No. 6: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
In a year in which records tumbled, Rob Gronkowski may have set the bar higher than anybody else.
First he broke the all-time single-season touchdown record for tight ends, finishing the year with 17, and then he broke a 31-year-old record for receiving yards in a single season by a tight end. The 1,327 yards he ended up with were 37 more than Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow posted in 1980, and now stand 17 clear of the next best mark of all-time, also set this year, by the Saints’ Jimmy Graham.
Both Gronkowski and Graham put together all-time great seasons by tight ends, but what separates Gronkowski is that he wasn’t just a big wide receiver who spent most of his time in the slot rarely being asked to block. Gronkowski comfortably topped our TE rankings this season in large part because of his blocking ability. Only Martellus Bennett from Dallas had a better run-blocking grade than the +6.6 Gronkowski managed, and he was somewhat less of a receiving weapon (1,183 receiving yards less to be exact).
That dual ability is reflected by Gronkowski leading the league for tight ends in snaps, with 1,120 offensive plays; 94.7% of the Patriots’ total offensive snaps. There were six games where Gronkowski didn’t leave the field for a single snap and the only time he graded in the red all season long was the Super Bowl, where he was visibly limited by an ankle injury. While New England had to scheme to get Aaron Hernandez into the best possible position and match up to be effective, they were able to just line up with Gronkowski and let him beat whatever assignment he drew.
One of the most impressive aspects of his season was the work he put in after the catch. Not the shifty athlete his teammate Hernandez is, Gronkowski was still able to notch 641 of his yards–almost half–after the catch, trailing only Brent Celek among TEs with 10 or more receptions. The 13 missed tackles he forced also rank second in the NFL for tight ends and would rank at the sharp end of the same list for wide receivers.
The bottom line is that Rob Gronkowski is the new standard in the NFL for tight ends. He is the complete player that can do everything well, and his all-time great season puts him in elite company.
Best Game: Divisional Playoff vs. Denver Broncos (+7.3)
The big tight end had been in full flow for a while, but he was at his unstoppable best against the Broncos in their rematch with the Patriots in the playoffs. Gronkowski was thrown at a dozen times and hauled in 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive to begin with, but the first touchdown required a diving one-handed effort in the corner of the end zone to bring it in, and was a far more impressive play than the statistic alone.
The Broncos couldn’t work out how to defend Gronkowski all day long, and on his three touchdowns he managed to defeat all the different attempts at covering him. He was too fast for Denver to put a linebacker on, and too tough and physical for nickel corner Chris Harris Jr. to stick to. Gronkowski was the definition of a matchup problem for Denver that day and, subsequently, blew them apart for his biggest game of the season while also run-blocking impressively all game long.
Key Stat: Led the NFL in yards (1,327) and TDs (17) as a TE.
If a wide receiver put up those kinds of numbers he would have had an unbelievable year. Only four players have scored more than 17 receiving touchdowns in a season, and none of them are tight ends. Gronkowski also ran for another touchdown, taking his total on the season to 18, and his 90 receptions earned him 1,327 yards, breaking an all-time record for tight ends that had stood since before he was born.
The effect of Rob Gronkowski (along with Jimmy Graham and a few other tight ends) is beginning to change the way offenses operate in the NFL, and they have become legitimate heavy-duty weapons, rather than merely complementary parts to a passing attack. It’s not often you see a player come along who has the ability to change the way the game is played, but Gronkowski is threatening that, and his record-setting season explains his lofty spot in our list.
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