FOXBORO - As good a receiver as Rob Gronkowski has become - and the fact that he will inevitably set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end is evidence of that - he's also a devastating blocker.
It's not a lost art for the position by any means. But when you have one who can not only get open, catch and run but be a competent blocker, you have a complete player.
And Gronk, as Bill Belichick said, is more than competent as a blocker.
"Rob is long, can handle the length of outside linebackers and defensive ends, 64, 65 guys," Belichick said Monday in the wake of New England's 31-24 win over the Colts. "Hes got that kind of reach and hes a strong guy. He takes a lot of pride in his blocking. He likes to block and takes pride in having a good block. He gets excited about that. I think he enjoys that part of the game. He does a pretty good job."
Watch Gronkowski closely on running plays and you'll see what Belichick means. He stalks his assignment and finishes as well as any player on the outside. Whether it's a defensive end or outside linebacker, he can match up, as Belichick said. And his athleticism makes him able to not be out-quicked by defensive backs when they become his responsibility.
As much as anything, though, blocking duty is about willingness to sacrifice. And Gronkowski has that.
Belichick is liberal with his praise of Gronkowski - with 23 touchdowns in 23 NFL starts and 65 receptions and 13 touchdowns this year, he ought to be. But Belichick is also high on the improvement Gronkowski's made.
"There are a lot of things that hes doing better now than he did four weeks ago or back in September because he works at them, he takes coaching and does work hard on the practice field," Belichick pointed out. "He really tries to improve and do what you ask him to do. You see that on a weekly basis. He usually has a couple of plays every week that, if you reflect back to a different point in time last week or last month or whatever, you can see improvement in the way hes trying to do it.
"Hes conscientious and Brian Ferentz, the tight end coach, does a good job of staying on those guys and keeping on their technique and their assignments and everything. If the player works hard, then he should improve and I think Rob has done that."
Ferentz has an interesting job. Not only is he charged with developing Gronkowski, butalso with developing pseudo-wideout Aaron Hernandez.
With those two as the main tight ends on the roster,Ferentz is able to concentrate on developing their skills. Andhe's clearly earning his pay.
"Fundamentally, some things are the same but assignment-wise, sure some things are different," Belichick said when asked how varied the teaching is between Hernandez and Gronkowski. "Actually, those guys are interchangeable in different formations and so forth. When you only have two of them, in a way they have to back each other up in certain ways. Theres a lot of carryover. They have different skill sets, but theyre both very talented players. But certainly a large part of it is fundamentally the same."
Earlier this season, when Hernandez went down with an MCL sprain, Gronkowski moved into Hernandez' role as a virtual extra wideout. That both players can do the other guy's job AND be effective in his shows what's been accomplished since they got here.
"There are things Aaron does more of or does more than Rob and vice versa, so thats pretty common," Belichick pointed out. "Therere certain game plan things and certain skill things that one guy does that the other one sort of specializes in or vice versa that differentiates the coaching a little bit too, for what theyre being asked to do."
With119 throws being completed to the two of them this season, tight end has arguably become the strongest position onoffense aside from quarterback. That Gronkowski in particular is so valuable when the ball isn't coming to him is proof of just how valuable he's become.