Rob Gronkowski Retires Again, Has Case for Best Tight End Ever

Tampa Bay Buccaneers and longtime New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski retired from football Tuesday, June 21.

The announcement was Gronk’s second in his historic career, with the first coming amid Tom Brady’s angst in Foxborough and the looming possibility that he could be traded to the Detroit Lions. Although he will not be around to dominate 2022 NFL stats, the “second wind” in his career produced yet another Super Bowl and more memorable moments, and if he is gone for good this time, he has a legitimate claim at being the best tight end of all time.

Happy trails Gronk— if this one lasts.

Gronkowski’s legacy

Gronkowski was a second-round draft pick of the Patriots in the 2010 NFL Draft— he had first-round talent, but injury concerns caused his stock to decline before he fell right into Bill Belichick’s lap.

He made an immediate impact in the NFL, hauling in 10 touchdowns as a rookie for a team that went 14-2 but lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. The very next year, Gronk came back with a vengeance, leading the entire league with 17 touchdowns and 1,327 receiving yards to boot. He was named to the first of his five Pro Bowl teams and made the first-team All-Pro list for the first of four times. 

The 6-foot-6 Arizona product was virtually unblockable at his piece, whether he was dominating between the hashes, sliding underneath coverage in the flats, or constantly beating double and triple-teams in the red zone. His reassuring presence in the Patriots’ offense was a major reason as to why they were so steady, as well as so clutch.

Beyond simple statistics, Gronk was also an incredible blocker and was essentially a sixth lineman when he would get down and dirty in the trenches. When the Pats had a bruiser such as LeGarrette Blount lining up in the backfield, they were almost impossible to game plan against, both because of the pressure on the defensive line, but also because of the threat that Gronk could be motioned out wide and put into single-coverage with a corner— basically a guaranteed back-shoulder fade touchdown.

Frequent injuries deprived Gronk of some of the longevity he would have enjoyed otherwise, but he still made notable contributions in his come returns to the field; in 2014, he won NFL Comeback Player of the Year and would wrap up his career as a member of the 2010s all-decade team and with Four Super Bowl championships.

In his final Super Bowl appearance, which ended with the Bucs defeating the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9, Gronk went for 67 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was TB’s first TD of the game.

The all-time list

Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Shannon Sharpe are frequently revered as the three best players to grace the position. Jason Witten has also been floated around as a top-three candidate, although his overwhelming lack of postseason success is the most glaring issue with his case.

Gonzalez dominates the major statistics, especially receiving yards, as he enjoyed a longer and healthier career than the other players in contention. Someone like Antonio Gates was the most dominant, at least in terms of striking fear into opposing defenses, in his prime, but he too did not have much postseason success.

Sharpe’s case is that he won three Super Bowls in two locations and seemed to always show up when his team needed him, earning the nickname “Big-Play Shay.” However, as impressive as his numbers were, he did not have the breakout seasons that Gronk did.

With all of this in mind, it seems fair that Gronk is firmly in the conversation, if not leading the race, for the best tight end of all time. While the other candidates all have their unique strengths and flaws, Gronk’s resume is virtually free of blemishes, and at his best, he was more important than any non-quarterback offensive player.

John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.