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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Return of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski is flying under the radar

Of all the changes for the Patriots in 2017, the return of their All Pro tight end might be the most important.

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1. The New England Patriots have been heralded as the offseason champions, with most of the attention given to the acquisitions of WR Brandin Cooks and TE Dwayne Allen, the revamping of the running back position with RB Rex Burkhead and RB Mike Gillislee, the addition of CB Stephon Gilmore, and the retention of CB Malcolm Butler.

One improvement that somehow seems to be flying under the radar is the return of TE Rob Gronkowski. I think there are a couple reasons why.

First, after winning the Super Bowl without Gronkowski, the perception of his necessity to the success of the team seems to have taken a hit.

Second, I don’t think people are taking Gronkowski’s return for granted and anything he brings to the team will be viewed as gravy, instead of as an expectation.

It’s easy to forget that a healthy Gronkowski is the best tight end in the league or that even a Gronkowski at 70% is still a top 10 tight end in the league and that Brady is much, much better with Gronkowski in the lineup.

Brady’s completion rate falls below 60% without Gronkowski, his interception rate increases by roughly 50%, his touchdown rate and his yards per attempt drop by considerable amounts too.

While Brady’s drop in performance wasn’t as pronounced last year, his play still declined. His touchdown and interception rates were the same, but his completion rate dropped from 70% to 65% and his yards per attempt plummeted from 9.1 to 7.6.

2. And it’s easy to forget just how good Gronkowski is when he’s healthy:

He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 tight end in four of the past six seasons and was on pace to be the highest graded again in 2016 before his injury- and that was his lowest grade since his rookie season when he ranked 6th in the league.

He’s just head and shoulders above every other tight end in the NFL.

3. The big concern is whether Gronkowski will be back to his old self in 2017. It’s still early and it’s only camp, but early reports are that the Patriots All Pro tight end is on schedule to contribute at a high level.

“He looks like Gronk,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said via the Boston Herald. “We haven’t got into a big evaluation. He’s involved in everything.”

The Herald notes that Gronkowski “didn’t take any drills off,” that “he did everything, and performed well,” and just his presence alone in a rainy OTA showed that there is no caution tape around the tight end. NESN added that Gronkowski was making highlight grabs.

The return of Gronk cannot be understated.

4. The Patriots approached the 2016 season with an increased focus on the deep ball and Gronkowski was a major part of that, averaging a league-leading 21.6 yards per reception and a league-leading 14.21 yards per target.

If we look at yards per target, we see that Patriots WR Chris Hogan ranks second 11.72 yards per target. This shows how Gronkowski distanced himself from the rest of the league, but also how QB Tom Brady really improved his efficiency with gaining yards on big passes.

New Patriots WR Brandin Cooks ranks 10th with 10.03 yards per target, giving the Patriots one of the most dangerous deep ball units in the entire league.

The Falcons have four players in the top ten, with WR Taylor Gabriel (3rd, 11.58 YPT), WR Julio Jones (4th, 10.92 YPT), RB Tevin Coleman (6th, 10.53 YPT), and WR Aldrick Robinson (8th, 10.09 YPT) showing up as efficient targets.

5. On a more business-side note with Gronkowski, the NFL Players Association is telling their rookies to start acting more like the tight end, per the Boston Globe.

“Some people think he’s just this extension of a frat boy, and that it’s sort of accidental,” said Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc., the for-profit subsidiary of the NFLPA. “And that’s wrong. It’s not accidental, it’s very purposeful. So the message there is, really good branding is where you don’t even feel it. You think, ‘Oh, that’s just Gronk being Gronk.’ Actually, that’s his brand, but it’s so good and so ingrained and so authentic, you don’t even know it’s a brand or think it.”

“When we say, ‘Be like Gronk,’ we mean plan out who you want to be and stay true to that, because brands and fans will sniff it out if you’re not authentic,” Nassar said. “If you’re not authentic it’s not going to resonate well, and people will think that you’re just doing it to make a buck.”

Gronkowski is an interesting role model for rookies from a business perspective because he’s done a great job saving money by living off of endorsements. Performing at a high level is crucial to obtaining sponsorships, but Nassar is absolutely correct about branding. Every single thing Gronkowski does helps strengthen “the brand.”