Ever since he joined the league as a second-round draft pick in 2010, Rob Gronkowski has been the tight end by which all others had to be measured. 2018, however, is a bit different. While he is still being a force as a blocker, the 29-year old is far from the dominant and consistent force he was in years past as a receiver. All in all, he caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games this year — solid numbers, but little more.
One reason for Gronkowski posting the worst per game averages since his rookie campaign appears to be his lack of burst when running routes as a passing target. Dealing with ankle and back injuries for most of the year — he was listed as “questionable” for each game between weeks 4 and 11 because of one or both issues — he no longer looked like the explosive weapon he was as recently as last season.
With two weeks to prepare for the postseason, however, the hope for the New England Patriots has to be that he finally returns to form and adds a big play presence to the offense it has been lacking since Josh Gordon’s suspension. Don’t expect it to happen this week just yet, though. After all, the Los Angeles Chargers defense has been outstanding this season when it came to limiting the impact of opposing tight ends.
The position has caught just 71 passes against the Chargers in 17 games this season, for 738 yards and three touchdowns — two of which coming on 60+ yard breakdown plays. The per game averages of 4.2 receptions, 43.4 yards and 0.2 scores are similar to Gronkowski’s this year: he has caught 3.6 passes a game for 52.5 yards and 0.2 touchdowns. A huge improvement on those numbers appears unlikely.
After all, Los Angeles’ defense is the best in the NFL against tight ends when measured by Football Outsider’s DVOA statistic. Basically, players at the position are 52.4% less successful on any given down than is the average. Gronkowski, for comparison, is posting a +13.3% DVOA — the 12th best in the NFL. Of the eleven players ranked above him, five have played against the Chargers defense this year already. Los Angeles was able to keep all of them in check, with only one posting more than 100 receiving yards.
The San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle, arguably the league’s best tight end at the moment, caught six passes in his week four game against the Chargers defense and took them for 125 yards and a touchdown. The score, however, created much of his yardage: he took an intermediate pass — aided by the safety taking a horrendous angle — 82 yards to the end zone. For the rest of the day, Kittle’s impact was somewhat limited but he was still able to convert three third downs along the way.
So what does this mean for Gronkowski? His role might look like it did for most of the year: he will likely see a handful targets in the passing game but probably not be the player to be counted on to carry the offense. Other options like running backs James White or Rex Burkhead, who can both attack the soft areas in the Chargers’ zone coverage, will likely see more action to help limit the impact of standout pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
Gronkowski, of course, is usually able to do that too and make a living out of finding creases in underneath zones due to his excellent understanding of defenses and chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady. Judging by his 2018 campaign so far and the Chargers’ overall productivity against tight ends, however, he should not be expected to suddenly do something most other players at his position failed to do this year.
The Patriots and their players have a history of defying the odds, of course, and now would be as good a moment as ever for Rob Gronkowski to do just that. One glimmer of hope? The last two times he played in the postseason — 2015 and 2017 — Gronkowski was able to improve on his regular season numbers: from 4.85 catches, 77.9 receiving yards and 0.65 touchdowns to 6.4 catches, 93.1 receiving yards and 1.25 touchdowns.
A similar jump like that would not propel Gronkowski into his past spheres, but would still help New England’s passing offense tremendously. As noted above, though, the Chargers game should not necessarily be expected to be the one for it to happen.