On March 24th, 2019, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski decided to retire. He will go down as one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
Other NFL coaches had to have been at least mildly pleased. Why are they pleased? First of all, Tom Brady loses a key target that he relied upon over the last decade. But also, Rob Gronkowski was a dominant force in every way the New England Patriots used him. According to Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski was the best tight end in the league for 7 straight seasons (2011-2017). Gronkowski has also been a huge factor to the Patriots dynasty with the highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for tight ends since 2006.
Gronkowski was even a wrecking force in this last season’s push for the Patriots sixth Lombardi trophy, even though he had a career-low 75.6 grade on PFF.
What has made Gronkowski a havoc for defenses across the NFL? First of all, it has to do with some of the smaller stuff that goes unseen in his gameplay. Gronkowski has always been seen as a dominant receiver. However, he has blocked on many play action and run plays that led to the Patriots success as well.
In this clip above, Gronkowski may not make the perfect block, but he got the job done. He doesn’t grab the chest plates like the linemen do, but his use of explosiveness in his quads and hips allows him to drive the defender back. Also, his speed allows him to help open up the gap so James Develin can come through and lead block for Sony Michel to rush.
Also, the red circle is showing us that Gronkowski has a good base with his feet about shoulder width apart. He keeps chopping his feet so he can continue to drive forward and keep the gap open as long as possible.
Obviously, Gronkowski will never be remembered as a blocking tight end because he was able to take over the game as an outside receiver, in the slot, or lined up next to the tackle in a usual tight end position.
His receiving skills are credited to his route running and ability to run after the catch.
In this clip, the yellow represents Gronkowski’s drag route. The red shows us how far he ran after catching the ball. He may not be very versatile, but his route running is much appreciated. Gronkowski’s drag route is the third best grade in PFF since 2005 (95.2) for all tight ends and wide receivers. He proves it by catching the 5-yard route and turning on the jets. His body build allows him to fight for about 10 extra yards compared to where he should have been tackled.
Gronkowski also has the best go route in PFF’s ratings.
In this clip, Brady notices the mismatch of Gronkowski against a linebacker. This has been bread and butter for Brady and Gronkowski. Gronkowski is too fast to be guarded by linebackers and too big to be guarded by corners or safeties 1-on-1. Instead, defenses usually have someone bracketing overtop so he cannot break free. The Rams try to do that here, but Gronkowski breaks the linebacker’s cushion too early. The safety cannot come and support in time, so Brady throws it up just so Gronkowski can reach it.
The defense being shifted to Gronkowski also allowed Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon for a time to have mismatches or 1-on-1 moments where they can capitalize on plays. However, with Gronkowski gone now, the Patriots will need someone new to draw defenses off of Edelman.
Gronkowski has also been a force in the slot as many linebackers are not able to match up with his speed, size, or talent.
In this clip, Gronkowski runs a simple curl route and utilizes his size to box out any defender from coming too close and trying to deflect the pass. Then, Gronkowski’s ability to turn and run allows him to build speed and size up defenders. Gronkowski’s size allowed him to break through tackles, earning himself and the Patriots nearly 4 extra yards after the catch just this year.
Lastly, Gronkowski has been one of many weapons in the Patriots strategic offense. Gronkowski was able to cause defenses to struggle in the run game with play action on their mind too. With a decent run game in New England, the Rams decided to bite on the play action and opened up one of many weapons for the Patriots in the passing game. That one receiver just had to be Gronkowski in a crossing pattern once again. He was able to earn the Patriots a first down on this play.
At the end of the day, the Patriots will miss Gronkowski dearly. Gronkowski was able to draw defenses to him, opening up Edelman and other receivers. He was also able to run some of the best routes in the NFL of the last decade. His routes ran side-by-side with his size and speed. The three of those factors made him nearly impossible to guard. His blocking and knowledge were also overlooked but will be missed too in this next season.
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