Rob Gronkowski on Friday signed a six-year contract extension with the New England Patriots for $54 million, a deal that makes him the second-highest-paid tight end in the NFL behind only Dallas’ Jason Witten. All due respect to Mr. Witten who is a fine player, but Gronkowski is without question the best tight end in the NFL. His stats for 2011 boggle the mind. 90 receptions, 1,327 yards and 17 TDs. And he blocks too. (And sometimes he dances the night away, but that’s a whole other story.)
Gronk’s size-speed-strength combination makes him the match-up nightmare of match-up nightmares. Show me a defensive player who says they enjoy trying to cover Gronk and I’ll show you a liar. His unique skills open up all sorts of possibilities for the Patriots, who team him with Aaron Hernandez to create a devastating TE combo. And it doesn’t hurt that Tom Brady is throwing them the ball.
The Gronk/Hernandez combo, and the way the Patriots employ it, has touched off a tight end revolution in the NFL, and it seems like every team is trying to jump on the bandwagon. That includes the Vikings. This offseason the Vikings surprised many by signing former Seahawks TE John Carlson to a fairly sizable five-year contract (though the provisions of the deal actually give the Vikes the chance to bail after two years). But given Bill Musgrave’s stated desire to create a TE combo reminiscent of Gronk-Hernandez, the Carlson deal makes all the sense in the world. With Visanthe Shiancoe leaving town, they needed a second reliable pass-catching TE, and Carlson should fit the bill.
Carlson would be the Aaron Hernandez in this particular one-two punch, with Kyle Rudolph taking on the Gronkowski role. Not that anyone expects Rudolph to post Gronk-like numbers. That would be asking far too much. What the Vikings would like is for Rudolph to begin showing some Gronkowski-like ability to dominate smaller, less-physical defenders, and make the kind of big plays that can really cause headaches for defensive coordinators and open up an offense.
In 2011 Rudolph showed only flashes of the talent many think he possesses. His numbers were modest, but that had as much to do with instability at the QB position and the overall limitations of the offense as anything. What we did learn about Rudolph is that he can make absurdly great catches. There’s little question that Rudolph possesses the body control, concentration and hands to be an outstanding tight end. And, though he’s no Gronkowski as a pure physical specimen, he certainly has enough speed and strength to make life difficult for defenses.
Rudolph undoubtedly has all the tools necessary to make the leap into top 5 territory among tight ends in 2012. The question is, will the Vikings offense evolve enough to give Rudolph a chance to show what he can really do? That all depends on one person: Christian Ponder. The Vikings will go only as far as Ponder is able to take them. If Ponder grows, guys like Rudolph will get more accurate passes thrown their way, and will have a chance to put up numbers. If Ponder falters, everyone will suffer including Rudolph.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the Vikings have assembled enough pieces to have a proficient offense, especially now that they’ve retooled the offensive line around first round pick Matt Kalil. And, despite last season’s struggles, I’m willing to believe Bill Musgrave can design and run an offense that takes advantage of these pieces. Ponder is the major wild card. No one expects him to become Tom Brady, any more than anyone expects Rudolph to be Gronkowski, but for the Vikes to flourish, he must at least develop into a reliable, consistent, accurate passer. And Rudolph must become a legitimate weapon.