The New England Patriots‘ 2016 training camp is underway. Players fight for practice repetitions and playing time to earn one of the 53 spots on the roster. They have until late August, when each team has to start making its roster cuts, to secure a role.
Until then, players have to secure their spots on the team; they need to do their jobs (well) or someone else will. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots on the 2016 New England Patriots. Today, we’ll continue the series with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Name: Rob Gronkowski
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 87
Size: 6’6, 265 lbs.
2015 review: Rob Gronkowski has been the Patriots’ most productive and most consistent skill position player last season. The 2015 Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection appeared in 17 of New England’s 18 games and led the Patriots in every major receiving category: he had the most receptions (87), receiving yards (1,403) and touchdowns (14) on the team.
Gronkowski was not only a great pass catcher in 2015, he also was once again one of the league’s best blocking tight ends – in the running as well as the passing game: in 75 snaps as a pass protector last season, Gronkowski allowed a mere two pressures (two quarterback hits). This is what makes him the most complete tight end in the NFL: while Gronkowski was primarily used as a receiving option last season – with Michael Williams being the number one blocking tight end –, he is good enough to also be an able blocker when called upon.
Despite missing one game with a knee bruise, Gronkowski played the second most offensive snaps behind only Tom Brady. He was on the field 84.8% of the time, playing 1,062 of the team’s 1,253 snaps. The big tight end made the most of his opportunities as he was once again the most dominant tight end in the entire league – and almost single-handedly almost brought the Patriots back in the AFC Championship Game (with help from his quarterback, naturally).
All in all, Gronkowski can look back at another spectacular individual season.
2016 preview: Entering the 2016 season, Gronkowski is projected to once again be the best tight end in the game and one of its most dominant offensive players. Naturally, he will be prominently featured in New England’s offensive attack as a receiving option in all areas of the field and as a key blocker on run plays. Consequently, if he stays healthy, Gronkowski will play close to 100% of the Patriots’ offensive snaps.
Given that he is arguably the second-most valuable offensive player on the team behind Tom Brady, Gronkowski will have to step up early in the season to help Jimmy Garoppolo during Brady’s four game absence. While the quarterback is the most important player on the field, having a receiver as talented as Gronkowski should help the young signal caller. After all, the 27-year old has the quickness, speed and frame to quickly get open and provide a consistent and reliable target.
Because of this talent, his numbers should not look much different during the first four games of the season despite the league’s best quarterback being forced to watch them at home. With Gronkowski having the entire training camp – and one that has been spectacular so far – to improve his chemistry with Garoppolo, the duo should be ready to productively work together once the season starts.
What will be interesting, though, is to see how much the quarterbacks will rely on the big target given the overall talent and depth the Patriots have at tight end and wide receiver – arguably the deepest group New England has had since Gronkowski entered the league in 2010. Will they take away targets from him or will they rather open things up for him to see even more passes thrown his way?
It remains to be seen if and how Gronkowski’s role and stat line are affected by the offseason acquisitions of Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell. One thing seems to be a certainty, though: if he stays healthy – something he has pretty much been able to do the last two years – Gronkowski should once again catch 70-80 passes for 1000+ yards and 10+ touchdowns. Business as usual for the best tight end in the NFL.
Rob Gronkowski is the most complete tight end of at least his generation. He is an able blocker and receiver, and pairs great athleticism with a high football IQ. And while he will catch passes from another quarterback for the first four games of the year, he still projects to post solid numbers and create mismatches. It has always been like that – and it would be a surprise if 2016 were any different.