News broke yesterday that Rob Gronkowski will undergo surgery today on a herniated disc in his back. This means he’ll miss at least two months, and likely will be out the rest of the season, regardless of whether or not the Patriots make a run in the playoffs. Obviously, Gronk’s injury has a massive negative effect on the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations. But I think that this injury has even greater long-term implications. Gronk may very well have played his last game in a Patriots jersey. Hear me out.
Gronk is an absolute freak—there’s no question about that. Coming out of the University of Arizona, Gronk had clear first-round talent but also an already burgeoning injury history. He missed 3 games his junior year with neck issues, before missing his entire junior year season with a serious back injury. In fact, including today’s surgery, Gronk has now had 3 major back surgeries. Add to the list an ACL surgery in 2013 and four forearm surgeries and you’ve got yourself as extensive a list of injuries as you could find.
So, what could happen. First, Gronk could retire. Yup, I said it. Patriots fans are holding their breath on this one, but an early retirement is absolutely not out of the question. In the past few years, a growing trend of early retirees from the NFL has taken place, with guys like Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson, BJ Raji and many others walking away from the game prematurely. In 2015, we saw Chris Borland, a promising young linebacker, walk away from the game after just one season at the age of 24. Granted, many of these retirements are due to concussion issues or the fear of CTE (concussion-induced trauma to the brain). Gronk has had different injuries, but that is not to say that he hasn’t covered up a concussion, or that his injuries are any less serious. In fact, Gronk has said before he’s more fearful of other injuries than concussions. Given this, and his strong family influences, I wouldn’t be all that shocked if Gronk calls it quits. However, Gronk is a competitor and I don’t see this as being the most likely option.
If Gronk decides not to retire, I would be shocked to see him come back to the Patriots next year under the same contract. Gronk salary this year is under $2.5 million which is stunning given other top TE’s are making significantly more. For example, Jimmy Graham is making $8.9 million this year, over 3 times the salary of Gronk. Yes, Gronk’s salary will increase to $4.3 million next year, but he still has one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league. As he is already slightly disgruntled at his contract status compared to other top TEs, and given how much he’s put his body on the line for the Patriots, I wouldn’t be surprised if he holds out for a larger contract, or one that is better structured to protect him from injuries. Given Bill Belichick’s known dislike for large contracts and injury-riddled players, I would expect contract negotiations to cause serious issues between the Patriots and the Rob Gronkowski.
The next scenario is for the Pats is to trade Gronk. If there is any time to trade the best TE in football, it is after this season. Sure, he’s coming off a major surgery, but like I said, Gronk’s contract is still very team friendly for 2017 and he is under team control through 2019. His contract is set to double in 2018, and if he suffers another serious injury in 2017, teams may not value him highly anymore. However, right now, for under $5 million next year, I am sure there are many teams that would be willing to take a risk on Rob Gronkowski. How could the Pats trade Gronk, you might ask? Well first, Patriots fans, separate yourself from your infatuation with #87 and face the facts. First, Belichick isn’t afraid to trade big-name players (does Jamie Collins ring a bell?). Despite how much of a game-changer Rob is when he’s on the field, his injuries are becoming a real issue. Not one, not two, but THREE back surgeries. Gronk may never be the same player again. He’s has now missed 21 career games in his 6 year NFL season, and he’ll likely miss the rest of this season. At the same time, the Patriots have remained dominant even without Gronk, going 15-6 without him, including 3-0 without him this year. They’ve got an above-average replacement in Martellus Bennett, and Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis, and James White have emerged as competent receivers for Tom Brady to go along with ever-consistent Julian Edelman. Tom’s won with a lot less than that. Do the Pats really need Rob Gronkowski?
Not only do they have an adequate receiving corps sans Gronk, they’ve also got a lot of impending free agents. I talked earlier about the possibility of Gronk holding out for more money, and if/when this happens, the Patriots will have to decide whether to sign Gronk to a big deal or let him go and sign other players. The Pats clear need right now is defense. The Patriots defense ranks 14th in the league in yards/game, 18th in pass yards/ game, and 13th in rush yards/game. They’re tied for 29th in the league with only 5 interceptions this year, and have recovered just 6 fumbles, which is tied for 15th in the league. Compared to their high powered offense, the Patriots defense is only mediocre. Next spring, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Chris Long, Alan Branch, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon all could hit free agency. That’s a lot of impact players that could be gone for the Patriots defense next year. It’s going to be near impossible to improve their defense next year if they are potentially losing a significant portion of their current defensive core. As we’ve recently seen with teams like the Broncos and Seahawks, an elite defense wins championships. Players like Eric Berry, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Lawrence Timmons all hit the free agent market next spring, and could become huge impact players defensively for the Patriots. The Pats money will be best spent focusing on that side of the ball this spring, and must avoid overpaying Rob Gronkowski.
How can the Patriots replace Rob Gronkowski? Short answer, they won’t. Gronk is a generational-type player, but even generational-type players can lose their value. However, if there was ever a chance to replace Gronk, this draft is it. 5 TEs are projected to go in the top 2 rounds, and 3 (OJ Howard, Jake Butt, and Bucky Hodges) present elite mismatches that draw comparisons to Gronk in different ways. Snagging one of those TEs with a top pick would be a real savvy move by Belichick.
Tom Brady is entering his year 40 season, and, believe it or not, time is running out for Tom to win another championship. Risking it with Gronk and failing to improve the defense is a surefire way that the Patriots could squander Tom Terrific’s final few years. By moving on from Gronk, the Patriots free up flexibility to holistically improve their team, while at the same time planning for the future by not tying up money in a player who may never be the same. By trading him this offseason, they could still salvage a decent return, and maybe receive some draft picks that they could spend on a new TE for the future. So Patriots fans, brace yourself for what could be the last of Gronk Nation, and hope that the Patriots make the right moves to send Tom out in style.
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