His career is still quite young, but with the pace he’s on we could easily give Rob Gronkowski the title of best tight in the history of the NFL years from now.

Today he’ll have to settle for a different title: highest paid tight end in league history.

After vague reports percolated around the Internet starting late last night and throughout this morning, some confirmation has finally surfaced. Those reports made us quite confident that Gronk would be getting paid, but it was unclear if the new deal would be a restructuring of the last two years on his current four-year rookie contract, an extension, or a restructuring and an extension.

Follow all that? Good, because it’s over now. According to NFL Network’s Albert Breer and many, many others, Gronkowski did indeed become the highest-paid tight end in the history of the league today, agreeing to a six-year extension worth $54 million. Of that overall value, $8 million comes in the form of a signing bonus, while another $31 million is guaranteed. It’s a fitting reward for a player who’s led the tight end revolution, and last year set single-season records in receiving yards (1,327) and touchdowns (18) for the position.

The Patriots needed to pay him now to secure arguably the league’s best tight end (Jimmy Graham is the only other TE even making that an argument) and avoid the same headache they’re dealing with during Wes Welker’s unrest. Without an extension, there’s a strong possibility that Gronkowski would have opted to hold out next summer if he still played at an elite level during the 2012 season.

Incredibly, three of the top five tight ends from last season are still on their rookie contracts (Gronkowski, Graham, and Aaron Hernandez) and the other two are a little more in Gronk’s range salary-wise, even though he’s now blowing them out of the water on a per year basis.

Jason Witten signed a five-year contract worth $37 million last fall, and he’ll earn $3.6 million in 2012. Meanwhile, even at the age of 36 Tony Gonzalez will make $3.9 million next year. Since he has two more years left on his rookie deal, Gronkowski is now secured for the next eight years. Once the new money kicks in two years from now, Gronkowski will be averaging $9 million per season. His two rookie years bring the overall average down to $6.95 million over the eight years, but that’s still a lot of Zubaz pants.

Gronk’s current contract was set to expire at the end of the 2013 season, and since he slid into the second round in 2010 because of a back injury, he was set to get paid only $490,000 this year, and $575,000 next year.

Those figures are the equivalent of several pennies for a record-setting player whose yardage ranked him sixth among all pass catchers, ahead of speedsters like Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. So Gronkowski was quite eligible for a raise since he’s already playing far above his rookie contract value.

This may not sit well with Welker, but that’s the reality of his age, and his position. Although Welker is a unique receiver and he re-defined the role of a slot receiver, Gronkowski’s combination of size, strength, and speed at his position is nearly unmatched (again, Graham is the only comparison). Welker may play under the franchise tag next year if a long-term deal isn’t negotiated, and he’ll do it because he’s a 31-year-old wide receiver with maybe only a few prime years left. The Patriots just rolled their dice and lost substantially on another aging wideout, further adding to the need to prioritize Gronkowski over Welker, especially with Brandon Lloyd now on board.

Gronk is still unique, while Welker is slowly becoming expendable with age. That’s the Patriot way.