Rob Gronkowski

With Rob Gronkowski retiring, is George Kittle now NFL's best tight end?

With Rob Gronkowski retiring, is George Kittle now NFL's best tight end?

On Sunday, arguably the best tight end in NFL history called it a career.

After months of speculation, New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski announced on Instagram that he would be hanging up his helmet at the age of 29.

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It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

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Gronkowski was an unstoppable force on the football field.

Over the course of nine seasons with the Patriots, Gronk caught 79 touchdown passes, the most during that time span. In 115 regular-season games, the Arizona product caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards. He also caught 81 passes for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns in the playoffs, all of which are records for a tight end. 

With Gronk stepping away, the mantle of best tight end in the NFL likely will fall to either Chiefs star Travis Kelce or George Kittle.

After a decent rookie season in 2017, Kittle cemented himself as an All-Pro tight end in 2018. The 25-year-old caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns in last season while breaking Gronkowski and later Kelce's record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season.

The Iowa product put together a historic season with star quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missing all but three games with a torn ACL.

[RELATED: 49ers were aggressive in pursuing Odell Beckham Jr.]

Assuming Jimmy G makes a full recovery in time for the 2019 season, there's no reason to think Kittle won't put up astronomical numbers once again this season.

While Kelce and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz will continue to be in the conversation for best tight end along with Kittle, the 49ers star appears primed to take the mantle from Gronk and become the premier tight end in the NFL.

49ers' George Kittle can break NFL season record for tight end receiving yards

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USATSI

49ers' George Kittle can break NFL season record for tight end receiving yards

George Kittle is on pace for a record-setting Sunday in Week 17, but he isn't the only NFL tight end in that position. 

Kittle, who leads the 49ers with 1,228 receiving yards this season, needs 100 on Sunday to break New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's single-season record of 1,327 yards. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, meanwhile, only needs 54.

“It’s a target,” Kittle said Wednesday (via SFGate). “I definitely want to get it done. It’s not a lost cause if I don’t get it done, but it would be really fun for us.”

[RELATED: 49ers' Antone Exum awaits ruling on hit, hopes he didn't play for free]

The 25-year-old is in the middle of one of the best seasons from a 49ers tight end in franchise history. With one game to go, he is already 263 yards clear of Vernon Davis' previous franchise record. Kittle needs only four receptions on Sunday to surpass Eric Johnson's single-season record (82), and seven more targets to surpass Davis' record (128).

Since Nick Mullens took over at quarterback in Week 9, Kittle is averaging six receptions -- on 9.3 targets -- for 92 yards per game. In other words, the NFL record for yards and the 49ers' record for catches from a tight end are well within Kittle's normal range. But, the QB said that doesn't mean the 49ers are going to force Kittle the ball.  

“We’re aware of it — we know the situation,” Mullens said. “But at the same time, we’re trying to win the game. So if it happens, it happens and that’s awesome. Kittle has had one heck of a year and he deserves a ton of credit. … We’ll see how it shakes out.”

[RELATED: Nick Mullens smartly leaning on 49ers vets Joe Staley, Richard Sherman]

Also working in Kittle's favor is his opponent's defense. The Los Angeles Rams have allowed the 10th-most yards by tight ends this season (920), and the third-most targets. Those 116 targets have only translated into 70 receptions, however. 

What isn't helping Kittle's pursuit of the record is Kelce and the Chiefs' matchup. The Raiders have allowed the fourth-most yards (998) to tight ends. 

Kittle will need some luck on his side to break Gronk's record and surpass Kelce, but neither notion is out of the question. 

Raiders might have the perfect player to slow down Rob Gronkowski

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AP

Raiders might have the perfect player to slow down Rob Gronkowski

ALAMEDA – The Raiders, like every other team, use scout teams designed to preview the next opponent and looks they might give. Practice-squaders often don the jersey of certain stars, skill players especially, while imitating key threats.

Someone might wear New England’s No. 87 this week, but there’s no replicating Rob Gronkowski. The dude stands 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds. He’s built like an ox, with a badger’s on-field disposition.

“There’s nobody really, not with his size and the way he can block and run,” rookie defensive back Obi Melifonwu said. “It’s hard, but you have to do what you have to do.”

The Raiders haven’t done well with tight ends. That position has notoriously plagued them in years past, especially the good ones. Gronkowksi’s the absolute best when healthy.

Tight ends have 45 receptions for 492 yards and four touchdowns against this years Raiders, with Tennessee’s Delanie Walker, Washington’s Vernon Davis L.A. Chargers’ Hunter Henry and Miami’s Julius Thomas causing the biggest problems.

In other words, size and receiving skill equals trouble for the Silver and Black.

Kansas City’s Travis Kelce has long been a Raider killer, but had just four catches for 33 yards and a touchdown in a victory over the Chiefs. That’s considered a good day at the office versus Kelce. They’d certainly take that Sunday against New England at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.

The Raiders beat Kelce up pretty good in Week 7, with linebacker Bruce Irvin chipping him wherever possible. It’s less about knocking him down than rhythm and timing disruption. That tactic could be employed again, especially with emphasis being placed on avoiding explosive plays to speedster Brandin Cooks.

Slowing Gronkowski isn’t easy. Few, if any, do it well. Gronkowski has 60 catches for 583 yards and five touchdowns. He’s second in the league with 2.16 yards per route run, and has 15.3 yards per reception. The University of Arizona alum’s also an excellent run blocker, providing the versatility to trap a defense in sub personnel and run physical or pass deep with him against a defensive back.

He’s a matchup nightmare, a tag liberally applied to tight ends that fits perfectly in this case.

This would be a great time for Melifonwu to shine. He was drafted as a Raiders tight end eraser. That was the original goal, before a knee injury cost Melifonwu the season’s first half. His role is limited somewhat – he played seven defensive snaps in his NFL debut at Miami -- though playing the Dolphins and getting two more weeks practice leaves him better prepared for some one-on-one coverage.

Melifonwu has the size and speed to keep up with Gronkowski, but none of the veteran savvy. The key, in the UConn alums mind, is not playing into Gronkowski’s hands.

“A lot of people try to out-physical him,” Melifonwu said. “You have to play to your strengths. He’s a big, physical guy with strong hands. It’s definitely going to be tough, but it’s a matchup that’s going to be fun.”