With Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins in their thirties, Aaron Hernandez likely in jail for the rest of his life, Rob Gronkowski is the best franchise player option for the New England Patriots despite concerning injury issues. His counterpart, Jairus Byrd, remains in relative anonymity with the Buffalo Bills despite Pro Bowl seasons in 2009 and 2012 at safety.

Gronkowski was instantly productive as a rookie in 2010, catching 42 balls for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns, but his 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011 made the football community reimagine what is possible at the tight end position. Gronkowski led the NFL in receiving touchdowns that season while finishing sixth in receiving yards and fifth in total receptions.

Bill Belichick has always loved the possibilities of the tight end position due to the matchup issues and versatility of players as big and athletic as Gronkowski. Not only is Gronkowski the most dynamic receiving tight end, but he is also an excellent blocker in run situations. He is basically the LeBron James version of Mark Bavaro and impacts the Patriots’ offense more than any other player not named Brady.

The issue with Gronkowski, who is still just 24 years old, is his injury history that dates back to college when he had back surgery. Gronkowski had another back operation this past offseason and he has had several operations on his forearm. The back is the more serious issue and could eventually shorten the duration of his prime, while his broken forearm dates back to Week 11 of the 2012 season and caused him to be limited in the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLVI loss to the New York Giants.

Assuming Gronkowski can return to full health, he will reclaim his spot as one of the ten most valuable players in the NFL.

Byrd was the 42nd overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft out of Oregon and has already played in as many Pro Bowls as his father Gill Byrd. Like his father, Byrd was drafted as a cornerback but moved to free safety and led the NFL in interception as a rookie with nine.

Byrd doesn’t have the size that some of his peers do in terms of laying hits up near the line of scrimmage, but his ball skills against the pass are unparalleled.

Byrd finished the 2012 season with five interceptions, four forced fumbles, 76 total tackles and wasn’t beat over the top for a touchdown on a single play.

The Bills have yet to play in the playoffs during Byrd’s tenure as they continue to be mired in mediocrity, but pass defense is an area they have been competitive in large part due to his value in the secondary. Byrd will turn 27 in October figures to have another five seasons of production on par with what we have seen over his four.

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