Instant Debate

Is former Patriot Rob Gronkowski the greatest tight end in NFL history?

Rob Gronkowski is calling it a career after nine NFL seasons.

Gronkowski, who announced his retirement Sunday on Instagram, finished his pro career with 521 receptions for 7,861 receiving yards and 79 receiving TDs (most in the NFL since Gronk entered the league in 2010). He was a playmaker whenever he took the field, particularly when it mattered most: during the playoffs. Gronk exits stage as the most productive postseason tight end in NFL history, with 81 receptions for 1,163 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns (all tops among TEs) over 16 playoff games. Along the way, he helped the New England Patriots make five trips to the Super Bowl, where they won three Lombardi Trophies.

One of the most prolific tight ends to ever play, Gronk is poised to earn a bronze bust in Canton, which currently features nine players at the position: Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Charlie Sanders, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Smith and Kellen Winslow. Tony Gonzalez, the all-time leader in receptions among tight ends, will also be enshrined in August.

Taking all of that into account, one question remains: Is Gronk the greatest tight end of all time?

Gronkowski is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration -- and likely will one day wear a gold jacket. But to categorically label him THE GREATEST tight end of all time is the height of disrespect to men like John Mackey, Ozzie Newsome, Kellen Winslow Sr., Shannon Sharpe, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. I always think of Ozzie Newsome as the G.O.A.T. when it comes to the tight end position. Grace, toughness, durability and production. Tony Gonzalez is right there with him, as well.

As I reflect on Gronk, it's so hard to find an argument as to why he should be considered the best ever at his position. But what he was able to do as a receiver, at his size, could be reason enough. The short catch-and-runs. The deep balls. The catch-and-runs in the middle of the field. Plowing over defenders en route to the end zone. What tips things in his favor, though, is how he mashed in the running game. Think about some of the great defenders who play defensive end or outside linebacker. That's a premium position, and Gronk handled his. When he was required to protect in the passing game, he was as good as an elite tackle. In the running game, he was dominant. He did all of this while injured much of the time.

Gronk's production, especially in the postseason, is impossible to ignore -- 81 catches for 12 touchdowns? That's crazy. Sure, the Patriots always were in the playoffs, but that's often when he was at his best -- and that's saying a lot.

So now that Gronk won't be adding any more to his profile and we can talk about his career in the past, I have to say, he's at the top of a great list of tight ends. G.O.A.T. #Gronkspike As brilliant as Rob Gronkowski was during his nine-year career in New England, he doesn't have a great argument for being the best tight end ever. Tony Gonzalez has more than twice as many receptions (1,325) and yards (15,127), and his 111 touchdowns are the second-most ever for a tight end (only trailing Antonio Gates). Kellen Winslow revolutionized the position in the 1980s, while John Mackey did the same thing in the 1960s. Hell, even former Dallas Cowboys star Jason Witten has better overall numbers than Gronkowski.

Not to take anything away from what Gronk has accomplished -- along with his 521 career receptions and 79 receiving touchdowns, he's the most productive tight end in NFL postseason history -- but he simply wasn't around long enough to claim the title of being the best. Gonzalez is the logical pick in this category, largely because he played in 14 Pro Bowls despite mostly having underwhelming quarterbacks throwing him the ball, and no other receiving threats to keep defenses from fully focusing on him. I can't say Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end to ever play the game, but he was certainly ONE of the best. He went by his own rules and dominated so much that no single defender could stop him. He was a football fan's dream, as some simultaneously cheered for him and against him. The game will never be the same, and what a pleasure it was to watch the soon-to-be Hall of Famer. Yes, and it's not close. Don't get me wrong: Tony Gonzalez, whom some view as the best TE of all time, was great. But Gronk is one of the biggest mismatches of all time, and his ability to be a playmaker in the pass and run games has changed the way the position is viewed. Gronk had the attributes of Gonzalez, but he also blocked like a right tackle. When healthy, the former Patriot was superior in every aspect of the position. Gronk has been the best tight end of his generation. If he had played for another team, he may have had a longer career, because he has been the focal point of an offense without much help on the outside in recent years. That said, Gronk is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and I don't think the Patriots could have been as dominant in the last decade without him on the roster. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Gronk was such a fire. Though he doesn't boast the longevity or durability of Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, Gronk played an integral role on more championship teams than any of those pass-catching tight ends combined. Along with Tom Brady, Gronk defined a decade-long era of unprecedented winning in New England, and in doing so, redefined the tight end position. Sure, he stood on the shoulders of giants, but Gronk leaves the game taller than them all. It's tough to say at this moment if Gronk is the greatest tight end of all time. John Mackey forever morphed the position. Tony Gonzalez owns all the career numbers. Kellen Winslow dominated. Then there's Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome, Shannon Sharpe, Jason Witten and Antonio Gates.

Gronk was a mixture of all of them and did it all at a high level. He was the greatest postseason tight end ever, by far. He hit people like Ditka. He was the top player, or among the top, every year, like Newsome. He was big in big games, like Sharpe (see the last two Super Bowls). He was asked to do everything, especially block, like Witten ... except better. He was also a scoring machine, especially early in his career, like Gates. Because of the overall strength of his game, Gronk probably is the greatest true tight end to ever play.

The only drawback, and where Gonzalez surpasses him, was his inability to stay available. Yet, much of Gronk's injury woes stemmed from the fact that he played on a physical level and was asked to do more on that front than the former Chiefs and Falcons Hall of Famer was. On the other hand, injuries are part of the game, and it's easy to call a guy injury-prone when he is doing so much more than other players at his position. Put another way: In his prime, there was no tight end more valuable than Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has the numbers to merit a debate, and there's no doubting he owned the postseason with 81 career receptions for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns. Gronkowski certainly deserves to be in the conversation as one of the NFL's all-time greatest tight ends, and he's more than worthy of a statue in Canton, Ohio. But it's a little early to crown him the greatest when considering Tony Gonzalez, the NFL's all-time leader in receptions (1,325) and second in receiving touchdowns (111) among tight ends, has yet to give his induction speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This is going to be a tough one to unwrap. Not unlike the McRib. Which, like Gronkowski, was sometimes available only for a limited time, but while it was there, it was really something special. And that's the rub of the debate. Do you judge it by longevity and records set? Or do you go with a guy who absolutely dominated and changed the game? For me, I look at it like this. If I was constructing my perfect NFL team, there is no tight end I would take ahead of Rob Gronkowski. And by this measurement. He's the best.

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