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Rob Gronkowski Could Be the Buccaneers’ X Factor

The all-time great tight end may never reach his peak again, but there are still plenty of reasons to think he could provide a boost for Tom Brady and Co.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Brady was looking for a change of scenery, so like any well-to-do Northeasterner nearing retirement, he set his sights on Florida. It was a shocking development when the six-time Super Bowl winner left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in March. When he was joined by the newly unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski, it became clear Tampa Bay was having a moment. Today, The Ringer is breaking down all things Bucs, from Brady’s learning curve with a new team to the great Gronk revival, and whether a moribund franchise can resurrect itself with Brady at the helm.

Maybe it’s the product of a weird, wholly unprecedented NFL offseason, but I find it odd that Rob Gronkowski’s return to football isn’t a bigger story. Granted, it has been over two years since we’ve seen the fully operational version of Gronk on the gridiron―an unstoppable playmaker who wrecked opponent gameplans week in and week out and earned All-Pro honors in 2017―so there’s plenty of recency bias at play. Gronkowski looked like a shell of his normal self during the 2018 season as he battled ankle and back injuries, and those ailments―along with the laundry list of injuries he sustained in his career―surely contributed to his decision to retire from football in 2019. The pictures of Gronk looking shockingly svelte during his year off are probably stuck in front of mind for a lot of people, too.

But while all those factors have contributed to skepticism that we’ll ever see peak-level Gronk on the field again, there’s also plenty of reasons to get excited about what the well-rested and now-healthy tight end can do for the Buccaneers offense. Whether he’s detached from the formation in a one-on-one isolation route, beating linebackers up the seam, or staying in to block in the run game, even a slightly-less-than-vintage performance from the 31-year-old tight end could pay massive dividends for Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. And if he really does look like the player he was in his prime, as Bruce Arians recently said, Gronkowski could be the linchpin piece to his new offense. Here’s a look at how the four-time All-Pro could put the Buccaneers over the top in 2020.

A Red-Zone Boost

The big unknown heading into the season is just how big of a role Gronkowski will play in the team’s new-look offense. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in the mix, plus a former first-rounder in tight end O.J. Howard, who’s looking for a bounce-back year, there are a lot of mouths to feed in the team’s passing game. But the fact that the Buccaneers managed to entice Gronkowski out of retirement and traded a fourth-round pick to acquire him implies that Arians envisions a major role for the tight end. Gronkowski’s $9.3 million cap hit this year, which ranks fourth among all NFL tight ends, strongly indicates the same.

But with a COVID-shortened offseason and a lack of reps in training camp, Tampa Bay may look to limit Gronk’s snaps and ease him back into the action, at least until he gets his sea legs in the Buccaneers offense. That idea was backed by NBC’s Peter King, who surmised following a recent trip to the team’s training camp that Gronkowski will play behind both Howard and dependable veteran Cameron Brate. King did suggest, though, that the Buccaneers could use Gronk heavily in the red zone. That type of specialized role―maybe even a specific package of plays that would feature Gronk as a mismatch creator inside the 20-yard line―seems like a logical way for the veteran tight end to make his mark to start the season.

For most NFL players, touchdowns are unreliable. Touchdowns are relatively rare occurrences in the NFL so their totals tend to fluctuate massively year over year; and it’s typically just about impossible to predict the number of times any given player will find himself in the end zone in a given season. Gronkowski, however, has been a pretty unique case in that area for most of his illustrious career.

Gronkowski has played 11-plus games in seven of his nine seasons in the league thus far, and he’s scored eight-plus touchdowns in six of those seven seasons. His injury-marred 2018 is the only major outlier season for Gronk, who found paydirt just three times in 13 games that year. His touchdown totals from anything close to “full” seasons, though, look like this (he played in just seven games in 2013 and eight games in 2016):

  • 2010: 10 touchdowns in 16 games
  • 2011: 17 touchdowns in 16 games
  • 2012: 11 touchdowns in 11 games
  • 2014: 12 touchdowns in 15 games
  • 2015: 11 touchdowns in 15 games
  • 2017: 8 touchdowns in 14 games

Zooming out a bit to provide more context, Gronk’s 79 receiving touchdowns is tops among all players since he was drafted by the Patriots in 2010―and that includes several injury-shortened campaigns and the 2019 season, which he missed altogether.

There’s no real mystery as to how Gronk has managed such consistent touchdown totals, though: For starters, he’s either bigger, faster, or stronger (or all three) than just about everyone teams line up across from him. Second, he’s had the benefit of playing with a quarterback who trusts him completely, and Brady’s never been afraid to feed the big tight end in and around the end zone. Third, and this is a slightly less appreciated part of Gronk’s game, is that he’s just naturally graceful and extraordinarily skilled when the ball is in the air. He’s a master in jump ball situations, when he can throw his weight around and use his length to box out or go right through defenders for the ball.

Gronk’s an expert ball tracker, capable of looking up over his shoulder to see the ball into his hands, even when a defender is draped all over him.

He has a natural feel for positioning himself in the end zone, knows how to separate late, and, crucially, has big, reliable mitts to reel the ball in.

This ridiculous one-handed, twirling grab might be the most impressive play of Gronk’s career. He demonstrated body control, concentration, and balance as he spun around to snag the ball for the score.

Simply put: The dude is good. Like, ridiculously good. And accounts from Buccaneers camp paint a picture of a guy who’s ready to get back to dominating near the end zone.

Big Plays Over the Middle of the Field

While Gronk’s tool set makes him a natural fit for specialized red-zone looks, I expect the team to get him involved just about everywhere else on the field as the season chugs along. Gronkowski has always been one of Brady’s most trusted go-to guys, whether he’s running routes on the outside or streaking up the seam. In fact, Brady’s career passer rating of 129.6 on throws to Gronk is the best for any quarterback-to-receiver duo that Pro Football Focus has ever tracked.

Gronkowski has proven time and again that he’s a premiere big play threat, no matter where he lines up. Since 1992, when the NFL first started tracking targets, Gronkowski leads all NFL receivers in yards per target (9.9). His career 15.1 yards per catch average isn’t half bad, either, and ranks 14th among all players since he came into the league in 2010. From 2015 to 2017, Gronk led all players in yards per catch. His rare combination of size and speed makes him formidable in space. He’s a load to bring down after he brings down a pass …

And he’s surprisingly fleet of foot when asked to get down the field. Looking back at his tape from the past few seasons, there were so many plays on which he simply outran smaller, supposedly quicker opponents.

Gronkowski’s ability to line up anywhere in the formation and run routes should come in handy for Buccaneers’ play caller Byron Leftwich, who can use the versatile tight end to exploit mismatches downfield.

A Boon in the Run Game

With Gronk on the field, it should be tough for opposing defenses to predict whether the Bucs will run or pass. He may need a few games’ worth of full-contact reps to rediscover his groove as a blocker, but throughout his nine-year career, he’s been an elite blocking tight end who has graded in the top seven in run blocking or pass blocking six times, per PFF. His ability to run a perfect fade route on one play and bull-doze a defensive end or linebacker out of the play as a run blocker on the next is what has always set Gronkowski apart from his peers.

Gronk doesn’t just block because he’s asked to block, though. As Bill Belichick once recounted, he revels in dominating the guy in front of him.

Whether he’s opening up a big hole for his running back or keeping Brady on his feet for an extra half-beat so he can complete a pass, it’s always been clear that Gronk will give his best effort in every aspect of the position. Tampa Bay had an anemic run game in 2019, finishing 24th in yards (1521), tied for 27th in yards per attempt (3.7), and middle of the pack in rushing touchdowns (15). But Gronk’s talent as a blocker should help the Buccaneers achieve more balance, which would take some pressure off of Brady and the passing attack to carry the offense week in and week out.

Putting It All Together

At his peak, Gronk was one of the most dominant players in the NFL, and he’ll go down as one of the best tight ends of all time, regardless of what he does this season. In nine seasons in the league, Gronkowski has been Pro Football Focus’s top-graded tight end (min 100 snaps) six times (in 2011, and every season from 2013 through 2017), adding second- and third-place finishes in 2012 and 2010, respectively. He ranked 14th in 2018, though, a drop-off that can be attributed to a preponderance of injuries that made it tough for Gronk to simply move around the field.

Those injuries should no longer be an issue. “He doesn’t have a gigantic elbow brace on,” said Arians recently. “He’s moving. He’s running fast again. He’s got great body control. Some of the things―the stiffness that I saw at the end of his career with all the injuries―it looks like it’s gone.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that a year away from football is enough to transform Gronk back into the dominant player he was during his prime. But he’s still just 31 years old (just five months older than Travis Kelce, by the way), and has a great chance to jump-start his career in Tampa Bay. The range of outcomes for the three-time Super Bowl champion is certainly pretty wide, but as we head into what’s shaping up to be perhaps the weirdest NFL season ever, it wouldn’t feel at all strange to me if Gronkowski recaptures his prior greatness.