Broncography: TE Dan Gronkowski

The loss of TE Marquez Branson this preseason to a knee injury was a nasty surprise; he had been showing signs of having a knack for this game. But that’s why TE Dan Gronkowski was a potentially good acquisition from Detroit (if he plays like he was ranked - he was another guy who was rated substantially higher but fell in the draft).  We’ll need someone who can both block and catch, and who can do both nearly equally. In theory, that’s what we got. So, why was Gronkowski one player away from being Mr. Irrelevant in the 2009 NFL Draft?

Two reasons, really. Look at the career of undrafted CFA Antonio Gates as an example. Clearly, TEs are often the last players to be considered. Gronkowski may not be another Antonio Gates - I’d be surprised if he was - but he could be a good fit, and an effective player for the Broncos, who need a guy who will come in and work hard. Branson was showing signs of being such a player, but his injury has put a temporary halt to that. The second reason? Let’s go back to Dan’s beginnings and see what we can find.

Upbringing

Starting at the very beginning, he was born to Gordon and Dianne Gronkowski, in Amherst, NY in January of 1985. His family had a long lineage of sports activities - Gordon was an offensive guard for Syracuse, and Dan’s great-grandfather was a member of the United States cycling team in the Paris Olympics of 1924. Dan’s siblings were also sports enthusiasts (brothers Chris and Rob are also in the NFL currently), and Dan loved sports of all kinds as he was growing up. While football and baseball were his main sports at Williamsville North High School (lettering in both for all four years), he lettered in basketball for 3 years, and hockey for one.

In football, he was a wide receiver during his first two years of high school and then moved to quarterback. His sophomore season brought him a school record with 539 yards receiving. He moved to QB during his junior and senior years, and set new records his senior year, in 2003. During that season, he was able to complete 122 of 207 passes for 1,407 yards and 16 touchdowns.  All of those stats were school records. He was named the league’s offensive Most Valuable Player as well. Not surprisingly, he was recruited by Maryland, Arizona, Syracuse and Purdue. Gronkowski decided that Maryland was the best fit for him.

College

As is common, he redshirted his freshman year. In 2006, he only caught two passes, but he did win an award as having the team’s highest GPA. That was no surprise - by the time he graduated, Dan had finished a degree in marketing and was working on his MBA when he was drafted. He was also a Rhodes Scholar nominee. In the area of intellect, Coach McDaniels will be very happy with this young man.

Already regarded as one of college football’s premier blockers, the Terrapin Council team leader was never really a focal point of the team’s aerial attack during his first three seasons, but that all changed during his final campaign. With head coach Ralph Friedgen turning over the offense to coordinator James Franklin, the new West Coast offensive system saw Gronkowski emerge as a quality receiver. With Franklin returning to run the offense, Gronkowski saw plenty of action as the safety-valve target for the Terps. “I think having a new offensive coordinator has really added a new excitement to our program,” Friedgen said. “I like our staff. They relate to the kids well and I think the kids are having more fun.” Franklin was the offensive coordinator at Kansas State the last two years after spending one season with the Green Bay Packers.

He played in all 13 games in 2008 and started in 12 of them. Over that year, He caught 29 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns, including one matching his career-long 25-yard reception in 2005. He also saw some action on special teams and returned two kicks for eight and four yards. He was named an honorable mention All-ACC player. If you see that a TE had 40 receptions in 4 years, it doesn’t invite excitement. When 29 of them are in a single year, the player is an honorable mention All-ACC, leads the team in GPA, blocks like a machine and is greatly affected by the head coach turning the offense over to a West Coast Offense which gives him a chance to start receiving, he might become more interesting. Then you add that the player boasted the second-highest strength index on the team in the spring of 2008. In fact, i’ll let NFL.com tell you the rest.

Gronkowski’s blocking prowess is the byproduct of his incredible strength. The former prep quarterback registered the second-highest strength index on the team in spring 2008 testing. He also boasts a career-best squat of 635 pounds, the second-best figure by a Maryland tight end, topped only by the 685-pound lift from Vernon Davis (49ers). In each of his last four offseasons at Maryland, the tight end received Iron Terp honors, a recognition for his outstanding performances in the training room.

Draft

I found a nice little read over on Pride of Detroit. They were kind enough to list some draft reporting on Dan:

Best trait per Scouts Inc.:

Possesses soft, reliable hands. Shows good concentration in traffic but lacks the body control to make acrobatic catches.

SI.com:

POSITIVES: Nice-sized tight end prospect who plays much faster than his forty time. Quickly gets off the snap into routes, displays a burst of speed, and extends his hands to make the reception away from his frame. Gets vertical and adjusts in midair to come down with the difficult catch. Uses his frame to shield away opponents and protect the pass. Smooth moving around the field, and shows a good degree of quickness in his all-around game. Breaks down well, and plays with good knee bend. Solid strength at the point, and removes linebackers from the action.

NEGATIVES: Inconsistent hands and does not show the ability to pluck the fastball from the air. Lacks blocking balance and does not finish blocks.

What I really find interesting, and perhaps enlightening with regard to his low pick in the draft, is that I found a considerable amount of contradiction in both his positives and negatives from different draft sites. One has him as a lumbering player who can’t run a route and is slow off the line. SI.com’s description of his receiving skills are exact opposites to those other descriptions.

His blocking? Same issue in reverse. Some reports extol his blocking ability, power and even technique. SI.com feels that he lacks blocking balance and doesn’t finish blocks. I’ve touched on this more than once, but what often happens is that different scouts see different games, and some of them aren’t that careful about double-checking other film to be sure of being right. Other times, something from his freshman (redshirt freshman) season is written on his scouting report, and in that game, it was true. But times change, players do (usually) develop, and yet those reports are often not updated. Who then, to believe?

Believe the tape. I don’t have a lot of it, and I don’t put any faith in highlight reels, so I’m referring to someone else looking at that tape - someone who is paid to scout.  I put a little more faith in Brian Xanders’ people, who are responsible for triple checking these sorts of things before making a trade. Everyone makes mistakes, and Denver’s group has definitely made a few, but they still know a lot more about the player than I. In this case, Detroit didn’t need him any longer, Denver might well have been ready to cut A. Smith loose (A couple of other fans and I were confabulated at the fact that he may have had his best game as a Bronco during his last (preseason, granted, but still) game as a Bronco), so neither team really could win or lose this one unless one of the two players has a late burst of ‘getting it’ and becomes a top player at their position.

In terms of blocking, this is very much what was said about Richard Quinn when he was drafted (without all the arguments about the various thoughts on trading two 3rd-round picks for a 2nd and a 4th). So, if Gronkowski is a player who has excellent blocking prowess, if he has incredible strength, lives in the weight room and already has his masters (meaning that he passes the McDaniels intellect test, something that Quinn hasn’t managed to do so far) and managed to quickly make the change over to a receiving role as well as a blocking responsibility, why did he last until the late 7th round? Part of it was nothing more than the vagaries of the draft - he lasted until pick 255, but he was rated for the 5th round, the 6th at the latest.

Secondly - for some reason, when the draft is going on, people don’t seem to care much about blocking TEs. About 2-3 months later, teams are looking for them, sometimes desperately. It happened in 2009, it’s happened many times before, and it will happen again. But Gronkowski isn’t a Richard Quinn at all - he received 29 passes for 287 yards as a senior, the first year he’d been asked to receive as well as block.  He had no trouble making the change, but if you only look at his full ‘college production’, he had 40 receptions in 4 years, which is not exciting in a league where the theory is that a receiving TE is the wave of the future. However, the fact that he set a high school record for receiving suggests that this probably won’t be entirely new or difficult for him.

The fact that the blocking TE is often the need of the present isn’t talked about as much as I think that it should be. Last year was a good example - teams were disparaged for using upper-middle round picks for ‘blocking’ TEs. Then, by the middle of the season, those teams that weren’t interested were trying to find a decent blocking TE. It’s not fancy. It’s not glamorous, but if you don’t have a blocking TE when you’re in a 4th-and-short or red-zone situation, you’re suddenly exposed. Is there a Broncos fan out there who wouldn’t have loved to see a solid blocking-TE performance at any number of key points in the season in 2009?

NFL

So, to be clear - as I noted above, there are two reasons that Dan Gronkowski seems like a good bargain for Denver. The first is that TEs are frequently rated lower than some other player categories. Detroit took him in the 2009 Draft, waived him and placed him on the practice squad, and activated him December 1, 2009 when starter Brandon Pettigrew went down with a knee injury. He was an extra body for a team like Detroit who doesn’t use the TEs a great deal (other than Pettigrew) and after 2010 training camp, Gronkowski was traded along with a sixth-rounder in 2011 for CB Alphonso Smith, who had been a disappointment in Denver, along with a seventh-rounder in 2011.

Gronkowski wasn’t a good ‘fit’ in Detroit, who took receiving TE Tony Scheffler from Denver in the offseason, and already had taken Pettigrew as a first-rounder in 2009. However - different teams see different players in terms of what they want to accomplish, and whether a player makes the team or not often has little to do with their skillset. Gronkowski had nothing but confidence following his 2010 training camp, whichever way it went.

“The way I played this preseason, I have really good film, and I’m going to be playing somewhere,” Gronkowski said.

Dan played well in the Jacksonville game, even though he saw only limited action, generally as a blocker. His strength and technique were immediately obvious - his blocking was very good. He was only targeted once, and made the catch for a 2-yard gain. Considering that he was barely through the playbook once before taking the field, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s another reason why Gronkowski is a good pickup for the Broncos. When Spencer Larsen went down during the Indy game, Gronkowski stepped in and played fullback for Denver. In fact, that was one of the things that Denver brought him in for. Andrew Mason over at MaxDenver put it this way:

“We put a lot of pressure on him to learn multiple spots,” Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said.”He had to play his role; he had to know Graham’s role; he had to know Larsen’s role — and be able to function in any or all of them.”

Added Gronkowski: “It was a lot of studying and working with the coaches, but that’s what they brought me here to do. I consider myself a fairly smart guy and I’m going to learn the stuff, and if they need me, I’m going to jump in.”

But natural intelligence doesn’t serve as a short cut for good studying, which is why Gronkowski said he found himself still at the Broncos’ facility into the evening hours last week, studying tape and reviewing his assignments. After completing his lengthy workday, he’d have barely 90 minutes to himself before falling asleep and arising early the next morning to start over again.

The intellect of a Rhodes Scholar with a tough-minded work ethic was just the thing that Denver needed. Richard Quinn wasn’t active, Larsen went down, and Gronkowski’s role grew. He was ready for it. And for a newcomer to fullback, he impressed his coach. “He filled in well in terms of knowing what to do. He was physical in there,” McDaniels said. “I don’t think he had any big issues in the running game or protections.”

Given his physical strength, intellect, leadership skills, his joy of spending time in the weight room, and the reality that the Broncos very much need a two-way TE, as they said in Casablanca; this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Welcome to Denver, Dan. I hope that your stay here is a very productive one.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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