COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots have enjoyed three excellent seasons from Rob Gronkowski since drafting the tight end out of the University of Arizona. However, the team has cause for concern about his mounting injuries and how they could impact his production going forward.
Gronkowski has been arguably the best tight end in the NFL since joining the Patriots as a second-round draft choice in 2010. He has totaled 187 receptions for 2,663 yards and 38 touchdowns. The behemoth 6-foot-6, 265-pound dynamo had his best season in 2011, when he hauled in 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 receiving touchdowns; setting the NFL single-season record for both yards and touchdowns by a tight end.
Although he may look physically indestructible, he's starting to break down before our eyes. He played in all 16 regular season games in his first two seasons, but was relegated to just 11 last year because of the broken forearm he suffered while blocking for an extra point in the fourth quarter of a 59-24 blowout win against the Indianapolis Colts.
Since the Colts game, Gronkowski has piled up maladies and surgeries at a rate that should alarm the Patriots.
Despite missing the final five games of the regular season last year, he returned for the playoffs but broke his forearm again in the team's 41-28 divisional-round victory against the Houston Texans. The injury hasn't healed properly since, as he has battled infection, and on Monday he underwent his fourth surgical procedure on the arm, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
Although a ten-week rehab is anticipated for Gronkowski to have his arm fully healed, it may not be the only ailment he is nursing.
USA Today's Mike Garafalo reported Gronkowski recently underwent an MRI on his back to explore a disc issue he has dealt with since last year. An anonymous source indicated that back surgery is a real possibility. If the tight end did have to undergo the knife for this, it's expected he would need roughly the same recovery time as for his arm. While in theory that would make him ready for mini-camp and pre-season, any misstep with his recovery timeline could impact his availability in preparing for the 2013 season. The surgeries should also raise the question of what is the accumulated physical toll for the Patriots' big target.
This isn't the first time Gronkowski has had problems with his back. He missed his final college season because of surgery that reportedly addressed a chronic condition that causes narrowing of the spine.
Gronkowski's position on the field dictates he will continue to take a lot of punishment after he returns. When he isn't down blocking in the trenches, his bread and butter is catching passes over the middle. There's no way he can avoid taking big shots.
Professional sports injury expert Will Carroll told WEEI he believes it's only a matter of time before Gronkowski's injuries catch up with him. "Certainly, he's really, really talented. But I do think he's going to have to deal with these injuries throughout his career. And I don't think it's going to be a very long one. He could have seven, eight really, good, productive years that will really help the Patriots. But they're going to have to deal with these sorts of injuries all along that time frame."
Anything that would keep Gronkowski off the field for any period of time would be a huge blow to the Patriots. His arrival (along with that of Aaron Hernandez) in New England coincided with a change in the team's offense that put more emphasis on targeting the tight ends.
Not coincidentally, quarterback Tom Brady has excelled during the past three years, averaging 4,654 passing yards and 36 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
The Patriots rewarded Gronkowski for being the productive focal point of their offense by giving him a six-year, $54 million contract extension (with $18 million guaranteed) last summer that could keep him in a New England uniform through 2019.
Having just turned 24, Gronkowski is still just a pup by most standards, but unfortunately his body has started to rack up the mileage.
It wasn't so long ago that the Patriots were worried about Gronkowski's unrepentant party animal ways. Those days seem to be rapidly receding in the rearview mirror thanks to the various injuries that are taking a toll on his body.
Football is a brutally physical sport. Like other players before him, Gronkowski will likely continue to suit up until his skills have eroded or he can physically do so no more. There's no telling when that might be, but his rash of injuries is only speeding up that process.
Andrew Martin writes for Bleacher Report, where he serves as a Featured Columnist (Boston Red Sox), and he has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts. He has also written on the topics of sports and history for a number of print publications and websites.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew
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