The Patriots have a lot of big decisions to make this offseason. At a lot of different positions. Tight end, however, is one of the only spots where the players have choices to make as well.
While the indication at this point is that Rob Gronkowski will stay with the Patriots for the 2018 season, the decision has yet to be made. Publicly, anyway. Until Gronk confirms that he’s playing football this year, questions linger.
The Patriots don’t exactly have forever to sit and wait for Gronk to make up his mind; the league year starts at the same time as free agency at 4 p.m. on March 14. And his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, tells Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk that there’s no timetable for his decision. So this is definitely a tricky offseason for the Pats at tight end.
But regardless of whether Gronkowski is in the fold, the Patriots need to figure out their plan A, B, and C for tight end in 2018. Even if Gronk stays, which of course would be great for everyone, the team has to decide on the disappointing Dwayne Allen and the injured Martellus Bennett.
And if the most extreme scenario happens – that is, all three are gone – then the question is how the Pats would plan to reset. They obviously wouldn’t go into the season with just Jacob Hollister. And while they could draft a tight end as well, that may not encompass the entire offseason at that position. So let’s have a look at this year’s possibilities for free agency.
In actuality, cutting Allen and/or Bennett would be easy decisions for the Patriots because they would end up with literally zero dead cap money. Otherwise, Allen would be due $5 million in salary and bonuses for the next two seasons. And considering how little he contributed in 2017 – he made just 10 catches in 2017 and wasn’t the most reliable blocker, either – he’d at least have to take a pay cut in order to stay.
As for Bennett, he’s reportedly interested in continuing to play football for the Patriots instead of retiring, which he was planning on doing after the 2017 season. He had to be placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury after just two games back in New England following a waiver claim.
But ultimately, the Patriots can’t necessarily trust Bennett to be their top tight end in 2018 if it came to that. They’d save over $11 million against the cap if they cut both him and Allen. And they could even use some of that space to give Gronk a much-deserved pay-bump, which may be necessary anyway.
Gronkowski is one of the most dynamic offensive forces to ever play the game of football. You could argue he’s already destined for a Hall of Fame bust in Canton. Clearly, the Patriots can’t just replace him with another player and have the same result. Like they’ve done on several occasions where he’s injured, they’d have to re-tool their offense.
There’s good reason to be confident that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Josh McDaniels can figure that out in the end. They did score 34 points and win Super Bowl LI without Gronkowski, after all. But losing a player like him is one of the biggest blows an offense can take, which is why the Patriots shouldn’t (and won’t) try a plug-and-play strategy if they have to plan on life without him.
However, there will be some interesting names out there when free agency begins.
On The Market…
Jimmy Graham is going to be the most physically skilled tight end on the free-agent market, and could quite easily become the highest-paid in the league at his position (if the Patriots don’t give Gronk that title). With the Patriots, he’d certainly have a chance to be a dynamic matchup advantage and big red zone target for Brady.
But he’s not even close to the blocker than Gronkowski is, and even in the passing game he doesn’t quite measure up. No one does. But Graham would be the closest thing to Gronk as a tight end for Tom Brady to throw to.
The extreme likelihood is that the Patriots stay far away from Graham when free agency kicks off. If they prioritize adding a dangerous pass-catcher at the position, perhaps they take a look at the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert. He really broke out in 2015 with 74 catches for 615 yards and 13 (!) touchdowns. But he’s missed 22 games in the past two years due to injuries and this year is coming off the third back surgery of his career (sound familiar?). Maybe the Patriots consider him as a free agent, since he’s already been cleared for OTAs and his deal would probably be an affordable one.
But other than Graham and Eifert, no other names on the market will necessarily excite you. Perhaps the Patriots take a flyer on a veteran pass-catching tight end, or someone with upside who could be an option in the passing game. Surely you’re familiar with the Eagles’ Trey Burton, even though his biggest play in the Super Bowl was actually a pass. But while the expectation is that he’s leaving Philadelphia for the best offer, he’ll be relatively pricey.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins has had off-field problems but he’s still just 25 years old with some untapped potential. On the other end of that spectrum, 37-year-old Antonio Gates is lurking. Maybe Ed Dickson could have himself a career year with Brady throwing him the ball, but he’s been linked to the Falcons.
What Should We Expect?
Nothing too big, outside of a new deal for Gronkowski. If No. 87 does indeed stick around, they’ll be fine at the position overall. But it would still behoove them to at least come up with a reliable blocker behind Gronkowski on the depth chart. The recently-cut Levine Toilolo could be an interesting pickup in that regard.
But just as you’d expect, the team’s plans for tight end all run through whatever Gronkowski decides to do. And unfortunately for them, his decision may not come before the start of the league year. It’s a potentially treacherous road ahead.
For now, Gronk is the only urgent priority at tight end. But considering the names out there, it would certainly make for an intriguing pool for the Patriots to dip into when the free agency period kicks off – especially if Gronk is gone.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.