With the news on early Wednesday morning that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was cleared for training camp, a sigh of collective relief poured over Foxboro as fans wondered if the player affectionately known as “Gronk” can stay healthy and finally return to his dominating ways. Since his debut in 2010, Gronkowski has altered the perception of the TE in the NFL. The position is no longer seen as a placeholder for agile blockers or the occasional pass catcher in the slot. TE’s are now arguably the biggest X-factor for offenses. While quarterbacks undoubtedly remain the most impactful position in the league, what is often forgotten amidst the constant arguments over whether or not a particular QB is “elite” is that the supporting pieces surrounding him are what can make or break a championship run, and Rob Gronkowski is making the case for being the most important non-QB in the NFL.
With a combination of size, speed, blocking skills, and hands that cannot be matched, along with a tendency to be the focal point of offensive game plans and defensive coverage schemes, Gronkowski has repeatedly shown that he possesses the most value for his team than any other player in the league that is not a quarterback. Gronkowski owns the NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a season (1,327), most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in a season (17), and most offensive touchdowns by any player in his first two seasons (28, tied with Randy Moss). Furthermore, the Patriots’ offense has shown to be dynamic and efficient whenever he’s healthy compared to being occasionally sporadic and worrisome when he’s not. The common phrase “too big for a corner and too fast for a linebacker” is perfect for the New England game changer. Not many players can compete with the impact that Gronk has on his team.
The player most comparable to Gronkowski, though, is New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham, and even he is not as valuable to the Saints as Gronkowski is the Patriots. Since 2010 (the year both players entered the league), Graham has played in 62 games versus Gronk’s 49, while catching 301 passes versus Gronk’s 224. However, despite these advantages, Graham still trails Gronkowski in career touchdown catches (41 to 42) and only leads in career receiving yards by 640 (3,863 to 3,223). The one factor separating these two is that the Saints offense still fires on all cylinders with their vast assortment of weapons and various schemes; New Orleans does not rely on Graham to the same degree that New England does with Gronkowski. The Patriots’ roster, on the other hand, is made up of young and injury-prone players at the skill positions. Danny Amendola still has to prove whether or not he can play a whole season, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have to show that they understand the system going into their second years, and Steven Ridley has to convince the coaching staff and his teammates that he can hold onto the football. This inconsistency among the various skill players on the roster underscores the significance of Gronkowski and further highlights how important he is to the Patriots’ offensive success.
As great as Tom Brady is, New England’s championship hopes rely heavily on the health of Rob Gronkowski. Without him, the Patriots’ offense is stagnant and relatively tame; with him, their offense is capable of a multitude of different dimensions. For example, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl run in 2011, Gronkowski hurt his ankle in the AFC title game against Baltimore and finished with five catches for 87 yards. Leading up to that game, Gronk tallied 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns in a divisional round win against Denver. He served as a nightmare for the defense and was the ultimate game breaker for Tom Brady. However, once the ankle injury against Baltimore occurred, Gronkowski was a non-factor in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, managing only two catches for 26 yards. Brady and the offense failed to find a consistent rhythm against the Giants in large part because New York did not have to expend much effort in defending Gronkowski, thus leaving them to roam free against everyone else and causing New England to lose another chance at the Lombardi Trophy.
Gronkowski’s impact, though, goes beyond simply catching passes; an underrated aspect of his game is his exceptional blocking skills. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronk is a towering figure with quick hands and quick feet, giving him the ability to run block very well, thus presenting the Patriots’ offense with yet another dimension. He is capable is sealing off the edge, providing running backs with lanes to the outside and ultimately allowing the offense to churn out consistent yardage on the ground. As a result, this opens up the play action pass, forcing defenses to constantly remain on their heels and play reactionary football. With defenses going into the game already so focused on slowing down Gronkowski, the possibilities of play action make the Patriots’ offense that much more difficult to defend. Gronk gives New England so much flexibility on offense that they are almost impossible to stop. In the playoffs, the Patriots are 3-2 when Gronkowski plays and 1-2 without him.
While Gronkowski’s impact cannot be ignored, other players warrant mention in the discussion as well, such as J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Richard Sherman, and Jamaal Charles. However, unlike Gronkowski, these players do not influence their teams to the same degree. With the NFL’s continued emphasis on the passing game and its persistent focus on mismatches, the value of Rob Gronkowski only soars. In addition, no team in the NFL in the last four years has had their Super Bowl runs more deflated by the loss of a single player than the New England Patriots.
Ultimately, Gronkowski’s impact on the Patriot’s offense and on opposing defenses is undeniable. The common phrase of “being too big for a corner and too fast for a linebacker” is understatement when referring to him. He not only disrupts pass coverages, but significantly impacts the running game with his exceptional skills as a blocker, as well. Without him, Tom Brady and the Patriots are simply a good offense. With him, New England threatens to move the chains and put up points at will. If healthy, Gronkowski’s potential is limitless, and so are the Patriots’ championship hopes. Aside from the QB position, Rob Gronkowski is the most valuable player in the NFL.
 3-1 if you choose not to count the Super Bowl in which his ankle injury clearly affected his play to the point that he was non-existent on the playing field.