I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing in the comment section as the Patriots over-looked Rob Gronkowski’s successor in the 2019 NFL Draft. Simply put, Rob Gronkowski is a generational talent and no one will ever replace what he did for this franchise.
Here is a list of everyone I could find that has lined up at Tight End for the Patriots since 2000. The guys that Bill Belichick has chosen to be good enough for his team. One name I omitted, Cameron Fleming, was an offensive tackle that spent a good deal of time as a blocking TE when Rob Gronkowski was injured. Also there have been other O-linemen like Nate Solder that have taken snaps at the position. I’m also leaving out LB Mike Vrabel even if it pains me to do so, because he wasn’t here as a Tight End. He was just damned good at it.
Ignoring the sheer bulk of snaps in which Rob Gronkowski shadows all others, you can simply look at contributions based on games played. Gronkowski stands head and shoulders above the rest.
- Not that starting games means much under Bill Belichick, but Gronk was on the field for the first offensive snap 87% of the time. The next closest TE was Daniel Graham at 78%.
- Gronk was targeted 6.90 times per game on average. The next closest TE was Aaron Hernandez at 6.84 times.
- Again Hernandez and Gronkowskit top the most receptions per game at 4.61 and 4.53 respectively.
- When you look at yards per catch, the top name is Daniel Fells with only 4 receptions at 21.3 YPC. Number 2 is Rob Gronkowski at 15.1 YPC.
- Finally, looking at TDs per game, Rob Gronkowski is at a 69% rate (of course he is), and the next closest is again Aaron Hernandez at 47%.
Before Gronk and Hernandez, here is what an average Patriots Tight End had for production:
Patriots TEs BG (Before Gronk)
The Patriots have averaged 3 Tight Ends per year on the roster, so each was targeted an average of 2 times for 6 TE targets. That’s below Gronks target average alone. Those three TEs, would average 48% TD/Gm, which is also below Gronk’s average. In addition those TE’s would average 11.2 YPC, which is almost 4 yards less than Gronk’s average.
So let’s look at TEs that were concurrent with Gronk and Hernandez (where applicable).
Patriots TEs IGA (In Gronk Era)
Again Patriots averaged 3 Tight Ends per year on the roster, but Gronk and Hernandez were two of them for a time. You notice the targets for the other TEs only dropped 0.7 per game. The receptions per game only dropped 0.4 per game. Catch percentage went up 3%, YPC went up 0.6 yards, likely because Gronk was the bigger target for the defense. Also the TD’s per game went down 6% as Gronk saw the bulk of those targets.
The Patriots never had a Tight End remotely close to Gronk before Gronk, and the only one to come close to matching his production was concurrent with Gronk. Could Aaron Hernandez have put up his numbers without Gronk on the field? We’ll never know.
In all likelihood, the New England Patriots will never have a Tight End like Rob Gronkowski again. Considering he was the best Tight End in the NFL, neither will anyone else.
And that’s ok.
The Patriots will change their offense like they’ve always done to put the best 11 players on the field at one time. One of those players will not be Rob Gronkowski, and we’ll learn to live with that as we see what the 2019 Patriots Offense looks like. It might be scary good or scary bad. We don’t know, and uncertainty sucks.
All I know is during the Belichick years, the Patriots are 4-1 in Super Bowls without Gronkowski and 2-2 in Super Bowls with him. They’ll find a way, but it looks like that won’t be by cloning Rob Gronkowski. More likely it will be moving the offense in a different direction entirely. I guess we’ll have to watch on Sundays and see exactly what that means.