By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Maybe it’s because he plays alongside a quarterback who debuted in the year 2000, or maybe it’s because he always carries himself with a youthful energy, but it can still feel like Rob Gronkowski is a relative newcomer to the Boston sports scene. The 29th birthday of Gronkowski on Monday, though, shows that such feelings aren’t exactly in line with reality.

While 29 years old is not “old” by any standard, it would count as being a senior employee in a workplace as violent and vicious as the National Football League. And for a player who undoubtedly absorbs more punishment over the middle of the field (such is the case when you refuse to ever go down), Gronkowski’s age in football years is certainly getting up there. His flirtation with retirement this offseason provided a sobering reminder of that.

But Gronkowski will be playing for at least the 2018 season and perhaps for as long as Tom Brady decides to continue dominating the league. For the Patriots and their fans, that’s good news.

Yet even if Gronkowski were to never play another down in the NFL, his career accomplishments are already quite staggering. His place in Patriots history really drives that home.

Here’s a quick look at where Gronkowski ranks all time in Patriots franchise history. Keep in mind, unless expressly noted, all of these players are wide receivers. (All stats from Pro Football Reference’s handy sorting tool.)

Receiving Yards
1. Stanley Morgan: 10,352
2. Wes Welker: 7,459
3. Rob Gronkowski: 7,179
4. Troy Brown: 6,366
5. Irving Fryar: 5,726

Receiving Touchdowns
1. Rob Gronkowski: 76

2. Stanley Morgan: 67
3. Ben Coates (TE): 50
4. Randy Moss: 50***
5. Gino Cappelletti: 42

1. Wes Welker: 672
2. Troy Brown: 557
3. Stanley Morgan: 534
4. Ben Coates (TE): 490
5. Rob Gronkowski: 474

**Can we quickly note that Moss caught 50 touchdowns in 52 games for New England? Just look at how absurd that looks compared to everyone else on that list. Bananas.

Taken by themselves, the numbers tell the story of an incredibly impressive career. But when you remember that Gronkowski has played in much fewer games than most of these other receivers, the numbers become ridiculous. Of those seven guys who show up on the top five of those categories, here’s how they rank in terms of games played.

Games Played For Patriots
1. Troy Brown: 192
2. Stanley Morgan: 180
3. Gino Cappelletti: 153
4. Ben Coates: 142
5. Irving Fryar: 129
6. Rob Gronkowski: 102
7. Wes Welker: 93***
8. Randy Moss: 52

***Wes Welker catching 7.2 passes per game over the course of six seasons is insane. He caught 69 more passes in nine playoff games, too. The man was truly a magnet.

Clearly, Gronkowski’s place in Patriots history is already firmly established. All he’ll do in the coming year(s) is add to it. Really, there’s only one thing left for Gronkowski to accomplish in his remaining years as a football player. If he really wants to, he can put to rest any and all argument as to who is the best tight end in the history of the league.

Some might argue that the case has already been built. When you look at the total package of Gronkowski as a pass catcher and as a blocker, there’s no doubt that there has never been a player like him in the NFL. But statistics being what they are, Gronkowski certainly has a ways to go in order to catch up with some of the guys who played the position at the highest level for a very long time.

All-Time Tight End Leaders In Receiving Touchdowns
1. Antonio Gates: 114
2. Tony Gonzalez: 111
3. Harold Carmichael: 79
4. Rob Gronkowski: 76****
5. Jimmy Graham: 69

All-Time Tight End Leaders In Receiving Yards
1. Tony Gonzalez: 15,127
2. Jason Witten: 12,448
3. Antonio Gates: 11,508
4. Shannon Sharpe: 10,060
5. Harold Carmichael: 8,965

11. Rob Gronkowski: 7,179

Receptions For Tight End
1. Tony Gonzalez: 1,325
2. Jason Witten: 1,152
3. Antonio Gates: 927
4. Shannon Sharpe: 815
5. Ozzie Newsome: 662

23. Rob Gronkowski: 474

****Somebody needs to petition the NFL to change Gronkowski’s “rushing” touchdown in 2011 to a receiving touchdown. That ball maybe traveled backward an inch, but that’s never put in the books as a rushing play unless some NFL official is getting a bit too cute. Can we go ahead and just change that to a reception, just to tidy up the stats? Thank you.

Clearly, anyone making the argument now that Gronkowski is undoubtedly the best tight end of all time isn’t really taking longevity into account. But if Gronkowski ends up playing two more healthy seasons, catching, say, 140 more passes for 2,100 more yards and 17 more touchdowns, he’ll end up much closer to the tops of those lists.

And again, for some perspective on the impact Gronkowski’s been able to have in a short span, here’s a look at games played for those tight ends atop the leaderboards:

Games Played Among Leading Tight Ends
1. Tony Gonzalez: 270
2. Jason Witten: 239
3. Antonio Gates: 220
4. Shannon Sharpe: 204
5. Ozzie Newsome: 198
6. Harold Carmichael: 182
7. Jimmy Graham: 121
8. Rob Gronkowski: 102

On a per-game basis, Gronkowski is No. 1 all time among those tight end greats in both receiving yards per game (70.4) and touchdowns per game (0.75). Nobody else is even close.

Another factor that none of the previous categories addresses would be postseason performance. In the playoffs, Gronkowski has been a monster. Cumulatively, the stats look like this: 13 games played, 12 touchdowns, 68 receptions, 972 yards. Those numbers alone are wild, and that’s before you remember that he played one game on just one leg (Super Bowl XLVI), left another game after breaking his arm on the first pass thrown his way (2012 divisional round vs. Houston), and left a third playoff game due to a concussion after making just one catch (2017 AFC Championship Game vs. Jacksonville). So removing those three games, Gronkowski’s caught 65 passes for 925 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 games against the best teams in the NFL in the most crucial moments of the season.

What statistics can’t account for is the brutal combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism that Gronkowski’s displayed from the moment he joined an NFL roster. He’s made a series of plays throughout his career for a highlight reel that nobody else in history could have compiled.

To wit:

There’s no doubt that Gronkowski is a future Hall of Famer. But as it stands now, he figures to be more in the mold of a Barry Sanders type of Hall of Famer than a Jason Witten type of Hall of Famer. If he continues to produce at a high level while staying healthy, and if he decides to play into his mid-30s, he will leave no doubt about being the greatest of all time. Not many players have the option to set such sights at age 29, but most players aren’t like Rob Gronkowski.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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