The second-greatest tight end in the NFL’s modern era called it a career Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski has toyed with the idea of retirement for the last two offseasons, and he decided to leave the NFL and his powerful team while all his faculties are intact (we hope).
The Patriots will survive without Gronkowski. Those who want to make that case that New England is in trouble can point out that Gronkowski has the rare combination of size, strength, speed, skill and athleticism to do what few tight ends have ever done on the field, and that the Patriots have to suffer.
We will get into the achievements that makes Gronkowski a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but one of the primary reasons the Patriots are the NFL’s pre-eminent organizations is their ability to adjust on the fly.
By now, nearly all football fans know that the thing Bill Belichick does best is avoiding any kind of self-congratulatory behavior in order to keep his team on track and working hard. Belichick will take a well done on Super Bowl Sunday, and that’s it.
He goes back to work immediately. So, he will figure out how to thrive without Gronkowski.
But there is little doubt he ranks with the best tight ends in the history of the game.
Let’s start out by giving full respect to John Mackey and Mike Ditka, the two who basically invented the tight end position.
Prior to those two stars of the 1960s, the tight end position was basically a spot occupied by an extra tackle who was not good enough to start, but just good enough to keep around.
Mackey played 10 seasons from 1963 through 1972, went to five Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro three times. Ditka played 12 seasons, went to five Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro twice. Those two set the tone and are historic figures, but they are not Gronkowski’s peers.
Call them tight ends emeritus.
Here is my look at the top-10 tight ends of the modern era.
Many would put Gonzalez first among tight ends, but the former Chief and Falcons was a huge fan of Gronkowski.
“To me, he has been over the last five or six years the most complete tight end in the NFL. In terms of blocking, catching, he does it all,” Gonzalez said to the Boston Globe. “He doesn’t have to come off the field. They don’t have to hide him in the run game. He’s an asset in the run game.
“Gronk runs the deep over, and it’s over. He gets man-to-man coverage running that deep over and there is nothing anybody can do about it. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
Gronkowski ranks as high as he does because he did all the hardest things better than just about anyone. He could block a defensive back, but he could also take down a linebacker or a defensive end.
He could beat a linebacker in coverage, but he could also handle fast cornerbacks and powerful safeties.
He could also be classified as something of a bargain for the Patriots.
He was the best tight end in football, but his $9 million salary (average per year), but he was earning less than Jimmy Graham ($10 million), Travis Kelce ($9.368 million) and Jordan Reed ($9.35 million)
He was making slightly more than Greg Olsen, Zach Ertz and Delanie Walker.
Gronkowski now passes the mantle to Kelce, who has the same reckless style as Gronkowski. The problem is that he will sacrifice his body without fear. That probably gives Kelce about two more years before he has to call it a career.