Here's why Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end in NFL history

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CHANDLER, Ariz. – First, a numbers comparison.

Tight end A: 76 catches, 1,078 yards, 13 TDs, 14.2 yards per catch
Tight end B: 78 catches, 896 yards, 7 TDs, 11.4 yards per catch

The first set of numbers are Rob Gronkowski’s season averages, prorated to account for missed time due to injuries.

The second tight end is Tony Gonzalez, widely considered the best tight end in NFL history, and his prorated 16-game averages.

Maybe it’s time to start looking at Gronkowski in this way: Gonzalez had the greatest career for an NFL tight end (or perhaps Shannon Sharpe if you weigh Super Bowl rings in the conversation, and John Mackey is on the short list too), but Gronkowski is the best tight end ever at the peak of his ability.

Consider another stat: Gronkowski has played at least 10 games in four seasons, and has four seasons with double-digit touchdowns. Sharpe and Gonzalez combined for five double-digit touchdown seasons in their 31 years in the NFL.

There’s no comparison for Gronkowski, a huge 265-pounder and a superior athlete who has already set many records for tight ends. While many of the prolific receiving tight ends through NFL history were average blockers at best and disinterested in it at worst, Gronkowski is a devastating blocker. He’s the total package, and he won’t turn 26 until May.

“We’ve had tight ends with better hands, better athletes, bigger, faster, but not necessarily all of them,” said NFL Network’s Brian Billick, who coached Sharpe with the Baltimore Ravens. “He’s so different, so physically unique. Just an absolute beast. To have the size of … I don’t know what tight end you can compare him to, with the athleticism of a Shannon Sharpe. That’s pretty impressive.”

Gronk vs Gonzalez Receiving Yards By Season | FindTheBest

No tight end has impacted a team like Gronkowski has. The Patriots were 2-2 in September and written off by many. Then Gronkowski was able to ramp up his playing time, coming off ACL surgery, and everything changed. Gronkowski played 62 percent of the snaps in Week 4, then that jumped to 79 percent in Week 5 and he was practically a full-time player after that, according to Pro Football Focus’ playing time data. The Patriots are 12-2 since Gronkowski became himself again, and one of the two losses was Week 17 when Gronkowski was held out.

He had a legitimate argument as NFL MVP this season, and it might be the first time you can say that about a tight end.

“You don’t want to go through too many plays and realize he’s not the focal point,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.

Here’s the issue with Gronkowski, and it’s why the chances are remote that he’ll ultimately be the consensus pick for greatest tight end ever: longevity.

Gonzalez had 17 stellar seasons, and sustained success is an important part of his résumé. Gronkowski has already had serious back, forearm and knee injuries, and with so many opponents targeting him low (good luck trying to bring him down by going high), it seems unlikely he’ll last as long as a Sharpe or Gonzalez.

It doesn’t seem to matter to Gronkowski how his legacy is perceived, as limited as one’s legacy can be after five NFL seasons anyway.

“I haven’t really thought about my place like that,” Gronkowski said. “I prepare myself every single week to be the best I can be that week … whatever happens from there happens from there.”

Maybe his fun-loving attitude and partying (the man’s most recognizable quote is “Yo soy fiesta,” after all) overshadows his greatness as a player, and he said on Wednesday that he thinks his hard work gets overlooked. But mostly he said he just looks at Brady as an example of how to stay focused and humble instead of worrying about things he can’t control, like how he is perceived as a player.

“I just like to come into work every day,” Gronkowski said when asked if he thinks about his place among the greatest tight ends ever. “I’m playing with Tom, who is the greatest QB, and he’s so humble about it. He just comes into work every single day and just works hard and doesn’t say anything about that. It’s cool to take footsteps after him, just coming into work, not worrying about anything outside.”

He has the single-season record for touchdown receptions by a tight end (only four players in the history of the NFL at any position rank above his 17 in 2011), and the most receiving yards in a single season by a tight end (1,327, also in 2011). He’s the only tight end in NFL history with four double-digit touchdown seasons. And this week, he has a chance too add a Super Bowl championship to his legacy.

By any measure, it’s hard to argue any tight end has been better in his prime. And it seems like he’s just getting started.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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