I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)
Today we reach . . . .
NUMBER 9: ROB GRONKOWSKI
Years With Patriots: 5 (2010-2014)
Playoff Games: 8
Honors: Super Bowl Champion (2014), NFL Comeback Player of the Year (2014), All-Pro (First team 2011 and 2014), Pro Bowl (2011, 2012, 2014)
So check this out...in May, Gronk turned 26. In his five-year NFL career he has 61 touchdowns in 73 NFL games (including playoffs). That’s .83 TDs/Game. In 189 games, San Diego’s Antonio Gates has scored 100 touchdowns (.53 TDs/Game). Surefire Hall of Fame Tony Gonzalez? He scored 115 in 277 games (.42). If Gronk can have their longevity – a large “if” for a player who’s been cut open way too much already – he won’t be threatening their tight end records. He’ll be a threat to get into the top five all-time and will retire the belt as the best tight end in NFL history. That’s why Gronk is here in my Top 10 and players such as Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison with more rings and leadership are behind Gronk. They were not threats to the record books. Gronk is. And he hasn’t even been fully healthy for an entire season yet. In the 2011 playoffs, Bernard Pollard broke Gronk in the AFC Championship Game. There’s no telling the difference he would have made in the Super Bowl, but imagine Victor Cruz not playing for the Giants that day. In 2012, he broke his arm in December and then re-broke it in the playoff win over Houston. And the Patriots offense went from potent to putrid and got shut down by the Ravens in the AFC Championship. The 2013 Patriots probably wouldn’t have won a Super Bowl even with Gronk – Seattle was that good. Denver too. But his blown ACL in December 2013 made the conversation moot. No injuries, how many rings would Gronk have added to the fingers of his teammates? Gronk’s ripple effect on the rest of the offense is significant. He is an outstanding blocker. The next-best tight end in the game Jimmy Graham couldn’t block an internet ad (HA!). And he attracts so much attention that the number of players defenses can allocate to wideouts is reduced. If a team wants to try and take its chances? Their chances are poor. See K.J. Wright in the Super Bowl. That’s not fair. As far as my final criteria on this list, which is basically the extent to which a player is willing to put the team first, Gronk is interesting. Obviously, he labors as hard as any current professional athlete to cultivate his “brand” and it gets tiresome, predictable and sometimes uncomfortable, like when he supposes the president is drunk. But he serves as comic relief and – even the most skeptical among us – can’t deny that, when it’s time to play he plays. He’s the world’s friendliest, most loyal, most playful Bull Mastiff. An on-field force of nature. And he’s not even halfway done.