Rob Gronkowski, the All-Pro tight end who left the NFL after the 2018 season, plans to return to the league, this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Gronkowski, who did not officially retire when he stepped away from the game in March 2019, was traded by his old team, the New England Patriots, to Tampa Bay, where he will be reunited with quarterback Tom Brady, pending a physical examination.
The Patriots will send Gronkowski and their seventh-round pick in this week’s NFL Draft to the Buccaneers, and receive Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in return.
Brady, 42, who became a free agent for the first time after spending two decades in New England, signed a two-year contract worth as much as $60 million last month with the Buccaneers.
Gronkowski, the game’s most dominant tight end during his nine years in New England, helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles. His goofy, frat-boy persona off the field made him one of the more colorful players in the league.
But on the field, he was no joke. In nine seasons, Gronkowski, who will turn 31 next month, caught 521 passes for 7,861 yards and a Patriots-record 79 receiving touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl five times and was first-team All-Pro four times, taking full advantage of his size and speed to find mismatches. He was often considered Brady’s favorite target, and a big one at 6-foot-6.
However, a series of injuries led to questions about how much longer he could play. He hinted for several seasons that he was considering leaving the NFL because of the wear and tear on his body, which led to missed games because of numerous injuries, including a torn knee ligament, a broken forearm and a herniated disc in his back, among others.
He left the league on a high note, helping the Patriots — the only NFL team he played for — beat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl following the 2018 season.
During his time away from football last year, Gronkowski, known simply as Gronk, appeared at wrestling events, promoted cannabidiol products as pain relievers and focused on his charity.
Even so, he remained in demand. Robert K. Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, made no secret of his desire to persuade Gronkowski to return to the team in time for the playoffs last season. Gronkowski had not turned in his retirement papers, so the Patriots still held his rights. The Patriots’ offense was not nearly as potent without Gronkowski, and their season ended after one playoff game.
Gronkowski is in the last year of his contract, which includes a $9 million base salary and $1 million in bonuses. He appeared as a Fox Sports commentator before this year’s Super Bowl. “I feel great,” he said. “Sort of better every day. It’s been really good for me.”
Gronkowski was named the WWE 24/7 champion at WrestleMania 36 earlier this month and moved to Florida, where the wrestling promotion is considered an essential service.
Though Gronkowski passed on the chance to return to the Patriots, he apparently felt well enough to come back to the NFL if he could play again with Brady. The teammates will join a Buccaneers team already stocked with offensive talent and guided by head coach Bruce Arians, an offensive mastermind who favors Kangol hats, expletives and wisecracks, in stark contrast to Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s morose ways. In his first season in Tampa last year, the Buccaneers had the third-best offense in the league, with an erratic Jameis Winston at quarterback.
Winston is gone, but much of the talent around him is still there. Frustrated by the relative lack of offensive talent around him in New England last season, Brady will now throw to Gronkowski, as well as Mike Evans and the speedy Chris Godwin, two 1,000-yard receivers last season who are both over 6 feet tall.
With Brady and Gronkowski reunited in Tampa, the NFC South, which includes the New Orleans Saints, could become one of the most competitive divisions in the league. And the once sleepy Buccaneers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, are destined to become fixtures in prime time.
And not for nothing, Super Bowl LV will be held in Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa, Fla. — Brady and Gronkowski’s new home field.