For the first time in his NFL career, Rob Gronkowski is set to become a free agent.
The ten-year tight end, who was traded to Tampa Bay last offseason after spending the 2019 season retired, had previously signed a lucrative contract extension with New England, which kept Gronkowski from ever testing the market. He plans to continue playing after a productive, Lombardi Trophy-hoisting 2020 season.
“Yeah, I'll remain unretired,” Gronkowski said after the Super Bowl. “I'm a free agent. It's the first time in my career that I'm a free agent."
Will the Buccaneers allow Gronkowski to reach free agency, though? It would be hard to imagine the future Hall of Famer catching passes from a quarterback not named Tom Brady, but everything will depend on Gronkowski's asking price and if it falls in line with Tampa Bay's cap flexibility and its large slate of looming free agents.
To preview the Buccaneers' offseason, we're creating profiles for each impending free agent before the new league year begins. If provided, each player will have a market value projection included via Spotrac.com, along with arguments for and against a potential new contract.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski
2020 stats (including playoffs): 20 games, 53 receptions, 733 yards, nine touchdowns
Previous contract: Six years, $54 million (One year, $9 million with Tampa Bay)
Spotrac market value: $8.5 million annually
Gronkowski vocalized after the Super Bowl that he envisions himself returning to the Buccaneers next season, although he acknowledged that he would have to assess his situation after celebrating the big win.
"I definitely see myself coming back, just the guys around here, the players around here, the coaches, the people in the front office, they’re all just great people," said Gronkowski. "I loved working with them all year long. So, obviously going to soak this in and see where I’m at in a couple weeks, but I don’t see why not. I don’t see why I won’t be back."
Although it took Gronkowski some time to shake off the retirement rust, he proved his capabilities at 31 years old. His receiving production picked up as the year went on, particularly at the end of the season when Gronkowski hauled in a couple of contested deep touchdowns.
Gronkowski's blocking prowess remained a strength, as he allowed just four pressures on 103 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and was able to relatively consistently hold down the edge when running backs pushed outside.
Tampa Bay has ample talent at tight end with Gronkowski and Cameron Brate holding down large roles in 2020. O.J. Howard got off to a hot start with two touchdowns in four games before rupturing his Achilles.
Each player carries a sizeable cap hit, however. Gronkowski is projected at $8.5 million in 2021; Brate is under contract for $6.5 million next year, while Howard's fifth-year option is on the books, valued at $6 million. Brate and Howard are considered as potential cap cuts at their current costs, and Howard was floated among trade rumors last offseason.
In order to bring Gronkowski back at such a projected value, one of Brate or Howard would probably have to move on.
Perhaps, as Brady has done for years as his teammate, Gronkowski could opt to take a pay cut in order for the Bucs to retain as much talent as possible. He's already cashed in on his largest NFL salary and has plenty of endorsement deals to make such a decision worthwhile.
Tampa Bay would be worse off without Gronkowski at tight end, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if his price tag forced the Buccaneers to let him hit the market while keeping younger, cornerstone pieces around.