Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is the NFL’s undisputed best at his position, and he might even be the best of all time. Well, OK, that’s according to most football-watchers. Not everyone is buying Gronk’s greatness — and by “not everyone,” I mean Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who was considered to be the best in the game last season. In an … ahem, wide-ranging interview with ESPN’s Mina Kimes last month, Ramsey had this to say about Gronkowski:
“I don’t think Gronk’s good. Let me say — I don’t think Gronk is as great as people think he is.”
With the Jags and Patriots lined up to play Sunday, that quote has seen plenty of recirculation. “It motivates you to hear that,” Gronkowski told reporters when asked about Ramsey’s remarks. But there is something to Ramsey’s criticism, even if it means that Gronk can be reduced to merely regular-dominant, rather than ridiculously so.
Ramsey’s central critique of Gronk surrounds the way he feasts on linebackers and safeties but isn’t as dominant against cornerbacks. “Any time Gronk has been matched up with a corner, he’s had a very bad game,” Ramsey told Kimes, “and that corner has had a very good game.” This echoed Ramsey’s comments in an earlier GQ story — the guy really made the media rounds last month! — where he said, “I think I match up well against him. Gronk’s never played a corner like me.”
As Kimes notes in her story, Gronkowski’s numbers do drop when he is lined up on the outside rather than in the slot. “His catch rate drops from 71 percent to 56 percent,” she writes, “which is lower than that of the average NFL tight end.” Ramsey himself referenced similar numbers from Jacksonville’s analytics department. With more defensive attention from coverage specialists, Gronkowski doesn’t get as many favorable matchups — and unequal matchups are what he thrives against.
Using the same key receiving metrics we employed when assessing Falcons wideout Julio Jones’ greatness, here’s how Gronk’s production changes depending on how many defensive backs he has to face (which, presumably, increases the odds he’ll face a cornerback like Ramsey):
Gronk fares worse against more defensive backs
Change in key receiving metrics for Rob Gronkowski by number of opposing defensive backs on the field, 2016-18
|Opposing Defense||Targets Per Route||Air Yds. per Target||Catches per Target||YAC* per Catch||Adj. Catch Yds. per Route|
|Four or fewer DBs||32.3||11.1||68.9||6.21||5.2|
|Five or more DBs||18.9||12.7||67.1||6.12||3.3|
|Avg. NFL TE||-7.2%||5.6%||2.3%||-30.8%||-17.6%|
Although Gronkowski’s ability to rumble downfield after the catch isn’t overly affected by facing more defensive backs — which isn’t a surprise when a man of Gronk’s size is facing tiny cornerbacks — and his average depth of target actually increases a lot (meaning he’s running deeper routes), Gronk’s ability to get open and make plays dips significantly when there are fewer mismatches to exploit in the opposing coverage. As a result, Gronk’s Adjusted Catch Yards (a measure of receiving productivity that gives bonuses for touchdowns and moving the chains) per route run are down nearly 40 percent against five or more DBs over the past three seasons. By comparison, the average NFL tight end only sees his Adjusted Catch Yards per route fall by about 18 percent under those circumstances.
So in that sense, Ramsey is right. And given how dependent the Patriots are on Gronk’s stat-stuffing, Jacksonville could gain a disproportionate edge if Ramsey and his fellow DBs neutralize the Pats’ big, lovable human wrecking ball. Against the Jags in the first half of last year’s AFC title game, Gronkowski was limited to one catch on three targets, with zero touchdowns (before a concussion took him out of the game for the second half). Not coincidentally, between Gronk’s limited impact and subsequent absence, the Pats barely mustered enough points to pull past Jacksonville and make the Super Bowl.
That said, it should be noted that even a Gronk limited by opposing defensive backs is better than just about every other tight end on the planet. Since 2016, Gronkowski’s Adjusted Catch Yards per route against five or more DBs (3.25) was still 30 percent better than the overall average for NFL tight ends (regardless of opposing coverage). To paraphrase Dan Patrick, you can’t truly stop Gronk; you can only hope to contain him. And that goes even for Jalen Ramsey.