Rob Gronkowski retires: Who are the Buccaneers’ best options to replace him at tight end?

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Rob Gronkowski has retired — again — and while that never really rules out another return, the Buccaneers now will likely bring in another veteran tight end to add some depth.

The Bucs have a reliable veteran in Cameron Brate, who has 33 career touchdowns, but the rest of their tight ends have, collectively, one career catch (Codey McElroy in 2019). Tampa Bay drafted two tight ends (Washington’s Cade Otton in the fourth round and Minnesota’s Ko Kieft in the sixth) but could use a proven player who can quickly earn Tom Brady’s trust, especially with the departure of his all-time favorite touchdown target.

You won’t easily replace Gronkowski, and some of the best available options are older than he is at 33. Tampa Bay has $9.99 million in 2022 cap space, a small portion of which will cover its remaining draft picks, but the team can add a decent replacement without having to do any additional cap maneuvering. Here are five names to watch in the next month before the Bucs convene for training camp:

Kyle Rudolph

The longtime Vikings tight end, 32, might be the most logical match for the Bucs. From 2015 to 2019, he totaled 30 touchdown catches for Minnesota, but he has had just one in each of the last two seasons, playing for the Giants last year and finishing with 26 catches for 257 yards. At 6-6, 265 pounds, he has Gronkowski size and can block as well as catch, and that well-roundedness is probably the most important asset in a potential replacement.

Rudolph had been linked to the Packers in free agency but did not sign. Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 35 tight end last year, but that’s still higher than Brate (52nd). He signed a two-year, $12 million contract with New York last year but was released in March and would be available now for less than that.

Jared Cook

The Bucs would be the sixth team in eight seasons for Cook, 35, who has been a much better tight end in his 30s than he was in his 20s. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and 2019 with the Raiders and Saints, and he has 26 touchdown catches over the last four years. He has had at least 500 yards in each of the last five seasons, including a solid 564 on 48 catches with four touchdowns for the Chargers last year.

Cook had touchdowns for the Saints in both games against the Bucs in 2019 and five catches for 80 yards in the first 2020 game, though he’s probably best remembered for a costly fumble that sparked the Bucs’ comeback win in the playoffs that same season. PFF had him as the NFL’s No. 45 tight end last year, when he played on a one-year, $4.5 million contract with Los Angeles.

Eric Ebron

The former first-round pick is only 29, but he has dropped off from an outstanding 2018 season in which he caught 13 touchdown passes and made the Pro Bowl with the Colts. He spent the last two years with the Steelers and was limited to 12 catches for 84 yards and one touchdown in eight games last season, finishing the year on injured reserve due to a knee injury. He tweeted in February that he was fully recovered.

PFF had Ebron graded lower than Bucs tight end O.J. Howard last year, and he should be available for less than the two-year, $12 million deal he got from Pittsburgh in 2020.

Other unsigned veteran options

Jimmy Graham, 35, dropped off considerably with the Bears last year, catching just 14 passes for 167 yards. But he did have three touchdowns.

Blake Jarwin, 27, missed all but one game in 2020 with a knee injury, then played just eight games last year due to a hip injury from which he’s still recovering. He could be healthy for the start of the season, but the Bucs likely won’t want that uncertainty.

Jesse James, 28, barely played last year, totaling seven catches for 62 yards with the Bears, but he had a combined 58 catches and six touchdowns for the Steelers in 2018 and 2019.

One more name: Dalton Schultz

This is the swing-for-the-fences answer to losing Gronkowski.

Schultz, 25, has been prolific in the last two seasons with the Cowboys, making 78 catches for 808 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He got the franchise tag from Dallas, good for $10.9 million this season, but didn’t attend the final week of OTA workouts amid frustration with extension talks.

It would likely take a mid-round pick to pry Schultz away from Dallas — remember, they let receiver Amari Cooper go to the Browns for a fourth-rounder and a late-round pick swap. For the Bucs to make it work cap-wise, they’d have to sign Schultz to an extension to lower his cap number. Spotrac gave him a market value of four years, $50 million this spring, so it would be another major commitment for a cap-strapped Bucs front office.

Schultz was PFF’s No. 6 tight end last year, one spot ahead of Gronkowski. So if Tampa Bay values having a top-tier tight end and is set on going all-in this year, acquiring Schultz would represent a less-drastic dropoff than they’d have with the free-agent options.

(Photo of Kyle Rudolph: Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)