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Rob Gronkowski retires after 9 seasons and three Super Bowl rings. What’s next for the Patriots?

Gronk went out on top, calling it a career after his third NFL title.

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Rob Gronkowski is going out on top. The game-changing tight end announced his retirement from the NFL on Sunday, less than two months after his New England Patriots won Super Bowl 53. Gronkowski announced his retirement on Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

It all started at 20 years old on stage at the NFL draft when my dream came true, and now here I am about to turn 30 in a few months with a decision I feel is the biggest of my life so far. I will be retiring from the game of football today. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick gave to me when drafting my silliness in 2010. My life experiences over the last 9 years have been amazing both on and off the field. The people I have meet, the relationships I have built, the championships I have been apart of, I just want to thank the whole New England Patriots organization for every opportunity I have been giving and learning the great values of life that I can apply to mine. Thank you to all of Pats Nation around the world for the incredible support since I have been apart of this 1st class organization. Thank you for everyone accepting who I am and the dedication I have put into my work to be the best player I could be. But now its time to move forward and move forward with a big smile knowing that the New England Patriots Organization, Pats Nation, and all my fans will be truly a big part of my heart for rest of my life. It was truly an incredible honor to play for such a great established organization and able to come in to continue and contribute to keep building success. To all my current and past teammates, thank you for making each team every year special to be apart of. I will truly miss you guys. Cheers to all who have been part of this journey, cheers to the past for the incredible memories, and a HUGE cheers to the uncertain of whats next.

A post shared by Rob Gronkowski (@gronk) on

Gronkowski steps away from the game at 29 years old but with plenty of miles on his odometer. The oft-injured All-Pro struggled through a long list of maladies through his NFL career, dealing with injuries to his back, forearm, groin, and knees that often kept him from the field — he missed 29 regular season games in his nine seasons in New England. While he claimed he was the healthiest he’d been all season before the Super Bowl, he decided against throwing his body into the fire for one more season, leaving a massive hole in the Patriots’ passing attack in the process.

He finished his career with five Pro Bowl invitations, four first-team All-Pro appearances, three Super Bowl titles, and the title of 2013’s NFL Comeback Player of the Year. The Patriots, including head coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, were deferential when addressing his departure.

What does this mean for Gronkowski?

He leaves behind a sport that rewarded his hard work with injuries that include but are not limited to:

  • major back surgery
  • strained ankle ligaments (required surgery)
  • a broken forearm (required surgery)
  • a re-break of the same forearm (more surgery)
  • an infection of that broken forearm (took two more surgeries to eradicate)
  • another back surgery
  • a torn ACL/MCL (required extensive surgery)
  • an undisclosed right knee injury (no surgery required, finally)
  • a hamstring injury
  • a pulmonary contusion (originally thought to be a collapsed lung)
  • a herniated disk (back surgery No. 3)
  • a groin injury
  • a concussion

So it’s understandable he’d be interested in retiring before age 30. The good news for Gronkowski is he was able to put together a strong Hall of Fame resume in a relatively brief career. He’ll retire with three Super Bowl championship rings, multiple first-team All-Pro honors, and a litany of stories from depressed linebackers and defensive backs about how impossible he was to cover. At 6’6 and 265 pounds, “Gronk” was a nightmare to track up the seam as well as a crushing blocker who freed up space for his tailbacks.

His 16-game regular season averages come out to 72 catches, 1,095 yards, and 11 touchdowns. He was just as good in the postseason, with 75 catches, 1,046 yards, and 12 touchdowns in his first 15 playoff games. Gronk was a monster, and the only thing that could effectively slow him was injury.

He retires having averaged 0.69 touchdowns per game. Nice.

What does this mean for the Patriots?

Gronkowski is irreplaceable, and his retirement will put Bill Belichick’s “next man up” philosophy to the test. The Patriots have gone stretches without their All-Pro tight end in the past (see above), but moving on to life without Gronk means Tom Brady will be without the security blanket target he’d turn to in clutch situations across the past decade. Gronkowski averaged nearly seven targets per game in his NFL career — more than any other player on the roster.

Brady had nothing but praise for the player who’d bailed out his offense in so many big moments in the past.

What an honor and privilege to play with you these past nine years @gronk! You accomplished so much and our team was almost unbeatable when you were on the field! Your fun-loving, inspiring, and positive energy made an impact on everybody you came into contact with! Not just that, but for as great as a player you are, you are a better teammate and person. The NFL was a better place with you in it! But I have no doubt you will be a success in anything you do!!! Love you pal!

The solution to the team’s newest problem likely isn’t already on the roster. Dwayne Allen had only 13 catches in his two seasons as a Patriot before becoming a salary cap casualty this winter.

Behind Allen on the team’s roster were Jacob Hollister and Ryan Izzo, who each ended 2018 on injured reserve. Hollister has been one of Belichick’s pet projects as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming, but he only has eight career NFL receptions. Izzo, a 2018 seventh-round pick, has yet to play a game as a pro.

Gronkowski’s departure will also put a strain on an already overworked group of wide receivers. Julian Edelman regained his spot as the team’s top wideout this fall, but at age 32 will face questions about how much longer he can keep this up. Behind him are Phillip Dorsett, 2019 signees Bruce Ellington and Maurice Harris, and 2018 late-round pick Braxton Berrios. New England will have to make some tough decisions on who will be retained and who will be let go in order to revamp the team’s receiving corps.

Although there’s a chance Gronkowski’s retirement isn’t quite permanent.

The good news for the Patriots is there’s a solid pool of tight ends in the 2019 NFL Draft. Iowa standouts Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson are both expected to be first round picks, though both may be gone before the team picks at No. 32. New England’s combination of need, position, and the fact Belichick has a strong relationship with Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz could be enough to necessitate a rare trade-up for the Pats; either target could help mitigate the loss of Gronkowski while serving as a vital step in a Patriot roster overhaul.

But neither will bring the blend of strength, speed, and concentration Gronkowski brought to the position. The oft-injured tight end’s star burned bright, and he’ll retire with a Hall of Fame resume and more than $53 million in career earnings from the Patriots alone. Now he’s free to expand his party bus business, show up at Wrestlemania, and just generally be the human personification of a golden retriever wherever and whenever he likes.