FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Before he was No. 87, spiking footballs with force after touchdowns while emerging as the NFL’s pre-eminent force at tight end, Rob Gronkowski was No. 11.
Ah, yes, the 2010 NFL combine.
Six years ago at this time, as head coaches and general managers from all teams flocked to Indianapolis for this annual scouting rite of NFL winter, it was a critical time for the young prospect wearing No. 11 and the New England Patriots' level of interest in him.
Gronkowski was entering the NFL draft after his junior season at Arizona, a year in which he didn’t play a game because of a herniated disk and nerve damage in his back that required surgery. So all that NFL teams had to evaluate was a true freshman season in 2007, during which Gronkowski totaled 28 catches for 525 yards and six touchdowns, and a 2008 sophomore campaign that began with him missing the first three games (mono, strep throat) before finishing with 47 catches for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Patriots arrived at the combine hoping to learn more about Gronkowski, knowing that he came highly recommended by University of Arizona coach Mike Stoops and his staff.
Bill Belichick would later relay that the Patriots liked the attitude with which Gronkowski played, as well as his aggressiveness. Belichick also said his playmaking ability was obvious.
The key thing, however, was Gronkowski’s health, and the combine – where medical evaluations are often cited by NFL executives as the most valuable information ascertained by teams -- helped move the sides closer to an eventual marriage.
“When our doctors said he was OK, that was the point [we became comfortable],” Belichick said of Gronkowski in the spring of 2010. “We go on their evaluations and recommendations. We have a deal: I don’t diagnose with the players, and they don’t call plays.”
Not every team felt the same way. Former Indianapolis Colts president and general manager Bill Polian, for example, later said on Sirius XM NFL Radio that he didn’t believe Gronkowski was on his team’s draft board.
After the combine, the Patriots then sent a contingent to work out Gronkowski privately before the draft. As Belichick later relayed, it was at that point they felt even more confident that Gronkowski’s rehabilitation was in a good place, as his workout reflected a player whose skills hadn’t declined since his last season in 2008. Belichick noted that Gronkowski played the conventional tight end position but was also used to split out wide -- both on the strong and weak side of the formation.
“He’s a big guy and has a big frame, a hard matchup for a defensive back,” Belichick said at the time. “He just boxes them out, and they stuck it in there to him, and he’s just a hard guy to cover.”
At that point, if the draft unfolded the way the Patriots hoped it would, it was just a matter of time before No. 11 became No. 87.
To ensure it happened, the Patriots leapfrogged the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the draft to select Gronkowski No. 42 overall. The Patriots thought the Ravens, who were looking for a future replacement for Todd Heap, might have been hot on Gronkowski at pick 43.
But reflecting how Gronkowski was viewed differently by teams, the Ravens reportedly had taken him off their board because of medical concerns.