Of the 541 touchdown passes Tom Brady has thrown in his career, no receiver has caught more of them than Rob Gronkowski's 78, and the fifth-most productive QB-receiver pair in NFL history will be adding to their touchdown total in 2020. According to multiple reports, Gronkowski will return to the NFL after his year-long retirement, and will join Brady in Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers and Patriots agreed to a deal Tuesday.
Gronkowski, who was last seen winning the 24/7 Championship belt at Wrestlemania 36, has apparently been training for a possible return to the NFL, and the Buccaneers must be convinced he's in game shape — he already passed his physical. It's happening: Gronk is back.
Whether he can still be Gronk is an entirely separate question. The last time we saw Gronkowski, in 2018, he looked like a shell of himself. He averaged 52.5 yards per game and scored just three touchdowns in 16 games between the regular season and playoffs, ranking as TE9 in per-game scoring.
It's possible a year away from the game might have done Gronkowski some good, given the number of injuries he dealt with throughout his career. We saw Marshawn Lynch look surprisingly spry upon his return from retirement in 2017, and that was as a 31-year-old running back with more than 2,000 touches to his name. Even a 37-year-old Jason Witten looked like he hadn't lost much of a step after returning from his own retirement last season — although in fairness, it might be hard to tell if Witten had lost a step, at this point.
You can't assume Gronkowski will step back on an NFL field for the first time since February of 2019 and immediately be a difference-maker, but you also surely can't just ignore him. Part of what made Gronkowski such a special Fantasy player for so long was his ability to give you WR1 production from tight end, a position most teams are just praying can give you a touchdown in any given week. He's still a massive target for Brady in the end zone, after all, and that should be enough to get back to Fantasy relevance.
After all, the tight end landscape doesn't look much more promising than it did in Gronk's prime, so a return to play with Brady has to put him back on our radars, even if he isn't the same old Gronk as before. You can go about six deep at tight end before you run out of names you can feel confident in, and the list of players with the potential to be week-in, week-out starters stretches to maybe 15 names if you want to be generous. Even after a year away from the NFL, Gronkowski has to fall somewhere in that middle class — outside of the top six you can feel confident in, but with the potential to be a consistent contributor.
Of course, Gronkowski having a significant role in the Buccaneers offense would represent something of a change in philosophy for coach Bruce Arians, who hasn't featured the position much in the past. However, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate did combine for 108 targets in 2019, so there should be some room for Gronkowski to make an impact — especially if (and, seemingly, when) the Bucs find a new home for Howard.
The ripple effects of this move for the Bucs could be significant, and they start with Howard, who has been mentioned in trade rumors in recent weeks. Howard has tons of talent but has had real trouble with consistency. He didn't do much to earn Arians' trust in 2019, and it led to him being one of the bigger busts at the position. However, he has averaged a positively Gronkovian 10.4 yards per target in his career, and scored at a pretty high frequency before 2019, too. There's significant potential here, and this trade makes it all but certain he's going to have a fresh start. If he lands in the right place, Howard could be one of the best tight ends in Fantasy and will be a viable late-round target in all formats.
Beyond that, this seemingly clarifies the hierarchy we'll see in the Buccaneers passing game. Chris Godwin will likely emerge as Tom Brady's top target, and has No. 1 overall WR upside; Mike Evans figures to still be a significant part of the offense, though we'll see how his down-field focused game meshes with Brady, who has been less willing to take shots down the field in recent years; Gronkowski figures to be the third option. Obviously, his role will be dependent on whether he is really in football shape by the time the season starts, but it's not hard to see him getting 90-100 targets if he is.
This should be a highly concentrated passing attack, and it gives Brady arguably the most talented group of receivers he's ever played with. He was already a consensus top-10 QB after signing with the Buccaneers, and while this trade doesn't necessarily move him up draft boards, it does increase his upside.
Ultimately, that's what this move is all about for Tampa Bay: Upside. If Gronkowski can show even a semblance of his former ability, it makes the Bucs an even more dangerous offense. If not, and Gronkowski is more of a red-zone specialist, that still gives defenses one more thing to worry about on an offense that already had plenty.
The hope here is the year off gave Gronkowski the ability to get healthy, and he comes back and immediately emerges as must-start Fantasy option again, if not the dominant force he once was. That's no guarantee, but if you have been looking to the likes of Evan Engram, Jonnu Smith or Noah Fant in the mid-to-late rounds in early drafts, you already know there aren't many sure things at tight end to begin with.
Wouldn't it be fun if Gronkowski became one again?
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