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Actually, that's not exactly fair. Gronkowski has owned the entire league in his now six-year career, as the 26-year-old already ranks sixth on the list of career receiving touchdowns by tight ends. Think about that for a second: only Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Shannon Sharpe, Jerry Smith, and Jason Witten have, at this point, caught more touchdown passes in their NFL careers than Gronkowski has. Again: he is 26 years old.
It's hard to put into perspective how great Gronkowski has been to this point in his career. If he continues at his torrid touchdown-producing rate, he will pass Gonzalez on this list sometime in the 2019 season, before which he will have just turned 30 years old. What's amazing is that, given that quarterback Tom Brady is showing no signs of slowing down at age 38, that projection is entirely feasible.
All of that is to say: Gronkowski is an incredibly, historically good NFL tight end. Narrowing the scope a bit, he is going to be Priority No. 1 - and the biggest cause of headaches - for the Bills and their head coach, Rex Ryan, when the two teams meet up this weekend in Week 2. Gronkowski did nothing to take himself off of Ryan's radar with his Week 1 performance, catching five passes for 94 yards and three touchdowns in last Thursday's win over Pittsburgh.
Ryan is just as familiar with Gronkowski as Bills fans are; while Gronkowski never lit up Ryan's New York Jets defenses in the five years he faced them to quite the same extent that he shredded through Bills defenses in that same time frame, he was still a major factor in those contests. (Note that the below data only includes regular season contests.)
|Gronkowski vs. BUF (career)
|Gronkowski vs. NYJ (career)
Even as Buffalo's defense has improved in recent seasons, Gronkowski has remained effective - albeit with a small sample size. Gronkowski missed both contests against Mike Pettine's Bills defense in 2013, and in his lone performance against the Jim Schwartz outfit in 2014, he caught seven passes for 94 yards - though that also was the first time that the Bills had ever kept him out of the end zone for a whole game, as well.
To their credit, defensive backs for Buffalo's current defense - which is just two days removed from shutting down Andrew Luck and the NFL's best passing offense from a year ago - are eager to take on the Gronkowski challenge this weekend. Aaron Williams told WGR 550 that he'd like to cover Gronkowski. Stephon Gilmore said the same thing, as conveyed by The Buffalo News. The attitude is an extension of Ryan's bravado, and is commendable in its own right. It may also be misguided.
If Gronkowski has taught us anything in the past five-plus years, it's that no one man can cover him. His combination of size (6'6", 264 pounds), length (34.25-inch arms and a 33.5-inch vertical leap), straight-line speed (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash), and brute strength is inimitable. New England can line him up anywhere as a receiver, and he can win there. If you try to out-quick him, he'll beat you with strength and size; if you try to out-muscle him, he'll outrun you. He can make plays in space between multiple defenders, and his size even makes him tough to cover with trail coverage and safety help over the top.
Ryan, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, and the rest of the Bills' defensive coaching staff have their work cut out for them in trying to slow Gronkowski's roll on Sunday. Ryan may not really care who New England's running back is, but you can safely bet that he's trying to conceive as many ways as possible to keep Gronkowski in check. Odds are it won't work - not completely, anyway.