Rob Gronkowski is arguably the most talented player in NFL history to apply his craft at the tight end position.
It’s no secret the entire operation in New England takes a hit when No. 87 is unavailable. True, the Patriots once erased a 28-3 third quarter deficit in the Super Bowl without Gronkowski in uniform. Still, look at the weaponry at Tom Brady’s disposal during said comeback, namely Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan and James White.
Only Hogan and White will be available for Brady during the first month of the 2018 season. Edelman will return eventually, a little more than a year removed from surgery on a torn ACL and off a four-game suspension at age 32.
Suffice it to say, Gronkowski has never been more indispensable to the success of the Patriots than he is in the present.
With Brady as the one constant over 19 seasons, Gronkowski is the only current member of the roster currently separating this group of New England skill position players from some of its weakest units this century. The Reche Caldwell All-Stars of 2006 need no re-introduction.
The one weakness for Gronkowski through the years has been his ability to stay healthy, starting all 16 regular season games in his career just once (2011). He’s coming off a 2017 season in which he missed only one game due to health reasons, though, and it was a Thursday Night Football game coming off a quick turnaround from Sunday.
Keeping Gronkowski in bubble wrap, so to speak, for the entirety of the pre-season might make the most sense for all parties involved. He’s played in only two of a possible 22 pre-season games since 2013 – both last summer as he returned from a myriad of injuries that cost him over half of the 2016 season.
“I mean, it’s always beneficial whenever you go out there in the preseason,” Gronkowski said earlier this week. “You want to go out there, get the timing down, get some live reps. So, just going to prepare like a normal game this week like I’m playing, and then it’s up to the coaches.”
Speaking at his press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Bill Belichick noted the variety of factors at play in determining whether or not a player will suit up for a pre-season game. First and foremost is a player’s availability, he said, but it could also come down to how many players are available at a given position.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Belichick said. “We talk about each player and usually have a general plan for how we want it to go and we see how it goes during the game. Sometimes we have to make adjustments and sometimes we can stay on a schedule that we’ve laid out. It’s usually a combination of both.”
The coach didn’t tip his hand on whether or not Gronkowski would suit up for pre-season game No. 3 on Friday night, the same game in which Edelman was lost for the season a year ago. In speaking to availability within a position group, it’s clear there’s plenty of players who are ready to go – and need to go, for one reason or another – on Friday night: Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Will Tye. And that’s before getting into the wide receiver group, which remains in flux beyond Hogan and Edelman.
Without naming names, Brady said at his presser on Wednesday that he’s had “a couple” of teammates through the years that could just seamlessly get out on the field like they never left.
“There’s only one way to simulate it, that’s to play,” Brady said of getting timing down. “When you get out there and play, you take advantage of the experience. I’ve also had a lot of games and a lot of experience doing it so naturally it comes back relatively quickly but I think it’s still really important to get out there and feel it and do it.”
Without putting words in Brady’s mouth for him, it’s pretty safe to assume Gronkowski is one of said players. Including the postseason, Gronkowski has caught over twice as many touchdown passes from Brady (87) than the next closest player (Randy Moss, 40). That kind of chemistry doesn’t need an exhibition game to rekindle.
Getting on the same page as just about every other prospective pass catcher on the roster, specifically at wide receiver or tight end, is another story. It was great to see Brady and White still had their rapport intact during last week’s game vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, when White caught six passes for 61 yards, but we already know about their connection; look no further than White’s Super Bowl-record 14 receptions vs. the Atlanta Falcons.
Allen and Hollister both feel like safe bets to make New England’s roster at this point at tight end, each serving their purpose behind Gronkowski on the depth chart but neither possessing his abilities nor connection with Brady. Those are the kinds of players who need the live game action to develop into trusted targets for Brady, not someone who’s headed for Canton in his first year of eligibility.
Bigger picture with Gronkowski, his contract remains the same, set to expire after the 2019 season. Set to be the sixth-highest paid tight end in the league this year, Gronkowski is yet to receive a pay bump after floating retirement in the off-season.
It’s not guaranteed he plays beyond this season. But since Gronkowski is fully on board for 2018, the Patriots need to maximize their championship window by making sure the most important player not named Tom Brady on the roster is standing up right for as many of their 16 games as possible. Unleash Gronkowski on Sept. 9 vs. the Houston Texans and not a moment sooner.