He doesn't need a first name, or even half his last. He's known only by that syllable, more grunt than word. He is Gronk.

He is tight end.

In the past three seasons, the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski has come to define his position in the NFL — or at least its ideal. In 2011, he amassed 90 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns, and those numbers, combined with one of the league's most electric personalities, made Gronkowski an instant hit. He's more than that, though, more than the caricature; Gronkowski is at the center of a growing reality in the NFL.

To be a tight end, a player must be big, must be fast, must be strong, must be sure. They are offensive weapons in every sense of the word, and Sunday night, the newest of these new-age tight ends will face the most popular of the bunch.

In his breakout season with the Broncos, Julius Thomas has emerged as one of the team's biggest offensive weapons, which is why he will be sorely missed if he is unable to play at New England because of a strained knee. With 10 touchdown receptions, Thomas leads the team, and he is its biggest presence in the red zone. He is Denver's first truly effective tight end in years, and paired with Peyton Manning, he's as dangerous as ... Come to think of it, they're as dangerous as Gronkowski and Tom Brady.

Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man who minces words for a living, admitted that his tight end and the Broncos' tight end have certain dangerous similarities.

"He's dangerous in the red area, a tough, good blocker," Belichick said of Thomas. "Good vertical route runner, (will) go down and catch on run plays. He's a good weapon in that offense, and they have a lot of them."

But Thomas and Gronkowski are different than the average offensive weapon. Listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and 6-6, 265, respectively, they are the perfect balance between hulk and hurry, strong enough to make their block but fast enough to haul in touchdown passes and outrun defenders. Compared with 10, 15 years ago, NFL tight ends now are asked less to block and more to score. They're less linemen than receivers. They're targets, and the most imposing kind.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has 40 touchdown receptions in his 47-game NFL career.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has 40 touchdown receptions in his 47-game NFL career. (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images)

Broncos tight ends coach Clancy Barone said in the past decade, the products coming out of college at tight end have changed. It used to be that NFL teams went hunting for players like Gronkowski and Thomas, but couldn't find them; as the college game has evolved, though, it's shifted more toward the tight ends pro teams desired.

Even so, the work has only just begun when these players are drafted. The likes of Thomas, Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham must be molded to fit the prototype. Some are too thin, others too bulky, and finding the balance that makes a player the ideal tight end goes beyond the height and weight he's listed at on paper.

"A lot of it is how much can the guy genetically handle?" Barone said. "How much is his body meant to handle, as far as weight? I've had some guys that weighed 275 that were just fantastic athletes, and they could run like they weighed 235. I've had guys that have weighed 235, and they were so stiff they couldn't carry their own weight."

To determine that, Barone said, takes time. Even offseason training activities in the spring don't yield much of a conclusion. It isn't until training camp, he said, when players are suited up in full pads and playing actual football, that coaches can tell how their bodies need to transform.

Really, this comes down to genetics, of these bodies that are somehow designed to carry such size so quickly. For as much as Manning and Brady bring out the strengths in their receivers, so too has football begun to maximize the strengths of these monsters it's being given.

Look at them, at Gronkowski and Thomas. Watch them Sunday and wonder how players that size can run so well, can cut so precisely. Watch them knock a block and wonder how they're not caught by defenders twice as lithe as they. Genetics is one answer. Understanding how to optimize them is the other.

He is Gronk, and he is Orange Julius, and they are what tight ends have become. Opposing defenses, be afraid.

Joan Niesen: jniesen@denverpost.com or twitter.com/joanniesen