The breaking news of the week coming out of Foxboro is All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski needed back surgery to fix a herniated disc that he suffered recently. He has since had the surgery and been placed on injured reserve, ending his season. There are several elements to this story, including both short-term and long-term ramifications that we will be sure to examine further.
Gronkowski is undoubtedly the best tight end in the NFL and might already have a case for being the greatest of all-time, depending on who you ask. In 88 career games, Gronkowski has 68 receiving touchdowns. Considering he has only played in seven seasons and ranks in the top 50 (tied for 42nd) in all-time receiving touchdowns along with having the most yards per game for a tight end (69.3), he has certainly proven to be one of the best already. The biggest knock on Gronk has always been his health. Since 2009 (his final season at Arizona), he has nine reported surgeries to his back (three), forearm (four), knee (one) and ankle (one).
Still only 27 years old, he still could have a lot of game left in him. And when on the field, even at less than 100%, he has proven to be a game-changer. But at the end of the 2016 season (which he is already out for the rest of), he will have missed 24 of a possible 112 games. That also equals over 21% of games missed as well. And surely no-one can necessarily blame Gronk for this, these aren’t necessarily soft-tissue injuries that he can’t shake/play through, These are injuries, such as a torn ACL, herniated disc(s), broken forearm, etc. that are more on the bad luck side. But it is fair in being a bit worried about when Gronkowski simply won’t be able to keep going because of the piling number of injuries/surgeries.
As for his latest injury, it sounds as if Gronkowski had surgery on a disc in his lower back that isn’t one that has been operated on previously. According to former Chargers head doctor and orthopedic surgeon David Chao, Gronk would not be on his feet walking already if it was a surgery to a previously repaired disc/having spinal fusion surgery (https://twitter.com/ProFootballDoc/status/804908468335349760). That is of course referring to the video on Gronkowski’s official Instagram account from Friday night, less than 24 hours after the surgery. So with him not being able to play again this season, there is a good chance he could be healed in time for the start of off-season workouts with the team in 2017.
In the short-term, the Patriots will use Martellus Bennett as their primary tight end while Matt Lengel will likely be active as a blocker for the most part. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots use more two-running back sets (mostly involving the group of LeGarrette Blount, James White and Dion Lewis) and three-wide receiver sets (probably Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell) to off-set the team using two-tight end sets with Bennett and Gronkowski. It’s a tough blow regardless as Gronkowski is able to stretch the field, be a threat in the short, intermediate and deep game. Also, he is quite solid in run blocking that will be hard to replace as well. The Patriots luckily have a slew of play-makers on offense to try and soften the blow of losing arguably their most important offensive player not named Tom Brady.
For the long-term, Gronkowski is likely not going anywhere during the off-season. He is signed through the 2019 season and is only scheduled to make $30 million dollars over the next three season, which is extremely affordable for a still relatively young star tight end. His cap hit in 2017 is only $7 million dollars, which ranks at the eighth highest among tight ends. So money wise, the Patriots still have Gronkowski under a very affordable contract and would not need to necessarily work on re-negotiating a new deal considering of his cap hits over the next few seasons. On top of that, Spotrac.com has the Patriots with an expected $59 million dollars in cap space for this upcoming off-season, so the team would obviously not need to worry about limited cap space as well.
For his health, Gronkowski’s list of surgeries speaks for itself. This is now his third back surgery since college and while it may not be to the same exact spot, it’s concerning nonetheless. Luckily, Gronkowski will have the rest of the season and most of the off-season to rehab fully from this latest surgery in hopes of being 100% for team activities in April/May. As we have seen with his knee and his forearm, him being rushed back from surgery in the past has not always led to the best results. Gronk likely won’t have to worry about that this time-around. He is only going to be 28 years old at the beginning of the start of the 2017 season, so he isn’t necessarily at the tail-end of his career in regards to his age.
It is possible however, that Gronkowski will have to change up his style of play if he wants to preserve his career (and health) longer going forward. Gronk is known for his physical style of play, with or without the ball in his hands. And it’s fair to say that his extremely physical style of play on the field has contributed directly to some of the injuries and subsequent surgeries he had to go through. He can still be the dynamic receiver that has gotten him where he is, but if he can do more to protect his body and health on the field, it would likely go a long way for him. He very well could come back to terrorizing defenses and playing as if he is completely healthy, but it’s hard to say considering his long list of injuries. The better he can be at protecting himself on the field will have a direct impact to his performance and contributions.
The Patriots should look to try and sign Bennett to a contract extension as he has proven to be a valuable part of this offense, whether or not Gronk is on the field. He is arguably their best tight end not besides Gronk since Aaron Hernandez and is able to handle number one tight end responsibilities. Plus, having Bennett would be a nice cushion in case Gronkowski needs to see less time on the field or is dealing with another injury in the future. That way, tight end may not be as pressing of a need for the Patriots to look for in free agency/draft. Bennett will be 30 years old at the start of the 2017 season, so it’s very much possible he has a few more years left in him at the high level he has played at throughout his career.
Overall, it’s never a good thing for such a talented and important player like Gronk to undergo yet another surgery and be forced to miss more time on the field. But with the amount of time he will have to recover and rehab, his age and his talent, it is still easy to be optimistic moving forward with Gronk. He is very affordable signed long-term with the team and has bounced back from several major injuries before, so he very well could do so again. For now, the Patriots will move forward without them in their pursuit of their fifth Super Bowl victory since 2001. Long term? I’d be surprised in Gronkowski isn’t on the field come week one of the 2017 season, ready to keep terrorizing more teams.