Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without Rob Gronkowski, as of right now anyway. This is hardly foreign territory for Brady though, so let’s see how the tight ends he had when Gronk was not on the roster with him fared and produced as receivers.
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are arguably the greatest passer-receiver combination in the history of the NFL, which is bonkers considering that Gronk is a tight end. When you realize Brady is the quarterback, suddenly it doesn’t seem as crazy. However, for the first time since the 2019 season, Brady will be without Gronk due to the latter announcing his retirement, for the second time. Before 2019, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009 when this was the case.
Naturally, the initial reaction to the announcement for Buccaneers fans is to hit the panic button now that they don’t have a “name-brand” tight end for their team. Is that warranted though? In an effort to ease minds, let’s take a look at the nine seasons Brady has played without Gronk, how those tight ends produced on the field, and how their teams fared. When you see these years in writing and realize how long ago they actually are it really puts in perspective how immortal Brady actually is if any more was even needed. If you’re looking for potential fantasy football sleepers, then Buccaneers’ tight ends might be your answer this year. Let’s take a look.
2001 New England Patriots 11-5 (Super Bowl XXXVI Champions)
Jermaine Wiggins – 14 catches, (21 targets) 133 yards, 4 touchdowns
Rod Rutledge – 5 catches (8 targets), 35 yards, 0 touchdowns
In his second season as a professional, Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in week three and would start 14 games in the regular season, culminating in an upset win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. It was a sign of great things to come. His tight ends can’t say the same, as Jermaine Wiggins and Rod Ruttlege combine for 19 catches for 168 yards and four touchdowns between them. In fairness, they were only targeted 19 times between them. We can chalk this up to Brady still getting his feet wet and scheme. You see kids, football was a much different game when Brady was starting out.
2002 New England Patriots 9-7 (Missed Playoffs)
Christian Fauria – 21 catches (40 targets), 253 yards, 7 touchdowns
Daniel Graham – 15 catches (23 targets), 150 yards, 1 touchdown
In his first full season as a starter, Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots would miss the playoffs. They wouldn’t miss the playoffs together again. Christian Fauria would come to town this season, with the tight end production jumping up significantly when he did, hauling in seven touchdowns, (spoiler alert) tied for the most you’ll see on this list. Daniel Graham would also benefit with a touchdown of his own, as Brady started coming into his own as a full-time starter.
2003 New England Patriots 14-2 (Super Bowl XXXVIII Champions)
Daniel Graham – 38 catches (63 targets), 409 yards, 4 touchdowns
Christian Fauria – 28 catches (45 targets), 285 yards, 2 touchdowns
Graham and Fauria were at it again, and while the touchdown production took a slight dip, the yardage and catch amount did the opposite, the same with the targets. It seems like it was a good strategy, as the Patriots would have their best regular-season record to that point, as they defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII for their second title in three years.
2004 New England Patriots 14-2 (Super Bowl XXXIX Champions)
Daniel Graham – 48 catches (30 targets), 364 yards, 7 touchdowns
Christian Fauria – 16 catches (20 targets), 195 yards, 2 touchdowns
Benjamin Watson – 2 catches (4 targets), 16 yards, 0 touchdowns
Not only did the two tight ends Graham and Fauria continue their productive pace, but they also added a third tight end in Benjamin Watson to the fold, resulting in yet another 14-2 season, and another Super Bowl victory. Football was becoming even more of a passing league, and the multitude of tight ends was a result of this. Sidenote buckle up, you’re about to get real familiar with Watson.
2005 New England Patriots 10-6 (Lost in divisional round)
Daniel Graham – 16 catches (25 targets), 235 yards, 3 touchdowns
Benjamin Watson – 29 catches (54 targets), 441 yards, 4 touchdowns
Christian Fauria – 8 catches (17 targets), 57 yards, 2 touchdowns
There would be no three-peat, but no team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since. The trio of tight ends ran it back, with Watson beginning to emerge as Brady’s favorite of the bunch. The team maintained their winning ways, even if another Lombardi Trophy wasn’t there to greet them at the finish line.
2006 New England Patriots 12-4 (Lost AFC Championship)
Benjamin Watson – 49 catches (91 targets), 643 yards, 3 touchdowns
Daniel Graham – 21 catches (34 targets), 235 yards, 2 touchdowns
David Thomas – 11 catches (16 targets), 159 yards, 1 touchdown
The Patriots would be back in the AFC Championship, with Watson as the clear-cut starter at tight end. Graham maintained solid production for a tight end two, particularly in this era, and newcomer David Thomas chipped in with a touchdown of his own. This was arguably Brady at his best when it came to sharing the wealth, at least for tight ends.
2007 New England Patriots 16-0 (Lost Super Bowl XLII)
Benjamin Watson – 36 catches (49 targets), 389 yards, 6 touchdowns
Kyle Brady – 9 catches (16 targets), 70 yards, 2 touchdowns
David Thomas – 1 catch (1 target), 9 yards, 0 touchdowns
Speaking of sharing the wealth, boy oh boy did he do that and then some in 2007. He broke the record for touchdown passes in a season with 50, thanks to an absolutely awesome array of ariel assault weapons at his disposal. The production of the tight ends to a bit of a dip as a result, but they still got theirs, particularly Watson, because Brady has always been about that life. One of, if not the greatest offenses we’ve ever seen couldn’t complete the greatest season we’ve ever seen though, famously falling in Super Bowl XLII.
2009 New England Patriots 10-6 (Lost in Wild Card round)
Benjamin Watson – 29 catches (41 targets), 404 yards, 5 touchdowns
Chris Baker – 14 catches (19 targets), 142 yards, 2 touchdowns
The final season Brady and the Patriots would have before Gronkowski was drafted came in 2009, with the reliable Watson having what was essentially an average season for them, and the Patriots falling in the Wild Card round for the only time for another decade. When you look at this list Watson looks like he was Brady’s Gronk before Gronk, and our final entry will show why.
2019 New England Patriots 12-4 (Lost in Wild Card Round)
Benjamin Watson – 17 catches (24 targets), 173 yards, 0 touchdowns
Matt LaCosse – 13 catches (19 targets), 131 yards, 1 touchdown
Ryan Izzo – 6 catches (9 targets), 114 yards, 1 touchdown
After about a decade of dominance from Brady and Gronkowski, Gronk called it a career for the first time, before of course joining Brady in Tampa Bay. So what did Brady and the Patriots do? Why they brought back his Gronk before Gronk, and Watson was back. He was ancient by this time, but he still had the most yards out of the three tight ends. By this point, the Patriots weren’t featuring tight ends as much, primarily due to Gronk’s retirement, and it’s evident by the numbers, with Brady essentially featuring Watson, Matt LaCosse, and Ryan Izzo equally.
So what does all of this mean exactly? Well, on the surface it looks like the Buccaneers’ tight ends won’t enjoy any Gronk-like success based on these numbers. You have to understand though, that for the eras in which these numbers occurred, they were very productive for a tight end, especially the fact that multiple were featured so prominently.
Try this on for size though. Gronk’s numbers in his two seasons with the Bucs? In 2020, he caught 45 balls on 77 targets for 623 yards and seven touchdowns. Last year in 2021, he was targeted 89 times resulting in 55 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns. While that production is still outstanding, it isn’t THAT much greater than the other tight ends Brady has played with when Gronk wasn’t on the roster with him. In fact, it’s very comparable, despite occurring in completely different eras. Keep that in mind if you’re looking for a tight end sleeper in fantasy drafts.
The point of all of this is, that while the tight ends for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not be Gronk from a production standpoint (who is?) they will still find success on the field and in the end zone because Tom Brady is their quarterback. It will also result in another winning season and more likely than not a deep playoff run. Everything is going to be ok.