Well, that was fast. Barely a half hour after the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted that Rob Gronkowski was interested in coming out of retirement and playing for the Buccaneers, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that a deal was done. New England is sending Gronk and a seventh-round pick to Tampa Bay for a 2020 fourth-rounder.
Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first. This deal is fun as hell. For anyone who doesn’t root for the Patriots (and honestly, New England has had its time), watching Tom Brady throw passes to Gronkowski on the coast of Florida should make this fall more enjoyable. Football is just better with Gronk in it. And for Gronkowski, a trade to Tampa also means a return to his natural habitat. He once owned a $2 million party mansion on Tampa Bay—which should surprise no one. Considering that children in Tampa get neon tank tops as part of their kindergarten school supplies, it’s no wonder that Gronk feels right at home there.
A Brady-Gronk reunion does more than just ignite the Tampa party scene and spark memories of highlights past, though. It also raises questions about the Bucs’ future. Gronk is 30 years old, which seems impossible for a guy who seemed destined to stay 20-something forever. The last time we saw him, at the end of the 2018 season, it was obvious that an injury-riddled career and a decade’s worth of collisions had taken their toll. He was still a useful receiver and an effective blocker, but the world-destroying force we knew early in his career was gone. Maybe a year away from the sport has kept Gronk fresh. Maybe escaping the iron fist of Bill Belichick will give him new life. But it’s also possible that after losing a lot of his bulk in retirement, Gronk will have a hard time reacclimating to the rigors of the NFL. There’s no way to know how this will shake out until we see him in action.
For now, let’s assume that the Tampa Bay version of Gronkowski will be comparable to the version who helped New England win its most recent Super Bowl. If that’s the case, he should immediately be able to contribute in 12-personnel sets both as a blocker and a receiver. The Bucs offense this season is expected to be an amalgam of head coach Bruce Arians’s scheme and the concepts Brady ran for so long in New England. Gronk’s presence should help tie those facets together. He probably won’t be the explosive, yards-after-catch monster that he was five years ago, but he could still be a useful pass protector and capable seam stretcher who understands exactly how Brady likes to attack the middle of the field. If that’s the player the Bucs are getting, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will have some decisions to make.
The one position on the Bucs roster that didn’t need reinforcements this offseason was tight end. Tampa Bay already has both O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Adding Gronk to that group feels like overkill, but the Bucs didn’t give up a draft pick and take on $10 million in salary to acquire a niche player. Gronk will play plenty of snaps this season, and that likely means a shake-up at the position.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Howard looked like a budding star. His exceptional physical gifts had made him a first-round pick in 2017, and while his raw receiving totals over his first two NFL seasons were fairly pedestrian, he finished third in yards per route run (2.24) among tight ends in 2018. Only George Kittle and Travis Kelce were better. Howard’s upside seemed limitless, which is why his 2019 performance was so confounding. In his first year under Arians, Howard dropped to 23rd in yards per route run among tight ends. He vanished entirely for stretches. Despite playing in the most prolific passing offense in football, he failed to make much of an impact. Arians’s offenses have rarely featured the tight end, but even given that context Howard’s drop-off was shocking. Now with Gronk’s addition creating a logjam at the position, it would seem to make sense for the Bucs to deal Howard before the draft and apply that capital elsewhere.
The problem with that approach is that Howard’s trade value is at an all-time low, and the Gronk deal has sapped Tampa Bay of what little leverage it might’ve had. Howard is set to make $3.5 million this season. That’s the 23rd-highest salary cap hit among tight ends. For a 25-year-old with his skill set, that number isn’t prohibitive. And the Bucs could also potentially deal Brate, who’s three years older than Howard and has no guaranteed money left on his deal after this season.
But it’s possible that the Bucs feel they don’t need to make another move. As a way to both protect against a potential Gronk injury and play to Brady’s strengths, Tampa Bay could keep all three tight ends and deploy them in different packages. Brady thrived with heavier personnel groupings in New England. Tampa Bay has two superstar receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but lacks an established no. 3 wideout. More two-tight-end sets would be a creative way to scheme around that. Gronk, Evans, Godwin, Brate, and Howard would make for a damn good pass-catching corps, no matter which combination is on the field.
Regardless of what the final depth chart looks, the Bucs will have a ridiculous array of playmakers for Brady to target. The team’s next step should be to turn its attention to its remaining offensive holes. If Gronk is anything resembling his old self, he might be the best right tackle Tampa Bay has on its roster. That’s a joke—sort of. The Bucs signed swing tackle Joe Haeg to a one-year deal this spring, but the right side of the line is still the weakest link on the roster. Luckily, this looks like the best draft in years for teams in need of tackle help. Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas are all considered top-15 talents. The sheer number of tackle-needy teams in front of the Bucs could pick over that crop by the time Tampa Bay’s turn comes at no. 14. Depending on how the draft shakes out, though, the Bucs could absolutely land a top-tier prospect to round out their offensive line.
If they miss out on a tackle in the first round, the Bucs still have a few other needs to address. For the first time in a long time, Tampa Bay seems set at outside cornerback with Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis. But safety remains a concern in coordinator Todd Bowles’s defense. A pass-catching running back should also be on the draft wish list, as the Bucs try to outfit Brady with James White 2.0.
After that, it’s hard to find many glaring issues with this roster from a talent perspective. The defense boasts a stout front four, an athletic linebacking corps, a bevy of emerging secondary players, and a scheme that helped the Bucs jump from the league’s worst unit in 2018 to a league-average group in 2019. And with Brady taking care of the football, the Bucs could have a positive turnover margin for the first time in ages.
The Bucs’ chances this season will ultimately come down to how much Brady has left in the tank. But by committing to the QB for the next two seasons and subsequently trading for his favorite target, general manager Jason Licht and Arians have made it clear that they think the 42-year-old has enough to push this team over the hump. The Bucs believe they’re ready to compete in the NFC right now. With Gronk in the mix, righting the ship just got a whole lot more fun.