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Bucs plan to survive, if not thrive, without Rob Gronkowski

Free agent Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate will mentor young draft picks Cade Otton and Ko Kieft.
Kyle Rudolph, who played 48 percent of the snaps for the Giants last season, figures to inherit the bulk of Rob Gronkowski’s workload.
Kyle Rudolph, who played 48 percent of the snaps for the Giants last season, figures to inherit the bulk of Rob Gronkowski’s workload. [ ANDREW MILLS | nj.com ]
Published Jul. 25|Updated Jul. 25

TAMPA ― Whether retired or waiting to be rehired, Rob Gronkowski isn’t walking through the door of the Bucs’ tight ends room when the full squad reports to training camp this week. At least, we don’t think so.

Furthermore, the signing of former Giants and Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph to a one-year contract at least fills the need for another veteran at the position who can produce on both rushing and passing downs.

Nothing will end the wishful speculation that Gronkowski may reappear right before the start of the playoffs and reunite with Tom Brady to win another Super Bowl. Conditioning doesn’t even seem to be a concern.

“He could pretty much walk around and stay in shape,” Bucs tight ends coach John Van Dam said. “We all probably wish we could do that.”

But right now, the Bucs have to concern themselves with what kind of shape the tight end position is in.

Tampa Bay must replace more than 1,000 snaps at that position with the loss of Gronkowski and O.J. Howard, who signed as a free agent with the Bills.

Rudolph, 32, figures to inherit the bulk of Gronkowski’s workload. He played 48 percent of the snaps for the Giants last season. Smart, durable (he’s played at least 16 games in six of the past seven seasons) and versatile, he is the perfect Y (or in-line) tight end who can run block and catch.

“Can’t wait to get back to work!” Rudolph tweeted. “Year 12 is going to be one to remember and I can’t thank everyone @Buccaneers organization for giving me this opportunity.”

Will quarterback Tom Brady, left, find more ways to get tight end Cameron Brate the ball with Gronk gone?
Will quarterback Tom Brady, left, find more ways to get tight end Cameron Brate the ball with Gronk gone? [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]

But the Bucs must find a way to make up for Gronkowski’s 55 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns.

In addition to Rudolph, the Bucs seem prepared to hand a larger role to Cameron Brate. After that, it’s rookies Cade Otton, Ko Kieft, Codey McElroy and undrafted free agent J.J. Howland of Yale.

No Gronk?

At least not to start. Here’s how the Bucs’ tight end position should evolve:

Kyle Rudolph, 6-foot-6, 265 pounds: Smart, durable player who caught only 26 passes 257 yards and a touchdown with the Giants last year. He is a huge target but more of that classic H or in-line blocker. This is his third team in as many years. Feels like he may be keeping the seat warm for one of the rookie tight ends.

Cameron Brate, 6-5, 245: The most-tenured Bucs player in the room, Brate is 31 and predominately a pass catcher but does an adequate job run-blocking. He ranks third on the Bucs’ all-time career touchdown receiving list with 33. His targets will greatly increase, as will his touchdowns.

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“I can’t speak highly enough about him,” Van Dam said. “Whatever role we put Cam in, he rises to the occasion. He’s not thought of as an in-line blocker, but there were times last year in the past that we had to rely on him to do that and he’s excelled on it. He’s a great mentor as well.”

The Bucs are about to get their first good look at rookie tight end Cade Otton out of Washington.
The Bucs are about to get their first good look at rookie tight end Cade Otton out of Washington. [ TED S. WARREN | AP ]

Cade Otton, 6-5, 250: Otton missed the offseason and minicamps recovering from an ankle injury. Great in-line blocker who has good hands. He can be a do-it-all tight end. “We like his versatility,” Van Dam said. “Great kid. … We had some fantastic visits with him (at the combine) in Indianapolis as well as over Zoom, just getting to know him. He’s not only a guy that can help us this season, but a guy we can work with, I think a guy who can really help us add some youth to that room, which obviously we didn’t have a lot of.”

Ko Kieft, 6-5, 265: Kieft is a road-grader, paving the way for a strong running game. But the rookie from Minnesota needs to get on the JUGS machine. “Ko is exactly who you see. Everybody likes a guy like that on your football team,” Van Dam said. “His blocking is definitely his strength, as many of you have seen on his film. As you can see, as well, his versatility, but more off the ball and on the ball.”

Codey McElroy, 6-6, 265: Former college baseball and basketball player still is transitioning to the NFL and has only two career receptions. Was a practice squad player with the Rams and Cowboys. McElroy got a lot of reps in the offseason and has improved by leaps. Will fight to make the 53-man roster.

J. J. Howland, 6-6, 255: Former Yale star earned a spot on the 90-man roster during a tryout in rookie minicamp. Had 16 catches for 238 yards and 2 TDs last year for the Bulldogs.

It’s a deep group that lacks that 4-5-year veteran. Rudolph and Brate will do the heavy lifting early. If all else fails, Brady can beg his buddy to return.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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