The latest episode of NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014" revealed the players' ranking of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: No. 41. That's a pretty lofty slot for a guy who logged just seven games last season.
Gronk, of course, took the NFL by storm in his first two campaigns, scoring 10 touchdowns as a rookie and posting mind-boggling numbers in Year 2 (90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns). Rugged dominance earned him nationwide admiration -- as well as a $54 million extension -- but it also began to take a toll on his body. An ankle injury in the 2011 playoffs was the first of many health setbacks that have marred his past two seasons. The tight end currently is rehabbing from knee surgery in January, with no definitive timetable for return.
All of this begs the question: What should we expect from Rob Gronkowski in 2014 and beyond?
Gronk will be a boon for the Pats ... when he playsCan we please have a return to the "Yo Soy Fiesta" Gronk and not the Gronk of braces and casts?
That there is no definitive timetable for Rob Gronkowski's return doesn't bother me -- did we really expect the Patriots to open up their medical files? What concerns me is his recent history of injury and, potentially, how little preparation he might get this offseason. It's hard to imagine a return to the mind-boggling numbers from Year 2 (90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns), in part because opponents don't have to also worry about Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez anymore, and also in part because I now have serious doubt about whether Gronkowski can play an entire season.
So put me down for him playing maybe 12 games and catching maybe 10 touchdown passes. And remember: Any amount of Gronk is better for the Patriots (and the NFL) than no Gronk at all.
Plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a still-young talentNo one can tell you with authority what to expect from a player still rehabbing a reconstructed knee. It does bode well for Rob Gronkowski that he's still just 25 years old, has been a quick healer in the past and looked as explosive and athletic in the middle of last season as he ever has.
Another factor working in Gronk's favor is that he's a freakish talent with the best four-year start to any tight end's career in NFL history. Much like Adrian Peterson, he's an outlier from a talent and production standpoint.
Typically, injury-prone players continue to miss time as they get olderRob Gronkowski himself probably doesn't know what to expect this season and beyond. When healthy, he is an extremely tough matchup for opposing defenses -- an absolute force in the aerial attack as a big target with good hands. Of course, Gronk also makes his presence felt in the running game as a fine blocker.
During my time as an NFL personnel man, one common trend emerged among players with injury histories: They continued to miss time as they got older. Consequently -- and unfortunately -- this is what I expect from Gronkowski going forward.
When healthy, Gronk is the best tight end in the NFLFirst of all, Rob Gronkowski's spot on the list is absolutely fine; these "Top 100" lists seem to take one season into account far too much. As for Gronk on the field, well, he's proven in four years that he -- and not Jimmy Graham -- is the premier tight end in the NFL. He's more of a true tight end who is asked to block in the Patriots' running attack. He also doesn't line up out wide, where -- like the Saints' "tight end" -- he'd get an un-muddled release.
Of course, the concern here, as it was for Graham last year, is staying healthy. Considering that Gronk plays inside and has developed a penchant for getting hurt -- perhaps an unfair criticism -- it might be a good idea to expect something less than 15 touchdowns. That is to say, all those fantasy owners who wanted to take him somewhere in the late-first or second round should tap the brakes.
If his body will let him, Gronkowski can outperform everyoneI have a lot of faith in Rob Gronkowski, who is a throwback to an old-time football player. He'll play till he drops; if there's any possible way he can take the field, he'll be out there. As soon as he's physically able to, he'll be with the Patriots, outworking and outperforming everyone.
Of course, whether he can stay healthy or not is the key question. His most recent problems weren't his first; remember that he missed the 2009 college season at Arizona with a back issue that required surgery. But then, he rebounded to have a great pro day, and landed with the Patriots in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He's tough. Ultimately, he's a fun-loving guy off the field who is extremely competitive and capable on it, an athletic freak who brings a lot to New England's offense -- when his body lets him.