In 2019, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL with 302.8 passing yards per game, but only 49.8 of those yards were produced by tight ends.
Rob Gronkowski's career yards-per-game average: 68.4.
On Tuesday, two days before the 2020 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers sent a fourth-round pick to the New England Patriots to acquire Gronkowski and a seventh-round selection. Gronkowski retired last March but has chosen to return not only to the game but also to the quarterback who threw him 90 touchdown passes over nine yards: Tom Brady.
That's great news for the Buccaneers, whose 2020 offseason was already full of the same, beginning with the signing of Brady in March. Tampa Bay also kept its defensive front seven intact with the franchise-tagging of Shaquil Barrett and the re-signings of Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh. The Brady signing was a game-changer; the trade for Gronkowski will actually change the way the Buccaneers' offense plays the game.
The Buccaneers' tight end crew ranked 20th in the NFL in yards per target last year, at 7.06. Gronkowski, one of the best downfield tight end pass-catchers of all time, has a career mark of 9.9 yards per target, and it was 14.2 in 2016 and 10.3 in 2017. And while Tampa Bay already had talent at the position with the likes of O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, Gronkowski arrives with a built-in connection with the team's new quarterback. Gronkowski has more yards and touchdowns, regular and postseason combined, than any other target in Brady's illustrious career.
Tampa Bay's Head Coach Bruce Arians held the same job for five successful seasons (2013-17) in Arizona, but his offenses rarely featured tight ends that put up big numbers. That doesn't mean the Arians attack has little use for the position. As is the case for virtually every team in today's NFL, the Buccaneers' most common offensive configuration last year was "11" personnel, or three wide receivers. However, their second-most common grouping was "12" personnel, which includes one back, two tight ends and two wide receivers.
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Tampa Bay's offense ran 20.0% of their plays out of 12 personnel in 2019, which was the 13th-highest percentage in the NFL. On the other hand, the team's success rate on plays run from that grouping was just 47%, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. Successful plays are deemed ones that gain at least four yards on first down, at least half of the distance needed for a first down on second down and achieve a first down on third or fourth down.
Last year, with Gronkowski enjoying his short-lived retirement, Brady and the Patriots' offense had a success rate of 49% while in 12 personnel. In 2018, when Gronkowski played 13 games, New England had a success rate of 63% in that package, and it was 59% in 2017 and 54 in 2016.
Whatever team Gronkowski is in, he's going to figure into nearly every snap in 12 personnel because he's an excellent run blocker. Whether or not his absence was a key reason, the Patriots' rushing attack in 2019 finished with its lowest NFL ranking since before Gronkowski's arrival in 2010. New England was 25th in rushing yards per game last year after finishing fifth in 2018, and New England was in the top 10 in seven of Gronkowski's nine years on the team.
Of course, it's not all that complicated. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have made beautiful music together, and with Gronkowski just turning 31 in May after a year out of the game to rest and rejuvenate, they have a chance to play the hits all over again. Consider this from Pro Football Focus:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 offense had a lot going for it already, especially after adding the G.O.A.T. under center in March. Now it has both ends of one of the best NFL passing connections of all time.