Browns inside linebacker Craig Robertson flipped the script earlier this week when he was being asked about New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
After taking a couple of questions, Robertson stopped and asked a reporter, “OK, who do you think is the best tight end in the league?”
The New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham was offered up as a possible answer.
“No,” Robertson said, shaking his head. “Gronkowski.”
Robertson is one of the Browns’ linebackers who, along with safeties Tashaun Gipson and T.J. Ward, will have to try to slow down one of the game’s most dangerous weapons in the passing game and one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets when the Browns (4-8) face the Patriots (9-3) today.
Gronkowski, known as “Gronk,” has 37 catches for 560 yards and four touchdowns in only six games since returning from a forearm injury that cost him the first six games of the 2013 season. Two years ago, he had 90 catches and 17 touchdowns. Last season, in only 11 games, he had 55 catches and 11 touchdowns. Last year, he became the first tight end in NFL history with three consecutive seasons of at least 10 touchdown receptions. And his 42 receiving touchdowns since 2010 are second only to Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s 44.
At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, with wide receiver speed, Gronkowski is one of the prime examples of the evolution of the tight end in the NFL — a talented, large, athletic receiver operating in the middle of the field.
“He, along with Jimmy Graham, changed the position that we now see as tight end,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said on Thursday. “Whether you want to call them hybrid wide receivers or hybrid tight ends, they have the ability to be in tight, to block. They have the ability to run up the field. The catch radius is unbelievable.”
Teams haven’t figured out the best way to cover guys like him, either.
“His hands, his speed, his toughness, it’s a classic matchup of if you put a linebacker on him he’s probably going to outrun him,” Horton said. “If you put a safety on him, he’s probably going to out-physical him. I think he changed the nature of that position. Then you get the old Ozzie Newsomes, Kellen Winslows; those guys were freakish guys at that time that would now fit perfectly into today’s NFL.”
That leaves the linebackers (Robertson, D’Qwell Jackson, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo) in a foot race they won’t often win and the safeties (Ward and Gipson) trying to outmuscle someone who’s at least seven inches taller and 55 pounds heavier than both.
The Browns were most hurt by a tight end in their 31-17 loss to the Lions on Oct. 13. In that game, Joseph Fauria — a largely unknown player — caught three touchdown passes. Robertson was in coverage for one of them but never saw the ball as Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford delivered a strike to Fauria. Robertson said on Thursday that he’s learned to get his head turned around quicker, something that’s difficult while tracking Gronkowski.
Ward, who said he expects to be lined up with Gronkowski on several plays, said you can’t play Gronkowski’s game and win.
“You have to do what you do,” Ward said. “I think you have to know his strong and weak points. Don’t go up against him, trying to be more physical. But he’s a very good tight end. He’s big. He’s athletic. He’s a good blocker.”
Ward called Gronkowski “definitely one of the best all-around tight ends in the league.” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said he’s “probably the best.”
Robertson. Carder. Jackson. Kruger. Mingo. Gipson. Ward. For the Browns to have a chance at an upset today, one will need to figure out how to slow down Gronk. Few have succeeded.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.