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Rob Gronkowski's unique physique puts him at increased risk for injury

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Injury concerns in New England? (3:14)

ESPN's Michele Steele and Mike Reiss discuss the Patriots' injury situation, Rob Gronkowski prepping for the Broncos' low hits and owner Robert Kraft's behind-the-scenes presence with the team. (3:14)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As a two-time Pro Bowl tight end and Super Bowl champion for the New York Giants from 1985 to 1990, Mark Bavaro's eye is naturally drawn to the position when he watches games. The combination of Rob Gronkowski's athletic skills, size, and how defenders usually attempt to tackle him low produce a trifecta that is unlike anything Bavaro has seen before.

It can lead to explosive offensive results. And it can also leave the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski more vulnerable to injuries than most.

"There's nobody like him, really just because of that size. You don't see tight ends that big that can move like him," said Bavaro, an all-time Bill Belichick favorite. "So the only way to tackle him is to go low. It's not cheap. It's not dirty. It's just a matter of survival.

"What else are they going to do? You can't get him down by hitting high. And they can also really hurt themselves that way, so there is no other option but to go low -- for the ankles, for the knees. Then once in a while when they hit the knees, you get some injuries."

That's precisely what happened the last time the New England Patriots visited the Denver Broncos on Nov. 29, when safety Darian Stewart's shoulder pad hit Gronkowski across the knees late in the fourth quarter, causing Gronkowski's leg to whip around. Gronkowski left the game on a cart, was diagnosed with a right knee bone bruise and sprain and missed the team's next game. His injury has been managed carefully since.

That play is a textbook example of why Gronkowski, from Bavaro's view, is at an increased risk of injury -- parts of his body can extend in one direction, while other parts don't.

"Usually players are a little more compact. He isn't, so when he gets hit, the parts that get hit move and the parts that don't get hit don't move. You have a blow -- the knee goes one way, the rest of the body stays in place," said Bavaro, who was considered a bigger tight end in his playing days at 6-4 and 245 pounds.

"It reminds me of my buddy Phil McConkey (who played receiver for the Giants from 1984 to 1988). He took some of the biggest hits I'd ever seen, but he was so compact [5-10, 170 pounds], he never got hurt. Part of that was that when he got hit, it was his whole body."

How defenders attempt to tackle Gronkowski has been a hot-button topic leading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Broncos.

Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sparked the discussion during a Tuesday appearance on SportsCenter, when he said of Gronkowski, "You gotta hit him low, man -- hit him in his knees. That's the best chance you have of hitting him. You gotta take his legs out or hold on and wait for everybody; wait for the gang to come on and gang-tackle him."

Gronkowski responded on Twitter in playful fashion, saying he was trying to make people laugh. He also explained Thursday that he has no issues with the approach of Harris and Denver's other defensive backs.

"It's just part of the game. They're not doing anything illegal out there," he said. "I've just got to be aware of it, maybe step up my game a little bit; maybe throw a juke.

"It’s part of the game. I’ve been seeing it all year. I’ve been seeing it my whole career. I’ve just got to get low, get my shoulder down, protect the ball, just protect myself in any way when I see a lot of guys coming or when I know there’s not a chance to make that many yards, possibly just go down on that play, but if you can make a play then try and make a play, get more yards, but at the same time I’ve just got to watch it, get your pads down. It’s football, so you’ve got to be ready for contact at all times.

"My mentality, my game speed, I just like to go full speed at all times. Whatever it is, it is. It’s football. Everyone wants to see collisions, so I’m ready to give some."

Gronkowski's ability to do so is another reason why defenders often target him low. Since entering the league as a second-round draft choice in 2010, Gronkowski has totaled 1,198 yards after initial contact, which is the most of any player in the NFL, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research.

How dominant is that total? Consider that over that span, it's 524 yards more than the next tight end, Seattle's Jimmy Graham.

In the 2015 regular season, Gronkowski averaged 4.0 receiving yards after initial contact, which marks the first time a player has done so in the seven seasons ESPN Stats & Information has tracked the metric.

"It's definitely unique," said Massachusetts native Bavaro, 52, who now works for Academy Securities, a disabled-veterans owned and operated broker-dealer. "There have been tight ends his size, but they didn't catch, run and play like he did. There are always big tight ends, but I don't think there has ever been a guy like him who has the talent of say a Mike Ditka or Kellen Winslow in that physical frame."

Veteran New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who is coming off a career-best 74-catch season, said he'd always prefer a blow to the chest than one at the knees, even if he wasn't looking. But with the NFL's new rules focused on eliminating blows to the head and neck area, he has noticed that defenders are now keying on hitting players below the head/neck and subsequently below the waist.

Having entered the league in 2004 as a first-round draft choice, the 6-3, 255-pound Watson noted that low hits aren't an entirely new issue for tight ends; they have traditionally been bigger than the defensive backs who are often covering them.

"When you've got a guy like Gronk, who is even larger, stronger and faster than most players at the position, a defender's best option is to attempt to take his legs out," he said. "When they see him stiff-arm defenders when they tackle high, and sidestep them low, they come into the encounter trying not to miss him. They can be mentally defeated already because of what he's already done to other defenders. He's just too big, too strong and too fast."

To further illustrate Gronkowski's unique package, he has 20 receptions since 2010 that each featured at least 10 yards after contact. That's 10 more than the next-highest tight end over that span. In the same stretch of time, Gronkowski has 78 receptions that featured at least 10 yards after the catch, 22 more than any other tight end.

That's part of the reason why Bavaro understands the approach defenders are taking with low hits, which puts Gronkowski at an increased risk for injury.

"What else is the poor tackler going to do?" he asked. "That's how I also hurt my knee [posterior cruciate ligament, MCL]; somebody hit it dead-on. It happens. It wasn't dirty. Sometimes you just get caught on the wrong angles.

"I don't think there is anything you can do to prevent it. Sometimes you just have to get lucky."