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When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers switched to Rob Gronkowski back in April 2020, it was hard to imagine that the future Hall of Fame tight-end would have a significant impact.
After all, it looked like Gronkowski had used up his last reserves in Super Bowl LIII as he dragged his clearly ailing body down the field and made a diving grip for a 29-yard reception in the fourth quarter that put New The England Patriots’ only touchdown of their 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
It was a catch that at the time served as a spectacular last glow of an incredible career, but the Bucs emphasized Tom Brady’s belief that Gronkowski’s fire to deliver at the highest level was still burning clearly, and they have been emphatically confirmed.
He caught seven touchdowns in the regular season in 2020, but he once again saved his best for the biggest stage with a dominant two-touchdown performance in the Bucs’ Super Bowl LV round by the Chiefs.
And with Tampa Bay torn apart by most of their depth at wide receiver position, there will be an even greater emphasis on Gronkowski having to make do when the Bucs try to defend their title.
His numbers from a surprisingly effective 2021 suggest he is more than ready for the task.
Run out to receive weapons
Last year, the opposing defense was unable to consistently dedicate special attention to Gronkowski, such was the wealth of options Brady had available.
They went into the previous season’s post-season with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown as receivers, just as they had Gronkowski in the tight end.
Evans remains and remains an extremely gifted number one recipient who may not get the honor he deserves for his hugely impressive consistency.
In Week 18, Evans exceeded 1,000 yards and received, for the eighth year in a row, an NFL record for the longest row to start a career.
He leads all wideouts (min. 100 goals) in burn percentage, which measures how often a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a game where he is targeted. Evans has won 75.2 percent of those matchups this season, while also being the first among receivers to meet that threshold with a high game rate of 43.1 percent.
Brown’s departure from the team, however, leaves the Bucs without a receiver in third place for burn yards per. route (4.0) among recipients with at least 50 destinations.
Godwin lies on the shelf with torn ligaments in his knee and deprives Tampa of another top catcher, who on the list of wideouts with three-digit goals only follows Evans, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs with his burn rate of 70.4.
Their absence places Gronkowski’s ability to produce elite games on tight end in sharper focus, and his efforts at the age of 32 should provide great encouragement to Tampa.
Gronkowski has long been seen as the gold standard in the tight position. A mismatch as a receiver and a huge block, Peak Gronk is the plan for today’s NFL tight ends.
But when he re-entered the league after a retirement that lasted only one season, a new order of top tight-ends had been established.
George Kittle and Travis Kelce are considered the best of the best in tight-end, with Darren Waller a cross below that duo. This season, Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert have taken the plunge to threaten to join the elite.
Yet in several polls, it is Gronkowski who stands above that group at the top of the pile.
Gronkowski’s combustion rate of 72.1 per hundred paths only Goedert and Kelce among close ends with at least 25 goals. However, he is first in burn yards per target (13.00), burn yards per route (3.5) and big play rate (45.7 percent).
In short, no tight end in the NFL has done a better job of creating separation and turning his goals into explosive plays than Gronkowski, whose relationship with Brady shows no sign of disappearing.
In fact, when he targeted Gronkowski in the regular season, Brady had a pass rating of 113.6. To put it in context, the best overall pass rating this season was Aaron Rodgers’ 111.9.
When Brady needed a big game in his last Super Bowl with the Patriots, he turned to Gronkowski, and it was their combination that was without a doubt the most crucial offensive aspect of the Chiefs’ defeat last year.
With Brown away and Godwin out, the locker is not as well-equipped for the Bucs heading into this post-season, meaning that if Brady is to claim ring number eight, he will again have to turn to the man whose renaissance in Tampa no doubt is as impressive as his own incessant brilliance.