TAMPA, Fla. — While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held out hope that tight end Rob Gronkowski would return for the 2022 season, the future Hall of Famer decided to call it a career again Tuesday, two years after coming out of retirement to join quarterback Tom Brady in Tampa.
His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that he wouldn’t put it past Gronk to rejoin the Bucs later this season if his longtime pal Brady asked him to, but the Bucs must press on without him, without the “tuddies,” as he called touchdowns — usually accompanied by a mischievous giggle — and with an unquestionable void that cannot be filled by one person, as Gronk did it all.
With former first-round pick O.J. Howard’s departure in free agency, the Bucs have just one experienced tight end in Cameron Brate, who plays the “F” role and is mostly a pass-catcher. Behind him, there’s Codey McElroy, also an “F” who had a strong spring, but he has played in just one regular-season game and is still learning how to use his 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame as a blocker.
The Bucs selected two tight ends in the 2022 NFL draft — Cade Otton in the fourth round out of the University of Washington and Ko Kieft, a sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Iowa. Otton has potential to play the “Y” role as both an inline blocker and pass-catcher, but he did not participate in rookie minicamp or mandatory minicamp because he is still recovering from ankle surgery. Kieft, at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, is purely a blocker — and was a great one in college — but will be limited as a route runner, as he ran a 4.98-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
The Bucs have to get help at this position if they are to maintain Brady’s propensity for throwing to tight ends. Over the past two regular seasons, the Bucs attempted 306 passes to tight ends — fourth most of any team in the league. Their 38 attempts to tight ends in the end zone over the past two seasons were most of any team in the NFL.
Eric Ebron, Jimmy Graham, Kyle Rudolph and Jared Cook are among the capable free-agent options Tampa Bay could pursue. The Bucs have $10,596,585 in salary cap space, according to Roster Management System data. Ebron is 29, Graham and Cook are 35, and Rudolph is 32.
Cook played 16 regular-season games last season, collecting 564 receiving yards, four touchdowns and 31 first downs with the Los Angeles Chargers, but he also had five drops. Rudolph took part in 15 games and had 257 yards and a touchdown with the New York Giants, and while Graham had only 167 receiving yards in 11 games, he did manage to score three touchdowns for the Chicago Bears.
Ebron caught 12 passes for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season before going on injured reserve because of a right knee injury that required surgery. He has since been medically cleared. In 2020, however, he had 56 catches for 558 receiving yards and five touchdowns for the Steelers. Graham hauled in eight touchdown passes in 2020, while Cook had seven.
None of those players has the chemistry Gronk had with Brady, who will report to training camp in five weeks for what could be his last season after retiring for 40 days earlier this spring.
As Brady put it last year, “So much about football is anticipating what the problems will be, as opposed to trying to figure out how to solve the problem after the play. I think a lot of it is solving the problem before things happen. Gronk, he knows what I’m thinking, I know what he’s thinking. We’ve just done it so long together. It’s really nice. It’s a great luxury for two position players like that that have played together for as long as we have.”
The Bucs will miss so much more than just Gronk’s contributions on the field. Not only did he provide experience as a four-time Super Bowl winner, but his practice demeanor elevated the mood of those around him, as he found a way to still work hard but keep things light and fun, with a knack for identifying when a teammate or coach needed a boost.
Brady said in a post on social media shortly after Tuesday’s news broke, “Even more important is the person he was off the field. Focused when he had to be, and FUN the rest of the time. Having Gronk in your locker room was every NFL players’ dream.”
It carried out into the community. Among Gronkowski’s more notable endeavors was replacing $15,000 worth of football equipment and a new storage shed that had been destroyed by arson at Blake High School in Tampa in 2020, his first year with the team.
“I don’t think he’s ever had a bad day, to be honest with you,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said last year. “He’s smiling all the time, he’s having fun all the time. ‘Old Gronkitis’ — that’s what we call him. Gronkitis. He has fun, man. He has fun, he loves the game of football, [and] the work he puts in is real [and] is serious. It’s just amazing the way he sees the world, not just the way that he sees football.”