When Rob Gronkowski retired from the New England Patriots after the 2018 season, he spoke about "the grind." He talked about the abuse his body had taken over nine NFL seasons, and how hard it was "to be where you want to be in everyday life" when you are taking hit after hit. His decision to hang up the cleats came after a season in which he had been limited by injuries to 13 games, and limited within those games to his lowest per-game yardage average since his rookie year.
The 2018 Rob Gronkowski was still a very good NFL tight end; he still ranked sixth in the league in receiving yards per game at the position. Still, it's fair to say that the 2018 Gronkowski wasn't as dominant as, say, the 2014 or 2015 Gronkowski. Across those two seasons, the Patriots star racked up exactly 2,300 receiving yards and scored 23 touchdowns. He eclipsed 1,100 yards and hit double digits in touchdowns in both campaigns. Amazingly, neither of those seasons ranks as the best of his career, but either one would serve as the best season for almost every other tight end in that decade.
So would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who traded for Gronkowski after the big man came out of retirement for a chance to play with Tom Brady again, be happy to add the 2018 version to their tight end stable. For sure. Would they be ecstatic to get something close to 2014 or 2015 Gronkowski. Oh yes.
Head Coach Bruce Arians thinks the outcome will be more like the latter.
"No similarities at all [to 2018 Gronkowski]," said Arians on Thursday. "He looks like he was five or six years ago, before all the injuries. The back surgeries have healed, so he's had a year of healing. He looks to me like he was five or six years ago."
Gronkowski, taking part in a Zoom media session a little bit after Arians had done the same, chuckled when he heard those words. Not because he thought Arians was off the mark, but because the coach's most recent comments about him were aimed more at how Gronkowski was handling the Florida heat and humidity after a decade in a more forgiving clime. Arians said Gronkowski was in "New England shape" and still had to adjust to the more oppressive Florida practices.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Gronkowski didn't mind that good-natured ribbing and he felt even better about Arians' assessment of where he was from a health and athleticism standpoint.
"I'll take that," he said. "I'll take that compliment for sure. I'm feeling good out there. My body feels good. That's why I came back to the game and that's how I want to be moving. I want to be moving like how I was back in the day. No doubt about that."
The Florida weather may have been a bit of a shock but it hasn't given Gronkowski second thoughts about returning to the game. He said he had "no regrets," and that he can feel everything coming back to him day by day.
"I feel like I'm supposed to be here," he said. "That's definitely in the past and I'm here to play football now. I'm glad to be here. Going out there and just playing ball – it feels good. Let me tell you, the first couple practices, it definitely felt weird. The game was really fast when I first got out there again. The defense felt really fast. As time goes on and as the days go on, I feel better about myself being out there. My confidence keeps going up, the game is slowing down, I'm starting to pick up the offense more. But overall, it's going good. I have so much more to work on and so much more to improve on, but I am really glad to be here."
Because Gronkowski is joining a tight end corps that already includes such strong options as O.J. Howard and Cam Brate – not to mention good depth behind them – the Buccaneers don't have to rely on him on every snap. If they want to limit his action somewhat to keep him fresh throughout the season, they can. But Gronkowski, who says he used to playing virtually every snap, doesn't see that as necessary.
"I'm not even thinking about that," he said. "I'll play the whole entire game if I have to. It's up to the coaches the amount of playing time I get. It's up to the coaches the amount of reps I get. I just listen to my coach every single practice. Whenever he puts me in, he puts me in. Whenever he takes me out, he takes me out. Whenever he puts Juice in, Cam in, whoever in and takes me out, it's all up to the coaches. They make that call and it's up to me whenever I'm in there to go make the plays, go make the blocks."
Arians added that the Buccaneers would be "playing every game to win," suggesting that they wouldn't be trying to 'save' Gronkowski for later in the season. Tight Ends Coach Rick Christophel thinks the issue of keeping Gronkowski fresh has more to do with practice than Sundays.
"I think the biggest thing you've got to watch about him getting out there is he wants to take every rep," said Christophel. "To make sure we keep his body as close to being in shape as he can but not giving him so many reps that we wear him down, I think that's the biggest thing."
Christophel said most of what he has seen on pre-Buccaneers Gronkowski has been on tape, so he's recently witnessed peak Gronk in action. If he's seeing something similar on the practice field now, that's a good sign.
"Comparing him to five more years ago … he's doing some really good things in practice and he's running around really well. I think the most amazing thing about Gronk is that as big of a guy he is, he's athletic. He can do a lot of things. He's got some quick-twitch movements. Everything that you've seen being in the league and seeing him play, getting to watch him on film, getting to watch him on television – I think the most important thing is it matters to him. He loves it. He has fun. He loves to play the game and he has fun out there, but it matters to him."
The last time Gronkowski was on the field for the Patriots, he was playing with a brace that covered most of his right arm. The rejuvenated Gronkowski has lost that impediment, too.
"All the above, and he doesn't have a gigantic elbow brace on," said Arians. "He's moving, he's running fast again. He's got great body control. The stiffness I saw at the end of his career with all the injuries looks like it's gone."