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Rob Gronkowski retires as NFL’s most dominant pass catcher of his era

Patriots Wire logo Patriots Wire 3/25/2019 Brent Schwartz
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Legendary and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski has announced his retirement from the NFL.

In doing so, Tom Brady, the New England Patriots and the NFL will inherit a void that may never be filled.

Gronkowski isn't just the greatest tight end ever, he was the most dominant pass catcher of this decade.

Sure, the sheer consistency of Antonio Brown, or spectacular outside-the-numbers dominance by Julio Jones on the outside will put their names in that discussion. They oughta be. But no receiving threat was as uncoverabale as Gronkowski.

Since falling to the Patriots in the second round (42nd overall pick) in the 2010 NFL Draft, Gronkowski has 79 touchdowns. That's more than any player in the league, despite missing almost two full seasons (29 games) due to injury.

To put that in perspective, Gronkowski has scored more touchdowns than the aforementioned Brown, despite playing in 15 less regular season games, and receiving 481 less targets, according to Pro Football Reference.

Gronkowski was rated the top tight end in the NFL by Pro Football Focus for every season from 2011 to 2017. He's the heaviest player (and only tight end) in NFL history to average more than 15 yards per catch with over 500 career receptions. Gronk has also deserved high praise from his peers, as they've rated him as the top tight end on NFL Network's annual Top 100 players list for the past six seasons.

Additionally, Gronk was at his best in the clutch. He finishes as the postseason's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. On several key, season-defining moments, Brady looked his way. Like on two consecutive fourth-down attempts with their 2015 season on the line in Denver (Gronk converted on both). Memorable postseason and Super Bowl moments will certainly help define his career. Just like his final career catch, a 29-yard diving reception up the seam, to set up Sony Michel's game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LIII, securing Gronk's third championship ring.

The stats, in a nine-season vaccum, are all-time impressive. But it's how he accumulated those numbers that truly made him great. You had to see it, to believe it.

A 6-foot-6, 265-pound freight train, barreling down the field, Gronkowski could line up out wide, in the slot, or on the line as a traditional tight end. On various plays, he dominated in all three spots.

His massive catch radius, reliable hands, wide receiver-like route running (at his size), athletic ability and brute strength made him a never-before-seen specimen as a pass catcher.

He may very well be the biggest mismatch - too big for safeties and cornerbacks and too fast for linebackers - in the history of offensive football as a receiver, while also being the best blocking tight end the game has ever seen.

In his statement on the news, Bill Belichick summed it up best.

"Rob will leave an indelible mark on the Patriots organization and the game as among the best, most complete players at his position to ever play," said Belichick.

ESPN's Sal Palantonio holds a Hall of Fame vote. Yesterday, he gave ESPN's Mike Reiss his stance on Gronk, which is a notion that should be shared among many of the voters.

"He has to be in the first-ballot conversation," Palantonio said. "He has the numbers, but his big-game brilliance and dominance set him apart. We just put Tony Gonzalez in first ballot. Gronk, in my view, was more dominant."

Gonzalez was dominant in his own right. A basketball-player-turned-tight-end that boxed out defenders, and could block in his own right. But Gonzalez's best play was dwarfed by Gronkowski's prime. Anyone who covered the NFL, or loves football enough to watch every Sunday over the last two decades, saw something different with Gronkowski.

His career should (and will) be looked at like that of Jim Brown at the tight end position, while Gonzalez would be viewed as the Emmit Smith of tight ends. Or, to cross over to another sport, Gronkowski will simply be known as the Shaquille O'Neal of the NFL. An unstoppable force that made the fiercest of men look like boys in the most competitive platform of their sport.

One of the more unique players in the history of football is riding off on top. Don't expect to see anything like Gronk any time soon at the tight end position. Or maybe, ever.

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Related slideshow: A look back at Gronk's career (provided by Tribune News Services)

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