With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ new offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, now on the roster he is expected to elevate the team. His presence has put the rest of the NFC South on notice. There are so many tools for Tom Brady to use. So how will he be incorporated?
Bruce Arians: Arizona
The Buccaneers offense, much like the other teams Bruce Arians has coached, will be geared towards its weapons. To say Arians doesn’t use his tight ends may not be accurate. Many analysts point to his time in Arizona as proof.
Arians was the head coach in Arizona from 2013 to 2017. During that time he lacked a true threat at the tight end position. In 2013, Arians had Jim Dray and Rob Housler at his disposal. They combined for over 650 yards with 65 receptions on 89 targets.
Housler would remain in 2014 and have Darren Fells join him. Fells only saw action in 10 games because of injury, so Jon Carlson stepped up and hauled in 33 catches on 55 targets for 350 yards. It’s also important to note that in the 2014 NFL Draft, Arians selected a tight end 52nd overall. Troy Niklas was out of Notre Dame and touted as a potential number one tight end.
Moving into 2015, the Cardinals held onto Fells and Niklas while other tight ends joined the team.Jermaine Gresham came on board but failed to make a large statistical impact. This same trio was the primary option for the team in 2016 and not much improved. In Bruce Arians’ final year in Arizona, multiple tight ends came and went. Ricky Jones-Seals was an undrafted free agent who seemed like he could be promising. But it wasn’t to be.
Totality of Circumstances
During Arian’s tenure in Arizona, there were no tight ends to ideally game plan as a true threat. They all lacked elite skills, speed, and for some, size. So Arians designed his scheme to exemplify the weapons he had. Subsequently, wide receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd were the offensive focus. David Johnson emerged as a top dual-threat running back. This resulted in the tight ends only having around 15% of the passing targets while he was in Arizona.
Bruce Arians: Pittsburgh
Coaching in Pittsburgh from 2007 to 2011, Arians had a stellar tight end in Heath Miller. Besides Miller, the team had weapons at the wide receiver position and a run game for balance. In that span Arians was offensive coordinator, they targeted Miller on average 73 times a season.
Miller’s best statistical year, 2009, earned himself his first Pro-Bowl selection. That season he saw an unprecedented 98 targets for 789 yards on 76 receptions. This allowed Miller to post six touchdowns on the year. Amazing stats, given the team had three wide receivers that defenses had to account for. Miller finished third on the team in targets, receptions, and yards behind Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward. Miller accounted for 18% of the targets in 2009.
Arians ultimately used his lone tight end more than he did multiple tight ends in Arizona. This is in part because of his average catch rate of 71.7% during Arians’ time as an offensive coordinator.
Adjusting to New Player Personnel
Under Arians in 2019, the Buccaneers’ tight end usage resembled a boosted version of his 2009 season. There were slightly more targets, 19% of total targets went to tight ends. But even with more targets, the tight end group could only muster five more yards than Miller did in 2009. So what will it look like with Gronkowski?
Potentially, this offense will probably look like a mix of plays Tom Brady likes from New England and the Buccaneers’ deep passing game of last year. Arians states he will accommodate his new quarterback. In 2019, the Buccaneers mostly ran three-wide receiver sets at a rate of almost 4:1 against two tight end sets. The 2020 season may see a jump in two-tight end formations.
First, Gronkowski’s ability to run block allowed New England to disguise offensive schemes. Implementing the “12” personnel grouping with Gronkowski frees the defense at the snap. During run plays with Gronkowski in the “Y” tight end position, the effectiveness of the run game will improve. This will aide the passing attack.
Second, Gronkowski will almost certainly play the vast majority of “12” personnel groupings. When he is let loose from the line, he will create a matchup nightmare. Accounting for Gronkowski will be difficult, especially with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are on the wings.
Third, and maybe most important, is trust. With Brady trusting Gronkowski the way he does, Arians is likely to acquiesce to Brady’s desire to have Gronkowski on the field more. Initially, the two tight ends set may be used as Brady gets more comfortable with a new scheme. As the season moves on, the offense may evolve.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in some statistics, but it’s important to remember that statistics are very situational. In the four years Gronkowski was voted to the Pro-Bowl and became an NFL All-Pro, there was no legitimate number one receiver on the Patriots’ roster. The best they could muster was Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. One season they also had Brandin Cooks. But Gronkowski was every part a wide receiver those years.
For the 2020 season, even with a year of rest and healing, Gronkowski should see around 50 to 60 targets. I base this estimate on Arians’ use of tight ends in the past. Especially since he will have to split some shares with Cameron Brate. There are two explosive wide receivers in Evans and Godwin. Only one player can catch a ball on any play. This is clear as well, in Arians’ use of Miller in Pittsburgh. With a complimentary run game and two threatening wide receivers, Miller had an average of 73 targets a season. Gronkowski will not get this workload with Brate on the team.
Gronkowski will haul in 38 catches on 57 targets, totaling 567 yards, and six touchdowns.
He will aide in the run game with his blocking, pass protect Brady well enough while on the field, and be a huge red zone target that will free up other playmakers. If O.J.Howard does not get traded, I think the duo of Gronkowski and Howard could be much like Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski. But that’s wishful thinking.
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