It’s difficult to know exactly what to expect from Rob Gronkowski this season. When he last played in 2018, wear and tear seemed to have finally slowed him down to the point where he was no longer the dynamic playmaker of his prime. While taking last season off may have helped him get healthy, most players tend not to get more athletic and explosive after a year away from football. That said, even in a “down” year, Gronk was still a difference maker in his final season with the Patriots. If he can perform at that 2018 level in Tampa (it’s unfair to expect that he’ll play at a higher level), he will still be difficult to handle in 1-on-1 situations. His mere presence on the field will also influence defenses in ways that will create opportunities for the Buccaneers’ endless supply of playmakers.
During his last season in New England, Gronk was still able to bring versatility to the offense like he did throughout his entire career. He still aligned all across the formation. He could effectively play in-line as a traditional tight end and serve as a de facto extra tackle in the running game. Gronkowski was a key cog in a rushing attack that led the Patriots on a late-season run to their 6th Lombardi Trophy.
In the passing game, he was still able to create separation and set up easy completions in the middle of the field using his combination of size, deceptive burst, and long arms:
Give Gronk a free release off the line like that and he’ll run routes on his own terms, creating separation with little resistance.
Even when defenders did get physical with him at the line, he still had the ability to fight through and get open. Below he was aligned to the right of the formation in the same in-line position as the play above.
Completions don’t get much easier than that.
One of the things that has separated Gronk throughout his career is his ability to perform on the perimeter against any defender – big, small, fast, or physical.
Match up on him with a linebacker and Gronkowski can win with his athleticism. Most linebackers are not good at running with receivers and getting their head around to play the ball. So by the time Gronk flies by them, they start to chase with almost no ability to turn back and effectively defend the pass. As you can see on the play below from Week 1 of 2018, a decent back shoulder throw then becomes impossible to defend.
The Texans were playing with safety help specifically over the top of Gronk on this play and it still didn’t matter.
Defenses can try to match up against him on the perimeter with a safety, but similar problems arise. Safeties might be more athletic than linebackers, but they still have issues consistently looking back for the ball. They also are often not physical enough to handle Gronk.
This reception below was one of the biggest plays of the Patriots’ Dynasty – 3rd-and-5, down 4, with under a minute to go in the 2018 AFC Championship Game:
Even with a physical jam at the line, Gronk’s path wasn’t really impeded and he was still able to get on top of his defender. Gronk picked that ball off of the safety’s helmet there.
Defenses can also try matching up on Gronk with a cornerback, who will generally be better at staying with him and playing the ball. But then Gronk can just use his size, physicality, body control, and great hands to win that battle, like on this play against the Bills from Week 8 of 2018:
Gronk aligning on the outside doesn’t just provide a favorable matchup in space. It also helps define the coverage pre-snap for Tom Brady. If a safety or linebacker aligns over Gronk on the perimeter, it most likely means some kind of man coverage (safeties and linebackers really don’t align on the outside in zone). Brady can then pick the best matchup. If a cornerback is aligned over Gronk, it still might be man depending on the the opponent. More often than not, though, it’s an indicator of zone. This also means that a linebacker or safety is likely matched on a wide receiver inside. It’s not hard to anticipate Brady targeting the many mismatches he’ll see with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin aligned inside this season.
Even if the defense isn’t clearly defined pre-snap with Gronk on the perimeter, throwing to him can still be the right decision whether it’s technically the correct read or not. Off-target throws also become more accurate given his catch radius and ability to fight through defenders, as you saw on some of the plays above.
The advantage Gronkowksi creates in the red zone due to his size and athleticism is one of his greatest attributes. Throughout his Patriots tenure, Gronk was frequently isolated on the perimeter near the goalline. He would then run a slant or fade depending on the matchup or leverage of his defender.
Here’s a fade from 2017:
Here’s a Slant from 2014:
Even if the defense gives Gronk extra attention near the goalline, Brady will have the ability to play above the defense elsewhere with Mike Evans (6’5”) or his other two tight ends, O.J. Howard (6’6”) and Cameron Brate (6’5”). Good luck NFL defenses.
We don’t yet know exactly what the Buccaneers Offense will look like this season. Will it lean more towards Arians’ preferred style of attacking downfield? Or will it lean towards the ball control/matchup-based system we saw with Brady in New England? Either way, Gronk’s presence will make a significant impact if he can remain on the field.
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