By Phil Perry
When NFL players talk about Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, they often do so by recalling moments. Everyone has one in particular that stands out in their minds, whether it was his one-handed catch against the Broncos, or his rumbling catch-and-run touchdown in Indianapolis, or the score during which he threw Bears defensive backs off of his body like a wildling giant tossing aside pesky wights.
“The thing that boggles my mind is that . . . You know when you go to a high school game and you see a kid that’s just above and beyond everybody else and he’s out there making kids look like they’re seven years old?,” Patriots fullback James Develin told NFL Network. “That’s what Gronk does. He makes them look ridiculous.”
And it’s not just Gronkowski’s teammates who are in awe. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound offensive weapon has garnered enough respect from others around the league that he was voted the No. 10 player in the NFL Network’s Top 100 show.
Players ranked in the top 10 were revealed on Wednesday night, and Gronkowski ended up falling just after Seahawks corner Richard Sherman (No. 11) and just before Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (No. 9). He was the highest-rated tight end, and he placed seven spots behind Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (No. 3).
In his first healthy season since 2011, Gronkowski caught 82 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also had 16 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns during New England’s postseason run to its fourth Super Bowl title.
“I think everybody thought once he had those injuries that he had in back-to-back seasons, that he’d slow down,” said Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck. “But, man, that guy, he was built to play football. He’s a touchdown machine. He has the speed to get down the seam. And he has great hands. I see why Tom loves him so much.”
“He provides matchup problems because he’s so big and he also has some speed to him,” Texans defensive lineman JJ Watt said. “And he also has great hands. Tough coverage duty for guys on the back end. That’s what creates such difficulties for defenses.”
When fellow players were asked about Gronkowski to provide comments for the episode, one play kept popping up in their discussions: His one-handed grab against the Broncos during a Week 9 win last season, 43-21.
Running over the middle near the Denver goal line, Brady floated a pass high and slightly behind Gronkowski. Instead of letting his momentum carry him past the play, Gronkowski jumped and stretched back with his left arm to snatch the ball out of the air and come down with the completion.
The play sent Brady — who wore a microphone for the game — into an on-the-field tizzy, telling anyone within earshot that it was one of the best catches he’d ever seen. Since then it’s been a play that has seemingly stuck with just about anyone who’s seen it.
“He’s a freak of an athlete, man,” said Colts safety Mike Adams. “You can split him out at wide receiver and he’s hard to tackle. That big frame — 6-6, 250. He can run you over, catch the ball. I seen him catch the ball with one hand on the Broncos. He’s a phenomenal athlete.”
“He just kinda went up with one hand and it happened to be the one with the arm brace and it kinda looked like he had a gadget arm,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olson. “Just stuck it up there and caught the ball on the two or three yard line. To have that athletic ability, to go up and make that play was impressive.”
Impressive, but not necessarily unexpected. After five seasons of submitting eye-popping plays when healthy — both as a receiver and a blocker — Gronkowski’s all-around talent is one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL and the reason he’s thought of by his peers as one of the game’s best.
“You know when you play Rob Gronkowski, if you don’t have two guys on him, they’re going to hurt you down the field,” said Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. “That creates all kinds of opportunities for other guys on their offense . . . You’re not even sure it’s going to be a pass when he’s out there because he’s just as good as a run blocker. He’s almost like having a sixth offensive lineman.”
Phil Perry serves as a general reporter for Comcast SportsNet, mainly covering the New England Patriots.