Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are reuniting in Tampa Bay. A month after signing the greatest quarterback in NFL history, the Buccaneers have traded a fourth-round pick for the greatest tight end in NFL history.
From the Patriots’ perspective, it’s a no-brainer move. They’re picking up an extra draft pick for a guy who was wrestling in the WWE. For the Bucs, it’s a little more complicated than that.
The move will undoubtedly make Brady happy, but will it make the Bucs any better?
The rational part of my brain says no. When Gronk retired, he was coming off a rough season in which he graded as the ninth-best tight end in the league, per Pro Football Focus. O.J. Howard, the incumbent starter at tight end, who will almost certainly be traded now, graded out as the second-best player at the position that same season.
The 2019 season was a different story for Howard. He wasn’t properly utilized by new coach Bruce Arians and his production fell off a cliff. His talent was still evident on tape, however. At this point in their careers, Howard is probably a better player than Gronk. He’s certainly a better long-term answer at tight end.
But now Howard can be dealt and Arians doesn’t have to worry about finding his replacement. He found that replacement for a Day 3 pick. Not bad. The Buccaneers really aren’t taking much of a risk here, and let’s be honest: GM Jason Licht was probably going to waste that pick on a kicker, anyway.
So what can the Bucs expect from Gronk?
Let’s go back to the 2018 season to try to figure that out. Gronk did not look good the last time we saw him play football. At least relative to the lofty standards he had set throughout his career. He was dealing with a crippling back injury and it showed on tape. That last time we saw him on a football field, Gronk was a lumbering route-runner who was no longer the monster after the catch he had once been, ranking 16th in Next Gen Stats’ Expected YAC Plus-Minus metric.
But even with the injuries slowing him down, Gronkowski was still a productive receiver when available. In 13 games, he caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns. The volume isn’t all that impressive, but on a per-target basis, Gronk was still one of the best receiving options at the tight end position. Per Sports Info Solutions, his targets averaged 0.30 Expected Points Added per play, which ranked seventh among tight ends who were targeted at least 40 times.
(This is where a cynic would point out that Howard’s targets averaged 0.51 EPA, which ranked second in the NFL in 2018. But I’m not going to do that.)
So if Gronk was that good with a malfunctioning back, imagine what he can be when fully healthy! Well, that brings up another concern: Gronk hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011. Over his past five seasons, he’s averaged only 11.2 starts per year. Now he’s 30. And, sure, he’s coming off a year of rest, but football is a grueling sport. That year off isn’t going offset the decade of punishment his body has already taken; nor will it fully prepare his body for the year of punishment it’s about to take.
It’s possible — and even likely — that, in 2020, we’ll see the same injured Gronk we saw in 2018 … only now he’s two years older and playing in an offense he’s not familiar with.
If that’s how things play out, we’ll probably look back at this trade (and the expected trade of Howard) as a mistake. It won’t be a mistake that sets this franchise back, however.
The Buccaneers’ chances (at least in the short term) are entirely dependant on the play of Tom Brady. If he returns to elite form, it won’t matter if Gronk plays well or not. And the same will be true if Brady’s play continues to decline.
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