Rob Gronkowski was placed on injured reserve due to a herniated disc this weekend, ending his season. As Albert Breer notes, it is his third back surgery, and eighth surgery as a pro.
Gronkowski has been the most dominant force at tight end pretty much since he entered the league. When he is available to play, his impact on the New England offense is noticeable. He’s had double digit touchdowns every year he has played in at least 10 games, has two 1,000 yard seasons receiving as a tight end. He has been a first team all-pro three different times.
But it’s also time to wonder if this will not end well. The Patriots move on from once-great players all the time. When it comes to Gronkowski specifically, his history of injuries, along with the general aging curve at the position, suggests that we have seen the best of Gronk.
While people tend to think of running back as the position that defines early peaks, and declines, it’s tight end that has been a difficult position to play well for a long time. There have been more all-pro seasons by 25-year-olds (13) than by every tight end age 28 or older (11) since the merger. Over half of the all-pro seasons since the merger have been by tight ends between the ages of 24 and 26, including two by Gronkowski.
Using the Approximate Value numbers at Pro Football Reference, and the best 20 tight ends by age 27 who began their career post-merger, here is an aging curve for the elite at the position.
The blue line represents the number (out of 20) who had an approximate value (AV) of at least 4, representing a starter. Red line represents those with AV of at least 7 (top end starter), and Green line represents those with AV of 10 or more (elite season).
We see that about half of them stop being effective starters around age 30, and most of them are done as elite players by age 28, where Gronkowski will be next year, coming off another back surgery.
Some of the best “old” tight ends have come in recent years, as medical and nutritional advancements continue. Of course, the guys that have done that didn’t fit the Gronk mold when it came to health. Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Jason Witten missed a combined 1 game between ages 24 and 28. Gronkowski will miss 24 games over the last five years, by the end of this season.
Mark Bavaro, frequently compared to a young Gronkowski from a physical perspective, was robbed by knee injuries, which he frequently played through. Bavaro’s last season with the Giants came at age 27, the age that Gronkowski is now. He was released before the next season because of a failed physical, and missed the entire 1991 season, before finishing out his career elsewhere.
Kellen Winslow suffered a knee injury at age 27, and missed part of the next season as well. He retired before his 31st birthday.
The best Patriots’ tight end before Gronkowski was probably Russ Francis, a free spirit and adventurer from Hawaii. During his Patriots career, Francis had been involved in a motorcycle accident, suffered a fracture in his back, concussions, and walked away before the 1981 season, at age 28. He would come out of retirement and be a key role player on the 49ers dynasty of the 1980’s, but never again reached a pro bowl.
Gronkowski is not likely to be healthier at ages 28 to 32 than he has been the last five years. The Patriots have been an efficient, calculating franchise, and that has helped them stay on top for 15 years. Will they be willing to pay for an elite tight end and extend and restructure a contract when they don’t have to do so? My guess is things will not end well in New England, and it’s fair to ask if Gronkowski can reach the lofty heights he has achieved so far, ever again.