Some lucky NFL team just landed itself a quality tight end and doesn’t even know it yet. That’s because Rob Gronkowski’s decision to end his retirement Tuesday and suit up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers almost certainly means the Bucs will move O.J. Howard.
A transaction could be announced before or during the NFL draft that begins Thursday, or the Buccaneers can wait to see who’s left with a talent deficit at tight end after the draft is completed.
Rob Gronkowski shakes up the football world
The speed with which Rob Gronkowski went from retired New England Patriots star to starting Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end would impress Usain Bolt. No one seemed to have an inkling that something was happening until mid-afternoon Tuesday.
That’s when news emerged that Gronkowski was interested in rejoining Tom Brady, followed by the confirmation that a trade had been made. The Buccaneers sent the Patriots a fourth-round draft pick for Gronkowski and a seventh-rounder.
If a fourth-round pick seems cheap for a tight end of Gronkowski’s stature, it is. But the Patriots didn’t have room under the salary cap to keep him, so getting anything in return for a retired player is a win for Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft.
Cameron Brate looks like he has job security
Until Rob Gronkowski pulled a career 180, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked set at tight end with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Although there were four other tight ends on the offseason roster before Tuesday’s trade, Howard and Brate have the only meaningful pro experience.
Brate’s two best seasons in a six-year career were 2016 and ’17, when he totaled 105 catches for 1,251 yards and 14 touchdowns. He made 35 catches for 309 yards and three scores last season, but his average per reception was just 8.8 yards.
Howard ‘s numbers make up in quality what the lack in quantity. He averaged 16.6 yards a reception in 2018 and 13.5 yards last fall, catching 34 passes each season. Howard, who is heading into his fourth pro season, had ankle injuries in each of his first two seasons that cut down his production, but his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame makes for a nice target for a quarterback.
As The Athletic points out, though, keeping Brate is the likely move for the Buccaneers. Brate, 28, has already agreed to take a $4.25 million cut in his salary for the upcoming season and has less trade value than Howard, who is just 25 and was the 19th overall pick out of Alabama in 2017.
The other consideration is that the Bucs are less dependent upon the tight end position than most teams when it comes to moving the ball the field. Mike Evans (67 catches last season) and Chris Goodwin (86 catches) gave Tampa Bay one of the best sets of starting wideouts in the NFL, so they don’t need another high-volume tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski.
What does Rob Gronkowski bring to Tampa Bay?
Rob Gronkowski retired after the 2018 season with 521 catches and 79 touchdowns in nine years in the NFL. His numbers were down in a final season that saw him miss three games, but Gronkowski was still a premier tight end.
He’ll be 31 years old when the season starts, but Gronkowski also figures to come in lighter than his previous playing weight of 265 pounds. That may put a little more zip into his pass routes even if it does detract from his blocking.
In any case, he costs the Bucs relatively little in draft capital that could be recouped if Tampa Bay trades O.J. Howard.