Rob Gronkowski and 5 Other NFL Players Whose Careers Could Be Over
The first wave of NFL free agency is over, but plenty of notable veterans remain unsigned.
Some of these familiar faces may opt to retire rather than return for another run.
While they could always change their minds—Tom Brady made waves for his decision to hang up his cleats before changing course after six weeks—some veterans might call it a career this offseason.
With that in mind, these memorable players may have played their last snaps.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan Fitzpatrick has had a unique NFL career.
The quarterback came into the league as an unheralded seventh-round pick (No. 250 overall) back in 2005, competing to be the St. Louis Rams' third-string option.
Fitzpatrick climbed the depth chart thanks to injuries ahead of him. In his regular-season debut, he took over for an injured Jamie Martin and led his side back from a 24-3 deficit to earn a 33-27 overtime victory over the Houston Texans.
It was the first of many epic moments that helped the Harvard product earn his Fitzmagic moniker.
Although he has a flair for the dramatic, Fitzpatrick hasn't made a playoff start in his time for nine different teams in 17 seasons.
He has cobbled together a 59-87-1 record as a starter, never spending more than two seasons with a club outside of a four-year run with the Buffalo Bills.
He was still effective in his last healthy season, guiding the Miami Dolphins to four wins in seven starts in 2020 before being benched for rookie Tua Tagovailoa.
Fitzpatrick saw sporadic action after the benching, most notably when he came off the pine to lead three consecutive fourth-quarter scoring drives to stun the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16, notching a W that kept the 'Phins in playoff contention.
That may go down as Fitzpatrick's last magical moment. He signed a one-year, $10 million deal to serve as Washington's starter in 2021 but went down in Week 1 with a season-ending hip injury.
Several teams are still seeking a quarterback, and the results of the draft could prompt a club to reach out to Fitzpatrick about playing in 2022.
ESPN's Jeremy Fowler noted the signal-caller will "probably stay ready" but hasn't indicated whether he'll retire.
Legendary broadcaster Jim Nantz told the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast he believes Fitzpatrick would be a natural fit in the booth, so it's possible the quarterback moves there soon.
OT Nate Solder
Nate Solder has spent the better part of a decade as one of the most consistent tackles in football.
While injuries have derailed his career in recent years, the offensive lineman made a name for himself as Tom Brady's blindside protector. He helped the New England Patriots win two Super Bowl titles as the club's starting left tackle between 2011 and 2017.
Solder, the No. 17 overall pick in 2011, hasn't earned a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod in his 10-year career. Despite this, he graded highly on PFF's scale during his Patriots tenure with only one full season—his rookie year in 2011—scoring below a 70.
The Colorado product's best work came in 2016 when he started 15 games and earned a career-high 85.8 PFF grade.
His stellar play in New England earned him a big payday from the New York Giants following the 2017 campaign. Solder inked a four-year, $62 million deal but never lived up to expectations during his time with Big Blue.
While he started every game for the organization in his first two seasons—and notched a quality 75.7 PFF grade in his first year—he posted a then-career-low 64.9 PFF score the following year before opting out of the 2020 season.
Solder returned to the fold last season and started all but one game. Despite being reliably available—an issue the team's offensive linemen struggled with in 2021—the 33-year-old seemed a shell of his former self, giving up six sacks and getting flagged for six penalties on 927 offensive snaps.
The performance netted him a 60.3 PFF grade, the lowest of his career. After his contract automatically voided last month, Solder's time with the Giants is at an end.
He left the door open for retirement last year, and it appears more likely he'll call it a career this time around following such a disappointing campaign.
WR T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. Hilton was one of the league's game-breaking wideouts at his best.
The speedster came onto the scene with little fanfare. The Colts selected the diminutive 5'10", 183-pound wideout out of FIU in the third round in 2012, an afterthought in a draft where they found their next franchise quarterback.
He joined a Colts squad in transition after an abysmal 2011 season. The selection of quarterback Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall in 2012 had fans optimistic for the future again.
While Luck lived up to the hype, Hilton was also instrumental in the team's ascent to a playoff contender between 2012 and 2018.
The receiver established an immediate rapport with Luck during their rookie year, racking up 50 catches for 861 yards and a team-high seven scores.
Hilton truly broke out in 2014, going over 1,000 yards for the second straight year, scoring seven touchdowns and earning the first of four consecutive Pro Bowl nods.
While his production has tapered off over the last few years, Hilton has still been an asset when healthy. During his age-32 season in 2021, the veteran caught 23 passes for 331 yards and three TDs.
Injuries limited him to 10 games, however, and he's a free agent with a difficult decision on returning for an 11th NFL season.
Hilton tweeted in March that he's missing Andrew Luck and Jack Doyle—two longtime teammates and good friends who have retired—and said, "Save me a seat at the table."
He also hinted in December that his return could be tied to Doyle's, stating, "I'll make my decision off his."
With the tight end's decision to hang 'em up, Hilton could well be the next Indianapolis stalwart to call it a career.
TE Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski helped redefine what is expected of an elite tight end in the NFL.
At 6'6", 265 pounds, the hulking Gronk looks the part. He used his elite size and athleticism to create mismatches with defenders in the passing game and go toe-to-toe with defenders as a blocker.
Gronkowski got off to a fast start upon landing with the New England Patriots as a second-round pick in 2010.
The Arizona product displayed a fantastic rapport with quarterback Tom Brady from the jump, snatching 10 touchdowns in his rookie year.
He followed that up with a record-setting 17-touchdown campaign in 2011. It marked the first time a tight end led the league in receiving scores and still stands as the positional record for most TDs in a season.
Although his latter years in New England were marred by injury, Gronkowski accumulated 521 catches for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdown catches during his nine seasons with the club.
After taking a year off in 2019, Gronk joined forces with Brady again as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He won a fourth ring with the club in 2020 and piled up 100 receptions for 1,425 yards and 13 scores over the past two years.
The 32-year-old's postseason heroics have become the stuff of legend. He's the only tight end to amass more than 1,000 yards receiving in the playoffs and has the record for most playoff touchdowns at the position with 15.
Gronk's blocking ability sets him apart. He's long been a willing and capable blocker, helping to keep Brady upright and doing the dirty work to win games.
After Brady said goodbye earlier in the offseason, it seemed likely Gronkowski would join his longtime friend in retirement. Brady relented and plans to give it another go in 2022, but the free-agent tight end has yet to decide on his return.
Gronkowski told TMZ Sports on Monday he won't sign a contract unless he feels ready to give his all again:
"Right now, I'm not ready to get back out on that field. I'm not ready to commit to the game of football right now. ... Even in your 30s, I mean, you just can't just slack it and just be 50 percent all-in, then you're going to get caught off with the game and it's going to just spit you right out. You've got to be fully dedicated. I'm not ready to do that yet, I'm not going to sign a contract if I'm not fully ready."
After leaving so much out on the field over these past 11 seasons, no one could fault Gronk for making the 2021 campaign his last.
TE Jimmy Graham
Rob Gronkowski may not be the only well-known tight end to retire this offseason. Jimmy Graham could make the same decision after 12 seasons in the NFL.
Graham joined Gronk in revolutionizing the position when they entered the league together as part of the 2010 draft class.
Although he played just one year of college football at Miami compared to four years of basketball, Graham's otherworldly athleticism and upside helped him get picked at No. 95 overall.
Despite limited usage in his rookie year, the tight end displayed instant chemistry with quarterback Drew Brees, catching 31 passes for 356 yards and five scores.
Those would mark the first of 85 total touchdown catches Graham has tallied over his lengthy career.
His production dipped after being traded to the Seattle Seahawks, but Graham still set team records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns at the tight end position during his three-year run in the Pacific Northwest.
Graham had a resurgent 2020 campaign with the Chicago Bears, catching eight touchdown passes, but fell in 2021 when he posted a career-low 14 receptions for 167 yards.
The tight end revealed he considered retiring following Chicago's postseason loss in 2020. Graham admitted he was hoping to win a ring before wrapping up his career but instead suffered through a disheartening 6-11 season in 2021.
Graham—now a free agent—could try to catch on with a contender at age 35 for one more run, but last season may have been his final one.
CB Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman was once the best cornerback in the NFL.
The Stanford product was a fifth-round pick in 2011 and started his career buried on the Seattle Seahawks depth chart, but he rose to prominence through attrition in the team's secondary.
Sherman started 10 games as a rookie and made 99 consecutive starts during his tenure with the club.
In seven years in Seattle, he secured 32 interceptions—returning two for touchdowns—and defended 99 passes. He made three All-Pro teams and four Pro Bowls, an amazing run that earned him a reputation as one of the league's rare lockdown corners.
Sherman remained a key part of a defensive-minded Seattle squad that made five consecutive trips to the divisional round or further between 2012 and 2016.
After being released in 2018, Sherman landed with the 49ers and continued to play at a high level. He scored a sterling 88.9 PFF grade—the second-best mark of his career—in 2019 when he helped take that team to a Super Bowl.
But Father Time remains undefeated. Sherman fell off hard the following season, and injuries limited him to five games. San Francisco released him last February, and he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early in the 2021 season.
Sherman had the worst performance of his career in Tampa, earning a concerning 53.3 PFF grade while allowing 11 receptions on 15 targets and only appearing in five games.
The 34-year-old is once again on the free-agent pile and could retire this offseason.
Even if he's interested in coming back for an 11th NFL season, teams may be leery of signing the once great but currently flawed corner.