The New England Patriots are in the middle of their 2017 training camp, which has started in late July. Over the remainder of camp, the 90 players currently under contract with the team are now in the process of fighting for spots on either the 53-man roster or the 10-man practice squad.
As we have done throughout the offseason, we will continue to take a look at the men fighting for those few select spots on the 2017 Patriots – and to find out who will and might be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with the best tight end in the NFL.
Name: Rob Gronkowski
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 87
Opening day age: 28
Size: 6'6, 265 lbs.
2016 review: Coming off his fourth All-Pro campaign, the NFL's best tight end was forced to start the 2016 season on the sidelines: Rob Gronkowski injured his hamstring in the week leading up to the Patriots' season opener and was forced to sit the game out. It ultimately took until week three for him to return to action – but even then the team closely monitored his snaps and usage.
After working mostly as a blocker and seeing only three targets in weeks three and four, New England's coaching staff opted to fully unleash Gronkowski once quarterback Tom Brady returned from his four-game suspension. Over the next four games leading up to the Patriots' week nine bye, “Gronk” played more than 85% of offensive snaps and once again showed why he is in a class of his own at tight end.
In that four-week span, he caught 21 passes for 473 yards and three touchdowns. Fully healed from the hamstring injury, Gronkowski returned to being his usual dominant self. Unfortunately, it did not last long before the injury bug bit again: In week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks, he suffered a chest injury. And even though Gronkowski was able to finish the game, he was forced to sit out the next contest.
One week later, in week 12 against the New York Jets, Gronkowski's season ended as he suffered a herniated disk in his back that required surgery. The procedure took place not even a week later and for the third time in his seven NFL seasons, he was placed on injured reserve. As opposed to years past, though, New England's offense continued to fare well despite its most dangerous player being out.
Overall, Gronkowski's 2016 campaign was the least impressive of his career – at least statistically: Appearing in eight games, he finished the season with a 31.4% offensive playing time percentage (352 of 1,120). When on the field, Gronkowski caught a total of 25 passes for 540 yards and three scores. Solid numbers but not what the football world has been come used to from the Arizona product.
Still, during the four-game streth when he fully healthy, Gronkowski was able to bring his A-game and show why he is still one of the hardest players to defend in the NFL – and the best all around tight end of his era; dominant as a pass catcher and blocker.
2017 preview: In May, the Patriots and Rob Gronkowski agreed to a restructured deal that included additional performance and play time escalators – a fair deal for both sides that had been in the works for month. As a result, the 28-year old will hit New England's books with $6.75 million in 2017 – the sixth-highest salary cap hit on the team but an incredibly reasonable number for a player of Gronkowski's caliber.
And despite coming off a stint on injured reserve, he appears to be fully healed from last December's back surgery. Gronkowski has looked as fluid a route runner and as tough a blocker as always during the Patriots' first week of training camp. It is therefore not unreasonable to project that he will return in style and prove why he is a player unlike any other in the league; a mismatch because of his size, speed and intelligence.
The question entering Gronkowski's eighth year in the NFL is therefore not how he will perform but rather how healthy he will be. After all, he did not play a full season since 2011 – although, to be fair, he was held out of the 2014 regular season finale despite being healthy. Still, injuries have been a concern for the league's best tight end and at times the only thing capable of stopping him.
However, in 2017, the Patriots appear to be well equipped to a) handle playing without Gronkowski and b) take pressure of the star tight end. The offseason acquisition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks in particular might be beneficial to Gronkowski as it gives the team another deep capable of taking the defense's focus – at least at times – away from the four-time All-Pro tight end.