The New England Patriots currently have 88 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on September 1 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the offseason, we take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Today, the series continues with the NFL’s best tight end.
Name: Rob Gronkowski
Position: Tight end
Jersey number: 87
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6’6, 270 lbs.
2017 review: After ending the 2016 season on injured reserve due to a back injury, Rob Gronkowski returned in impressive fashion last year and left little doubt that he is still in a tight end class of his own. The future Hall of Famer was named first-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl, and led all tight ends in receiving yards during the regular season (1,084) — all while finishing second in touchdowns (8) and fifth in receptions (69).
Gronkowski also was a rather reliable presence for the Patriots in 2017. He appeared in 14 of 16 regular season contests and missed one game each because of a thigh injury (week 5 vs. Tampa Bay) and a suspension stemming from an unnecessary roughness call (week 13 vs. Miami). Overall, he was on the field for 903 of a possible 1,139 offensive snaps (79.3%) and played less than 85% in just two of his in-game appearances.
As noted above, Gronkowski was his usual dominant self when on the field. Not only did he stand out as a pass catcher who led his position in yards per reception (15.7) and yards per route run (2.4), he also once again proved to be arguably the best blocking tight end in the game: Gronkowski was regularly used as a run blocker and pass protector, and usually held his ground even when going against some of the NFL’s best defenders.
Gronkowski’s high-level play continued in the postseason. Pro Football Focus’ number one rated tight end appeared in all three of New England’s playoff games and was on the field for 79.6% of his team’s offensive snaps (176 of 221). If not for a concussion he sustained during the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game, his playing time percentage would have been even higher.
But despite missing some time — just like during the regular season —, his numbers were again magnificent: Gronkowski finished the tournament with 16 receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns. He was at his best in the Super Bowl against a very good Philadelphia Eagles defense: catching nine passes for 116 yards and two scores, Gronkowski was one of the factors why New England was in the game up until the very end.
But while the Patriots came up short in the title game, 2017 was another successful individual campaign for Gronkowski. Coming off a stint on injured reserve, he proved to still be the NFL’s best tight end and a weapon unlike any other in the league.
2018 preview: Gronkowski made headlines immediately after the Super Bowl, when he did not fully commit to returning in 2018. Despite the wave of rumors and speculation this kicked off, though, he ultimately was back on the practice fields for the mandatory portion of the Patriots’ spring and summer workout sessions. And from that point on — through minicamp and training camp —, it was business as usual for the NFL’s best tight end.
Consequently, Gronkowski is expected to be one of the most dominant players in the league in 2018. When healthy — something that was not always the case over his previous eight years as a pro —, the 29-year old should be on the field for at least 85% of New England’s offensive snaps every given week and be among the team and league leaders in every significant receiving category.
Gronkowski will therefore continue to be one of the core members of New England’s offensive machinery. In that role, he will once more be a reliable receiving weapon for quarterback Tom Brady in the intermediate and deep portions of the field as well as in the red zone — which is especially valuable when considering the team’s current uncertainties at the wide receiver position, with personal turnover and Julian Edelman suspended for four games.
At a salary cap hit of $10.91 million (the fourth-highest on the team), he will furthermore also be a sound investment for the team: a player of his elite caliber and abilities as a pass catcher and blocker in the passing and running game is certainly worth this level of financial burden.