finished with 107 catches, 1,542 yards and 18 touchdowns in his nine-year NFL career that began in 1977 when he was selected in the second round by the Patriots. For some perspective, Gronkowski nearly had as many receiving touchdowns (17) in 2011 as Hasselbeck did for his career. Hasselbeck finished with 15 TD receptions in his six-plus seasons in New England.