Patriots

When all's said and done, don't expect Brady or Belichick to leave

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When all's said and done, don't expect Brady or Belichick to leave

FOXBORO -- Every Friday, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi will take your Patriots questions on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or Friday Bag, as they call it.

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag. But for now, give the latest edition of the Bag a read.

PP: Anthony! No chance. As soon as Jimmy Garoppolo was dealt, that essentially made Tom Brady a Patriot for life. Anyone the Patriots draft -- whether it's this season, which I think it will be, or next -- will need some time to develop. The timeline should work out that Brady can essentially walk off into the sunset whenever the next guy is ready. So when you hear a breakup suggested due to the incidents detailed in ESPN's report on Friday, it's really, in my opinion, a suggestion that Bill Belichick could leave or retire. Robert Kraft obviously isn't going anywhere. And given the Garoppolo trade, Brady isn't either. The only caveat here: Brady could force the team's hand by refusing to retire once he "sucks" -- he's said before that's when he'll hang 'em up -- and make the Patriots choose between him and a younger quarterback who's better. If that happens, I could see him playing somewhere else. Seems unlikely, though.

PP: I don't think Belichick is gone after this season. And I don't think anyone really knows when Belichick is planning on retiring -- although Kraft indicated last year during Super Bowl week that he had an idea -- so it'd be hard for any assistant to plan based on Belichick's future plans. I don't think the next head coach of the Patriots is on the staff at the moment. I do think, if they could somehow make it work, that Bill O'Brien would be an interesting candidate. He's handled tough coaching jobs in the past, he has the demeanor to help him navigate life as Belichick's replacement, and I think he wouldn't mind being back in the area. 

MG: Lorne, he was ornery and borderline rude in his first interaction with us and then much more pleasant following the game, although there was that whole “put lotion on my back” thing and -- just prior -- some semi-nasty remarks to teammate Jonathan Bademosi regarding the media’s overall intentions. Overall, I’d say he came as advertised. He is very happy to be playing football and feeling like he is being given the opportunity to contribute. The guys look at him like he’s a rental. Get here, do a job and let the coaches/front office figure out if he has a future here beyond this season (seems highly unlikely).

MG: Eddie, he is definitely going to have to answer questions about the clown shirt, but I think the people that know him respect him. Plus, Belichick is a huge backer of his. That carries a lot of weight in this league when it comes to hirings and firings (ask John Harbaugh). I think the other thing to consider here is how well-versed Patricia is not just on the defensive side of the ball, but in a multitude of areas. Belichick loves to break in his newbies with a variety of tasks and Patricia was able to handle all of them. He’s getting a job if he wants it. 

MG: Carl, way too early to say what QBs might be a fit here but I suspect that’s fairly high up on the list of priorities this offseason -- finding that developmental signal caller who could maybe be Brady’s heir apparent in a couple of years. As for the other spots, I’d look long at hard at linebacker/edge rusher, maybe another stout defensive tackle, a tight end and certainly a tackle, maybe even one fairly high up depending on what happens with Nate Solder and free agency.

MG: Don, the Pats have had to go pretty far into the well this year because of injuries so I’m not sure anyone can be a breakout player at this point. But as for someone who is asked to do a fair amount and is just thought of as another guy, I’m going to peg Eric Lee. He’s going to get a fair amount of snaps and he’s shown up here and there with sacks and that interception versus Buffalo. Maybe he makes a splashy play somewhere in this postseason.

MG: One Tom E. Curran would say it’s him hands down. He does play like 40 hours a week. Phil Perry would argue that he would take Curran down on the low block, put him in the torture chamber and bleed him out slowly but surely. No one has the range I do. That’s a fact. I’m like a 5-foot-9 Steph Curry. I’m in the hot zone the second I cross over half court. I’m also scrappy. And a little mean (dirty). I guess it’s a toss-up but what I would say is that as a 3-on-3 team, we wouldn’t lose and none of the games would be close. 

MG: Barb, he still has some work to do. Nate is also dealing with some developing power alleys in the front but while that may suck for him, I think it enhances the overall impact of said mullet. Nate isn’t sure if he chose the mullet or the mullet chose him but I’m embracing it and he is too.

MG:TT! Trillium but only because I’ve had limited experience with Treehouse. And don’t sleep on Night Shift. Awake is delicious.

MG:Murph, Happy New Year to ya. 1) I’m going to say Van Noy but only because of the number of solid snaps he gives them. Mitchell could certainly help Tom Brady with his ability to run the comebacks/curls and his willingness to fight for the football, but who knows how he’ll hold up after missing the entire regular season. 2) Anything that puts him north of 50 million guaranteed would surprise me. Not that I don’t think he’ll eventually be worth it (I think he’s already there) but there’s still only the 7 starts on the resume. Osweiler got what? 36 million guaranteed with just about the same number of starts. Maybe a little more than that. If I was him, I’d be cool with the franchise tag, ball out and then got oodles and oodles of dollars the following year. 3) Biggest slob is Matt Cefali. Have you seen his shirts? I’m kidding. That has nothing to do with his cleanliness. Just bad taste. Tanguay’s desk is a bit of a cluster, and I think Curran showers only on the days he plays hoops.

PP: If the Patriots did move to activate Malcolm Mitchell, I think they'd make a corresponding move to the receiver group. To me, Kenny Britt would make the most sense as the player lopped off the roster. Otherwise, you're almost too deep at receiver. They'd be hurting themselves elsewhere on the 53 for a sixth receiver. Wouldn't make sense. The Patriots have time to determine if they want Mitchell back, and they've been watching him closely to see how he's progressing since returning to practice. Indications are he's responded to the workload well. Just hard to see exactly how ready he is when he's been out as long as he has, and when the staff is going off of walkthroughs and relatively light practice sessions. 

PP: Great question. Don't be surprised to see a funky field-goal block or another odd-looking onside kick. The Patriots are as forward-thinking as any other team when it comes to creativity on special teams. Remember they tried a misdirection punt return in the Super Bowl with Patrick Chung. And don't be shocked if something that was used this college bowl season pops up. The fake kneeldown the Patriots used at the very end of regulation in the Super Bowl with Dion Lewis last year was plucked from Western Kentucky's bowl game against Memphis a couple of months prior. The Patriots called it "Hilltopper" after the Western Kentucky mascot. They're watching everything. 

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

His did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8M and $9M the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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