How Much Longer Will Rob Gronkowski Play for the Patriots?

Rob Gronkowski could retire today as a consensus top-five tight end of all-time and be a shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Gonzalez, who isn’t eligible for induction until 2019, could soon change things, but at least for now, Gronkowski already has more career receiving touchdowns (68) than any tight end already enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

He holds the single-season record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end with 17. Among active players - including both tight ends and wide receivers - he’s fourth in receiving touchdowns for his career. Only fellow tight end Antonio Gates (111) and wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (104) and Brandon Marshall (82) have more. All of them have been in the league at least four seasons longer than Gronk.

Jason Witten, a very, very good tight end in his own right, has been in the NFL seven more seasons than Gronkowski and has missed just one game dating back to 2003. He has one fewer receiving touchdown than Gronk for his career.

It goes without saying that Gronkowski holds all kinds of receiving records for the Patriots, regardless of his position. He’s the only tight end with multiple seasons north of 1,000 receiving yards in team history. He surpassed Stanley Morgan for the career receiving touchdown mark last season. He’s fourth in receiving yards behind only Morgan, Wes Welker and Troy Brown. It’s highly unlikely anyone will ever wear No. 87 for the Patriots again after Gronk is done in Foxboro.

The question is: could Gronkowski move on sooner than we think?

Defining the 2017 season as make or break for the 28-year-old Gronkowski would be a stretch; in so many ways, he’s already made it. But if any number of his previous health issues reemerge, or a new one pops up entirely, is it out of the realm of possibility that the Patriots could be in the market for a new No. 1 tight end next off-season?

The only reason any of this is a conversation in the first place is due to the knee, arm, ankle and back injuries that have taken chunks out of various parts of Gronkowski’s career. He last stayed totally healthy in 2014, merely sitting out a Week 17 contest vs. the Buffalo Bills in which the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs was already sewn up.

The Patriots won Super Bowl LI without the services of Gronk, but could things have turned out differently if he were fully healthy during Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants? What if he hadn’t broken his arm (twice) in 2012 and was available vs. the Baltimore Ravens in that year’s AFC Championship Game? Or the following season’s AFC title game in Denver against the Broncos?

Gronkowski restructured his contract this offseason with New England, giving him more incentive than ever to stay healthy. His salary cap hit remains a relative bargain – at $6.75 million, he carries only the eighth-highest hit amongst tight ends – but incentives in his deal can lift his base salary from $5.25 million to $10.75 million this season, which would make him the top-paid tight end in football.

In order to reach the $10.75 million threshold, Gronkowski will have to play in either 90 percent of New England’s snaps, catch 80 passes, go over 1,200 yards receiving or make an All-Pro team.

His salary cap hit escalates to $11 million in 2018 and $12 million in 2019, the final two years of his contract with the Patriots. The league-wide cap should only keep climbing, but Gronkowski’s deal would no longer be defined as team-friendly – particularly if he gets banged up again this season.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Patriots have never truly found another compliment for Gronkowski at tight end since the Aaron Hernandez saga. They’ve mostly gone outside the organization for help, with mixed results at best.

Bill Belichick has drafted only two tight ends since the 2010 class that netted both Gronkowski and Hernandez – Lee Smith, a fifth round pick in 2011, and A.J. Derby, a sixth rounder in 2015. Both are long gone from Foxboro.

Tight end Jacob Hollister, who signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in May, is on New England’s initial 53-man roster to open the season. Whether he turns into another Antonio Gates or goes the way of Zach Sudfeld as far as UDFAs at the position goes remains to be seen, but his spot with the Patriots – or anyone’s, for that matter – is hardly guaranteed beyond this week.

“The reality of it is this is the National Football League and there are plenty of guys that are going to be on rosters today, tomorrow and Week 1 that won’t be on them in Week 3 or Week 4,” Belichick said on Sunday. “That’s the National Football League. You keep your job by earning your job on a day-to-day basis.”

Dwayne Allen, acquired in the offseason from the Indianapolis Colts, is under contract through the 2019 season. But if he fails to gel in the Patriots offense, he could just as easily be another one-year wonder behind Gronkowski on the depth chart.

“I have no idea where I stand in the offense,” Allen said during training camp. “It’s been developed over 17, 18 years. I hope that I’m getting somewhere towards the top in terms of understanding it in its totality, but right now I’m not sure.”

Guaranteed money on Allen’s deal expires at the end of this season. He registered no statistics in the passing game in the preseason, which in many ways could be looked at as a good thing – he didn’t need extra time with the second and third-team offense – but whether he can work his way into Tom Brady’s circle of trust will have to wait until the regular season to be answered.

Suffice it to say, internal options don’t exist at this given moment to replace Rob Gronkowski.

If Gronk turns in anything remotely close to his career per-16 game averages (74 catches, 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns) this season and actually plays 16 games or close to it, it will be laughable that this season was ever even considered a crossroads for him.

Some changes in his training regiment to mirror Brady shows that Gronkowski is serious about extending his career. The timing couldn’t be better in that regard; without Julian Edelman, Gronkowski’s availability is more important than ever this season for the Patriots.

The reality is that for as long as he’s in New England, Gronkowski’s availability will be a luxury for the Patriots, regardless of who is playing quarterback.

Health concerns are the only thing holding Gronkowski back from becoming the undisputed greatest tight end of all-time some day. But another injury-plagued season could signal the end of that journey in Foxboro.

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