The bomb was dropped today. Rob Gronkowski’s NFL career is over. He announced his retirement on Instagram, and now the Patriots can actually move on with their offseason. So what does this mean for New England?
Firstly, let's look at Gronk's entire career. When he was healthy, he may have been the best to ever play tight end in the history of the NFL. But, as anyone who followed the Patriots since Gronk joined the team knows, that was tough for him to do. In his rookie season in 2010, he was solid, especially for a tight end, but it was 2011 where he posted (probably) the greatest season by a tight end in the history of the NFL. 90 receptions, 1,327 yards, and a league-leading 17 touchdowns. Just for good measure, he ran in a touchdown too. He was named a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro for the first time in his career. He was on pace to be even better in 2012, but he suffered a broken arm blocking on an extra point, leading to him missing five games. He was still named to the Pro Bowl, but these two seasons would be foreshadowing the rest of his career. After a 2013 where he missed more than half of the season with a torn ACL, he returned to form in 2014. Playing in all but one game, Gronk put up 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, while being named a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro once again. That season, the Patriots would win Super Bowl XLIX, giving him his first ring. 2015 was more of the same, 72 receptions, 1,176 yards, 11 touchdowns, Pro Bowl, First-Team All-Pro, all while playing in 15 games. 2016 would be a step back. Due to a back injury, he would be limited to eight games, but without him, the Patriots would still capture his second ring by winning Super Bowl LI. Gronk would return to being Gronk in 2017, with 69 receptions, 1,084 yards, and eight touchdowns en route to yet another Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro. However, following the Patriots loss in Super Bowl LII to the Eagles, this is where the retirement rumors began. He'd give it one more year, but 2018 would be the worst season of his career. Despite playing in a respectable 13 games, he'd be limited to only 47 receptions, 682 yards, and three touchdowns. He had flashes of the greatness he once exuded, but it just wasn't there. Now, the Patriots would win Gronk's third ring in Super Bowl LIII, and they certainly don't get there or win it without him, but ultimately, those performances just weren't enough to bring him back.
Now, did Gronk make a good decision by retiring? Honestly, while I could be selfish and say he could've given it another go, this is probably for the best. He's only 29, but remember, he entered the league at 20. The wear and tear after nine years was too much for him to deal with anymore. This was a man who had a third of his NFL career end on injured reserve, but also had a third of his NFL career end with him getting another Super Bowl ring. The negatives for him outweighed the positives. Football is the most violent non-combat sport. It's just too much for his body to handle anymore.
So, how do they replace him? Well, you could argue you can't really replace a guy that talented, but someone needs to fill his roster spot. Who would do that? The answer might be on roster: Jacob Hollister. Hollister doesn't have the stats in the NFL, posting only eight receptions for 94 yards in two seasons so far, but he has three things going for him: his age, being only 25, his size, at 6’4”, 245, and his speed, running a 4.64 40 yard dash at the combine, which just barely beats Gronk's 4.68 40. Outside of him, other candidates include Iowa's Noah Fant or TJ Hockenson, or Alabama's Irv Smith Jr in the draft.
So that's all well and good, but where does Gronk rank historically? I'll preface this by saying that Gronk is almost certainly a Hall of Famer, and if he doesn't get in, we need to re-examine what's going on in Canton, Ohio. It's also hard to imagine the Patriots not retiring his #87 at some point. With that out of the way, let me say this: Gronk is not the greatest tight end of all time. However, he is the best. There's a difference, which I'll explain. The greatest tight end in NFL history to me is Tony Gonzalez. Why? Gonzalez doesn't have the rings that Gronk does, but he does beat him in almost everything else. Gronk played nine seasons, Gonzalez played 17. Gronk made five Pro Bowls, Gonzalez made 14. Gronk was named First-Team All-Pro four times, Gonzalez did it six times. Tony Gonzalez is also sixth all time in receiving yards. Only two other tight ends, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates, rank in the top 30. When it comes to touchdowns, Gonzalez was #1 for tight ends all time until 2017, when he was passed by Antonio Gates, but still, his 111 soundly beat Gronk's 79. But Gronk, not Gonzalez, is the best. Why? Because, in his prime, Gronk brought a combination of size, speed, strength, and athleticism unmatched by any other tight end before or since, including Tony Gonzalez.
What else can I, or any other Patriots fan really say, except this: Thank you, Gronk. Thank you for three rings. For 79 spikes. For a countless number of superhuman highlights. Most of all, thank you for suiting up in New England for nine seasons, allowing us to see the greatest quarterback of all time throw it to the best tight end any of us will ever see. You'll be in Canton one day. Best of luck in retirement and whatever you choose to do now that your football career is over.