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It has always been difficult to quantify Rob Gronkowski’s greatness. The best way might actually be a highlight reel with bowling-ball runs, diving or one-handed catches and rush-stopping blocks.
Every highlight has a crazy story with high stakes. Think of his postseason catch against double coverage on fourth down in the fourth quarter against the Broncos when Gronk nabbed an over-the-shoulder bomb from then-Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Think of his fourth-quarter two-point conversion against the Steelers that came after Gronk was completely unstoppable, serving as the sparkplug, engine and fuel in a comeback for New England. Think of his 29-yard catch in Super Bowl LIII when his reception set up his team for a 1-yard score, the only touchdown of the entire game. And that’s not even adding in the context of injuries, of which Gronk endured many.
We overuse the phrase “built differently” in football. But Gronk is. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end was too big for safeties to cover and too fast for linebackers to cover — and therefore he became the queen on Bill Belichick’s chessboard. Gronk was more of the same in Tampa for coach Bruce Arians.
For those who watched Gronk closely, his ranking as the most dominant tight end of the advanced statistics era should come as no surprise. He is the highest-graded tight end in Pro Football Focus history. Per Next Gen Stats, “No tight end in the Next Gen Stats era has generated more [expected] points when targeted as a receiver in a single-season” than in 2017.
Rob Gronkowski: The highest-graded TE in PFF history 🐐 pic.twitter.com/fqg3RZ0gC2
— PFF (@PFF) June 21, 2022
Never forget Rob Gronkowski's 2017 season…
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) June 21, 2022
“Rob was a major reason why we won games and championships,” Belichick said in 2019 after Gronk’s first retirement. “Rob’s impact on our team and organization was felt in many ways. In the ultimate team sport, Rob was a great, great teammate. His production spoke for itself, but his daily attitude, unmistakably positive energy wherever he went and toward whoever he touched will never be forgotten.
“Rob will leave an indelible mark on the Patriots organization and the game as among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play.”
There’s a case for Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez to earn the title as the greatest tight end of all time. And the stats make it easier to argue for either of them than Gronk. But the stats don’t show everything. And Gronk’s style of play limited his ability to play deeper in his career. When you watch Gronk’s highlight reels, that’s when you see his case as the best. That’s when you realize he’s in the conversation with Gates, Gonzelez and every other elite tight end to play the game.