Legendary tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday, calling it a career for the second time. Gronkowski previously retired a few weeks after the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII in 2019, but he returned to football a year later, joining Tom Brady in Tampa.
Gronkowski returning for 2022 was never a sure thing, but he was a major part of the Buccaneers’ offense last season and looked like he had some more football in him. If this is it, Tampa will have to make some adjustments offensively.
Rob Gronkowski’s Career-in-Review
Gronkowski leaves football (again) as one of the most accomplished tight ends in NFL history. Injuries robbed him of standing at or near the top of most leaderboards, but Gronkowski at his peak was arguably the most dominant tight end the sport has seen.
Gronk exploded for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in only his second NFL season, emerging as one of Brady’s prime targets. He would earn four all-pro selections with New England, posting four seasons of 1,000+ yards and five seasons of 10+ touchdowns. Gronkowski missed 29 games – equivalent to nearly two full seasons – during his nine years with the Patriots, leaving fans wondering what his career numbers would have looked like if his body cooperated.
Gronkowski looked a step slower in 2018, even as the Patriots marched to another championship. While he never regained the dominance he flashed early in his career, Gronk came out of his brief retirement looking refreshed. As he got more comfortable with the Buccaneers’ offense in 2020, his usage increased, and he was a centerpiece of the offense by the time Tampa won Super Bowl LV. After a productive but still injury-hampered 2021, Gronkowski was non-committal about returning for a 12th season.
At least for now, his time on the field is up. Gronkowski retires with 9,286 yards, 92 touchdowns, and four Super Bowl rings to his name. If he doesn’t play again, he will be a Hall of Famer in 2027.
What Does Gronkowski’s Retirement Mean for the Bucs?
Make no mistake: Rob Gronkowski was not a shell of himself in 2021. He finished 7th among all tight ends with 802 yards, even after missing five games. Only Mike Evans and Chris Godwin were targeted more than Gronkowski in the Buccaneers’ offense. Even when Gronkowski wasn’t a huge part of the Bucs’ passing game, he was making an impact as a blocker. While Tampa always understood his exit was a possibility, Brady and co. will have to adjust. Jason Licht filled Antonio Brown’s role by signing Russell Gage in March, adding Gage to a loaded receiver group led by Evans and Godwin. The Bucs have plenty of weapons, but do they have a tight end who can intimidate defenses like Gronkowski could?
Tampa has Cameron Brate atop its depth chart, which isn’t a terrible position to be in. Brate knows the offense and has been with the Buccaneers for eight years – he just hasn’t shown he’s capable of pass-catching or blocking like Gronkowski. Brate is only averaging 9.1 yards/reception over the last four seasons, never totaling more than 311 yards in a season. Licht drafted tight end Cade Otton in the 4th-round this spring, but it’s notoriously difficult for rookie tight ends to make a quick impact unless they have Kyle Pitts-like talent. Otton could emerge as a minor piece of the passing game with Gronkowski out of the picture, but without highly-regarded blocking skills, his development will take time.
Look for Mike Evans to become even more of a red zone target for Brady, elevating his fantasy stock for 2022. Brate has also done solid work in the red zone and should see a boost, though aside from Evans, Brady loves to spread those targets around. Evans caught 32.6% of Buccaneers touchdown passes in 2021 – no one else caught more than 14%. Without Gronkowski or Antonio Brown, 2022 could be one of Evans’ most productive seasons.
Brate, meanwhile, will have to try his best to recapture his early-career production if Tampa doesn’t bring in a veteran tight end. If he can’t? Maybe Brady gives Gronkowski a call.