Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from football at the age of 29 after months of speculation, and the New England Patriots must now replace a man who is widely regarded as the greatest tight end in NFL history.
Though Rob Gronkowski caught just 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns last season, he remained one of the NFL’s most dangerous tight ends, playing a role in yet another New England Patriots Super Bowl championship victory. With 14.5 yards per reception, Gronk, once again, proved to be extremely difficult to stop from breaking games open, and few tight ends are as adept as him at creating running lanes.
After months of speculation regarding his future, Gronkowski has decided to retire, making the announcement on his Instagram page. Gronkowski has had to overcome and play through concussions, back issues, and a myriad of other serious injuries since joining the league in 2010. The toll football has taken on his body has caused him to retire before the age of 30, and NFL fans will be wondering what the future holds for the future Hall of Famer.
Patriots fans will also be wondering how Bill Belichick will replace one of the NFL’s most prolific tight ends. Gronkowski’s size, agility, blocking ability, and proclivity for making massive catches will be missed, and there’s simply nobody available in free agency who can replace him.
The best option available, Jared Cook, recently chose the New Orleans Saints over the Patriots, who, per ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, “aggressively courted” the Pro Bowl tight end due to uncertainty regarding Gronkowski’s future. Perhaps Cook chose New Orleans over New England because he thought Gronkowski would return to the Patriots in 2019.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Luke Willson, and Maxx Williams are the most exciting options remaining in free agency at the tight end position, with the remaining options being journeyman veterans like Jermaine Gresham and former Patriots blocking specialist Michael Hoomanawanui.
Willson, most recently with the Detroit Lions, once flashed for the Seattle Seahawks at the beginning of his career as a potentially emerging target for Russell Wilson. At 29, he’s likely not breaking out with a new team, though it is possible the Patriots could get the most out of him.
Seferian-Jenkins, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-round pick, isn’t short on talent, but he’s one of the most inconsistent players at the position and struggles as a blocker. Despite being just 26, Seferian-Jenkins doesn’t seem to be a great fit for the Patriots. He has upside if everything can click and he can stay healthy, but those are huge “ifs” at this point.
As for Williams, he may be the best option of the three free agents. Another former second-round pick, Williams is an exceptional athlete and has the potential to be a high-level blocker. Injuries and Nick Boyle’s emergence in the running game prevented Williams from gaining a foothold with the Baltimore Ravens, but he could be a classic Belichick breakout signing and an ideal Gronkowski replacement if everything fall into place.
Replacing Gronkowski is essentially an impossible attack, given his body of work and jaw-dropping physical tools as both a pass-catcher and a blocker. The “next man up” on the roster, now that Dwayne Allen is gone, could be Jacob Hollister, but he’s too unproven. The Patriots could sign a tight end like Williams and pair him with Hollister, but they may be interested in prioritizing the position in the draft. After all, the Patriots have largely been credited with increasing the importance of the position league-wide because of Gronkowski’s success, so it stands to reason that they’d see it as an important position in the draft.
Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are the consensus top two options at the position, and they could snag either one with the 32nd overall pick. New England also has two second-round picks and three third-round selections, so they are in an ideal position to grab a second-tier tight end prospect if they see a more appealing option at No. 32. Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. and Georgia’s Isaac Nauta are two notable names to keep on the radar.
Though Gronkowski leaves a legacy as arguably the greatest tight end ever and a player who helped define an era of Patriots greatness, it is possible for New England to replace his production, even if they can’t quite replace the “X-Factor” that Gronk’s athleticism brought to the table as both a receiver and blocker.
Veteran free-agent signings – or rolling the dice on Williams as a starter – may not be ideal, so Patriots fans will have their eyes on the tight end prospects in this year’s draft, specifically Iowa’s Hockenson and Fant.