Of all the outstanding individual performances happening in Tampa Bay this season, veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 2020 campaign is flying well under the national radar. Obviously not targeted to the extent he was as the focal point in the passing game at New England, Gronkowski has made the most of every opportunity with the Bucs in 2020, far exceeding most analysts’ expectations in 2020.
When GM Jason Licht traded for Gronkowski, the move was met with skepticism that soon turned to outright criticism when the big tight end posted two catches for 11 yards over the first two weeks of the season. Signs of life over the next two weeks were encouraging, but it wasn’t until Weeks 5-7, when Gronkowski posted 13 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns in three games, that it became clear the 4-time All-Pro could still be a difference-maker.
Over the course of the 2020 season, Gronkowski has quieted the doubters considerably. Third on the team in targets, catches, yards and second in touchdowns, Gronkowski’s 15-game totals of 43 catches for 594 yards and seven touchdowns have surpassed even my optimistic preseason expectations for his 2020 stat line (40-520-6). And there’s still a game remaining.
Of course, raw statistics can only tell us so much, which is why it’s been incredible to watch Gronkowski’s tape as the season has gone on. Billed too slow to be effective in the NFL anymore, Gronkowski has simply proceeded to be the most statistically dangerous vertical threat in the league at the tight end position. You could legitimately put his top 10 catches this year up against any other tight end in the NFL, that’s how dominant Gronkowski has been in high degree of difficulty situations as a receiver.
Not everyone has been able to witness Gronk week-to-week this season, but it's been pretty tough to tell the difference between peak Gronk and 2020 Gronk in the passing game this year, especially over the 2nd half of the season. Just a monster. pic.twitter.com/1YbPGexB6G
According to Pro Football Focus, Gronkowski has the most deep ball (20+ air yards) targets (15), catches (8), yards (265) and is tied for second-most deep ball touchdowns among all tight ends with two. Primarily a vertical threat in the Bucs offense, Gronkowski has consistently gotten behind opposing secondaries, including running away from cornerbacks and safeties. And, ironically, Gronkowski has suffered more than any other Bucs target from Tom Brady misfires this season, as the Bucs quarterback missed an open Gronk for huge plays/touchdowns in games against the Broncos (9:32 2Q), Saints (5:04 2Q), Panthers (second game, 6:27 3Q) and Vikings (7:46 1Q).
It really brings to light just how important it is for the Bucs to re-sign Gronkowski this offseason, especially in light of his solid run blocking and outstanding work in pass protection. He’s still a difference-making receiver at the tight end position, something very few rosters in the NFL offer, fully capable of hitting the statistical highs he notched in New England as long as his health holds up. The Bucs will have leverage with Gronkowski, as the big tight end likely wants to ride into the sunset with Brady and reportedly loves the Tampa Bay area. If he wants to play another season, the Bucs can likely land him at a good price.
Outside of what Gronkowski brings to the field, he’s also an important piece for any locker room, as Brady so eloquently put to the media on Thursday.
“It’s been amazing,” Brady said. “I’ve known him since he came in the league. He has an incredible work ethic, [he’s] tough, [a] very unselfish player, [a] great teammate and does whatever you ask him to do. I think not only just his skillset as a player – because [he is] one of the few tight ends who can be a dominant blocker in the run game and in the pass protection game, but then also run routes and be a dominant pass catcher, which is very rare for any real tight end – I love playing with the guy. He knows how I feel about him.
“I’ve got a lot of trust and confidence in the biggest moments with him. Sometimes I think about players where if it was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, who do I want in the game with me? He definitely fits that. That just means in the biggest moments, who do you want out there? When he can deliver like he always has, it’s a great compliment to him and the way that not only I feel about him, but how all his teammates feel about him. Just an incredible player, teammate and everything. I love playing with the guy.”
Sounds like the kind of player and person that the Bucs could use in the locker room beyond this season, but more importantly during a potential playoff run next week.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft