There isn't another red zone target quite like him. With 13 touchdowns in 12 games, Rob Gronkowski has emerged as the premier tight end in the NFL.
He's scoring at an unprecedented rate for a tight end, smashing NFL and New England Patriots records in the process. Let's take a closer look at the numbers behind the Gronk phenomenon, and how he's been so effective.
Gronkowski's next touchdown reception will set the single-season record among tight ends. With two last Sunday, he tied the record of 13 held by Vernon Davis (2009) and Antonio Gates (2004). It appeared Gronkowski had a third touchdown catch against the Indianapolis Colts, but it was ruled running play.
But with four games to play, Gronkowski seems almost assured of finding his way into the end zone again. Only once has he gone four games without a touchdown.
That touchdown record is just one of many illustrations of Gronkowski's productivity.
He's already just the second tight end in NFL history with back-to-back seasons of 10 touchdowns, joining Gates. Gronkowski's 23 touchdown receptions match Gates' record for a tight end in the span of two seasons.
Of course, Gronkowski is only in his second season, a fact that makes his numbers even more eye-opening. Consider that the previous record for touchdown catches by a tight end in his first two seasons was 17 by Mike Ditka in 1961-62.
No need to limit his accomplishments to tight ends. Since the merger, Gronkowski's 23 receiving touchdowns are currently tied for the second-most through two seasons. Only Randy Moss had more, with 28. Gronkowski is also two away from tying "Bullet" Bob Hayes' total of 25 in his first two seasons in the AFL.
Though his touchdown numbers stand out, Gronkowski's hauling in passes at an impressive rate. Keith Jackson has the record for most receptions by a tight end in his first two seasons with 144. With 107 catches, Gronkowski likely won't challenge that. However, with 16 catches in the final four games, he would have the second-most, a distinction currently shared by Jeremy Shockey and Jason Witten.
Making Patriots History
Gronkowski has made a big impact on the Patriots' record book in two seasons. Already in 2011, he has passed Stanley Morgan for the most touchdowns by a Patriots player not named Randy Moss.
His 13 touchdowns through Week 13 are second only to the 16 Moss had at this point in 2007. Jim Colclough is the only other Patriots receiver in double digits at this point of the season.
Gronkowski joins Moss and Morgan as the only Patriots with multiple seasons with double-digit touchdown catches. In fact, with his next touchdown, Gronkowski will tie Don Calhoun for 19th most touchdowns in franchise history.
How does he do it?
Linebackers can't keep up with him, and Gronkowski is too big for most defensive backs. That helps explain his high level of production, but there's more.
He has proven nearly impossible to stop in the red zone, but that's in part due to the presence of other options. Gronkowski may be the touchdown king, but his 34 career red zone targets aren't even the most on the team since 2010. Welker has seen 39 red zone passes thrown his way in that span. Yet, those targets have resulted in 18 touchdowns for Gronkowski, compared to 12 for Welker.
Defending Gronkowski near the goal line? No need to worry much about the left side of the field. Of Gronkowski's 24 career touchdowns, 22 were either in the middle of the field or to the right. He has caught just two of the 27 touchdown passes Brady has thrown to his left since the beginning of last season.
Perhaps most stunning of all is what happens in the end zone. Brady has targeted Gronkowski 18 times in the end zone during his career. Of those 18, 16 have been completed for touchdowns. For comparison, Brandon Marshall has been targeted 29 times in the end zone since 2010. He has caught three of them.
That's certainly a testament to Gronkowski's sure hands and ability to create separation. Of course, Brady also plays a key role in that success. In addition to Gronkowski's record touchdown pace, Welker is on track for the second-most receptions ever in a season. Meanwhile, Brady is on pace to set an NFL record for passing yards (as are Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers).
As prolific as the Brady-Welker combination has been, there's clearly a special connection with Gronkowski.
If you look at only passes targeted to Gronkowski, Brady has a 139.1 NFL passer rating since the start of 2010. Only the Rodgers-Jordy Nelson combo (143.4) has a higher rating in that span.
With that level of production, the Brady-to-Gronkowski connection is just getting started.
Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.