It should come as no surprise that $54 million dollars over six years invested in a tight end sounds like a lion's share of cash for the position. But for a spot on the field that has changed just as drastically as the rest of the league over the past several decades, it is not without deliberate cause. Pressing your face up against a glass case in Canton might net you the image of the prototypical NFL tight end; an athlete who is strong and durable enough to be able to assist in pass blocking, combined with the versatility to occasionally leave the trenches and catch passes. Ideally, sharing common traits with that of an offensive lineman and a wide receiver—but typically without the tools to independently overwhelm a candidate at either position.
Enter Rob Gronkowski, the most prolific tight end a crouching Pat or an airborne Elvis has seen since the days of one Ben Coates. Gronkowski is a rare breed in that he pass blocks and catches like any professional tight end should, but he does both of these things exceedingly well. A questionably clean bill of health was the only reason he seemingly flew under the radar and was selected No. 42 overall during the 2010 NFL Draft. While rated highly on several teams' boards, it's quite possible Gronkowski meant just a little more to Bill Belichick than just a touted tight end prospect with an aching back.
Enter Mark Bavaro. Just as the Bill Parcells coaching tree overwhelms the garden of many an NFL franchise with its seemingly endless root structure, so too it effects Big Blue. The New York Giants, responsible for hatching the modern coaching era of Bill Belichick, were eyeing Notre Dame tight end Mark Bavaro in the 1985 NFL Draft. Known for playing through a host of injuries throughout his collegiate career, Bavaro ended up being drafted at No. 100 overall in the fourth round. A devastating blocker in run support—noted by Belichick as being the "best I've seen"—was instrumental in the success of the Giants throughout the '80s, including two Super Bowl runs in both 1986 and 1990. Quickly compiling a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé, a degenerative knee condition midway through this career derailed much of what could have been. With the Giants forced to release a declining Bavaro in 1991, Belichick—being so enamored with Bavaro—managed to sign him to the Cleveland Browns during the 1992 season for whom he then coached. While achieving sporadic success in his waning seasons, Bavaro's accomplishments at the position would never reach the caliber of play he was once known for during the early years of his career with the Giants.
The similarities between "Gronk" and "Rambo" are striking. Mirrors of each other in build, skillset, versatility and toughness, the always mum Belichick has even noted the unavoidable comparison when fielding questions from reporters. While Bavaro may have been the prototype, Gronkowski carries the torch with the fielding sensibilities of a modern tight end attached to the hard-nosed blocking that once famously graced the gridiron.
In fact, this may be one of the rare (read:never) times that the business-savvy Patriots may overvalue a player's contractual obligation to the team. Injuries be damned, Belichick does not want Gronkowski to even have the slightest chance of disappearing into the free agency void simply because he knows firsthand how difficult it is to obtain a player of his type. Offering a rich extension with two years remaining on a frugal rookie contract guaranteed that. While Belichick may have thought he may never see a Mark Bavaro again, he surely struck gold with the next best thing in Gronkowski. While his career is young and he has yet to lift a Lombardi over his Herculean head, his importance to the team is cemented, clearly defined and rivaling that of Tom Brady. A match made (again) in heaven for the versatile schemes of Bill Belichick, he has found his reincarnated ace in the hole.
Protecting his asset is paramount—even reminding the young Gronkowski to "tone down" his offseason excesses seemed to be a top priority in the front office. It may be a greater challenge to keep a talent like Gronkowski on the straight and narrow who spends his time with every doting female on both sides of the Continental Divide than it is with a conservative God-fearing Roman Catholic like Bavaro. But just short of wrapping hundreds of cotton balls around each one of Gronkowski's legs while he sleeps, the Patriots—and more specifically, Bill Belichick—are determined to make this work long-term. Even a stoic Belichick has to crack a smile watching Gronkowski drag several defenders across a football field, thinking to himself, "Where have I seen this before?"