Ben Watson: Rob Gronkowski's retirement didn't factor into Patriots return

Ben Watson: Rob Gronkowski's retirement didn't factor into Patriots return

FOXBORO -- Benjamin Watson is back with the New England Patriots, and he arrived at a good time.

The Patriots are in a transition period at tight end after the offseason departures of Rob Gronkowski (retirement) and Dwayne Allen (released). They didn't select a tight end in the 2019 NFL Draft and haven't added a top-tier tight end via trade or free agency. Watson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins are New England's two most notable tight end additions since Gronkowski retired. 

Watson was among the tight ends at Thursday's OTA session at Gillette Stadium, and he was asked if Gronkowski's retirement influenced his decision to return to the Patriots.

"No, I was retired. I considered myself retired," Watson said. "I was processing as such and moving forward as such until late in April. That wasn’t a factor for me."

Watson said he started looking at different opportunities after retiring, including roles in player development and broadcasting, but he ultimately chose to put himself back on the market, and there were only two teams he gave real consideration to signing with.

“I was retired. I was done for a few months," Watson said. "Around I would say, late April, early May I started thinking about it and made myself available. There were really only two places I would consider playing, coming back here and playing in New Orleans. Once I made myself available I got a call, and I thought it would be an interesting opportunity.”

Watson spent the first six seasons of his career in New England after the Patriots drafted him at the end of the first round in 2004. His quarterback then was Tom Brady, and nothing has changed in that regard despite nearly 10 years passing since Watson left for the Cleveland Browns. Brady was not present at OTAs on Thursday, and Watson had absolutely no issue with that. 

"Look, what is it? Is it May? Yeah, it's May. We have plenty of time. This is just the beginning," Watson said. "There are going to be guys who are in and out. I'll be in and out. We've got family things. We train different places in the offseason. It's still very early. Everybody is trying to compete and compile their best team right now, 32 cities around the league. We have plenty of time here, but while we're here, we're definitely trying to get better."

Watson and Brady will be back together in action when the Patriots hold mandatory minicamp June 4-6.

Observations from Thursday's Patriots OTA session>>>

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Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

Nate Ebner wants to stay with Patriots as free agency looms

The New England Patriots have some key players set to enter free agency this offseason. Obviously, Tom Brady will take most of the attention, but the team has some important special teams players set to hit the open market as well.

Notably, Matthew Slater and Stephen Gostkowski will be available. And Nate Ebner will be as well.

Ebner, an eight-year pro who was drafted in the sixth round in 2012, has been a big-time special teams ace for the Patriots. In 2018, he ranked second in the league in special teams tackles with 15. He provided another eight last season and continued to be a key cog in that aspect of the game.

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Ahead of his free agency, Ebner opened up about wanting to stay with the Patriots as he looks to continue his NFL career.

“I mean, that would be the best thing, I think, when you consider my entire career has been here,” Ebner said per NESN's Zack Cox. “I understand how things go. I’ve got some true friendships here.

“I understand how things work — that would be great. But right now, it’s out of my hands, so we’ll see what happens and I’ll just take it as it goes. We’ll see.”

It wouldn't be surprising to see Ebner return to the Patriots. After all, Bill Belichick places a lot of value on special teams performance. Given that Ebner should come relatively cheap -- he signed a two-year, $5 million deal last time he was set to hit free agency -- it's well within the realm of possibility that the team could find a way to keep him.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and if the Patriots use up most of their cap space signing Brady and some offensive weapons to surround him, Ebner might not fit. But if Ebner's first choice is remaining in New England, it seems likely that the team will at least entertain the idea of bringing him back.

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

NFL owners are pushing for a big change that would be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The league reportedly will propose expanding the postseason to add a seventh playoff team in each conference.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter detailed, the league would now have six games on Wild Card weekend under the new proposal, three in each conference, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will get a playoff bye.

Also in the proposal is a 17-game regular season and a shortened preseason to three games. The changes would be implemented for the 2020 season if the new CBA is ratified by the owners and NFL Players Association.

If adopted, this is certainly a massive change and one that could have a big impact on the New England Patriots. 

The Patriots have mastered the art of qualifying for a bye in their two-decade-long dynasty. In fact, this past postseason was the first time New England didn't have a first-round bye since the 2009-10 postseason. The Patriots finished as the No. 3 seed and promptly lost to the Tennessee Titans at home, marking their earliest playoff exit since the '10 postseason.

Thus, the elimination of one of the byes could have a significant impact on the Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach before the 2000 season, the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl nine times. In each of those seasons, they've had a first-round bye.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have been the AFC's No. 2 seed on six occasions. They advanced to the Super Bowl and won three times in those six instances, and it's fair to wonder if they would've had a similar chance to advance had they needed to play another game, even if it was against a seventh-seeded team.

In the past seven Super Bowls overall, no team has made it to the big game without a first-round bye. The 2013 Ravens were the last team to play Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl.

So, needless to say, the No. 1 seed in each conference will now have a major advantage, and the Patriots are going to have to fight harder to earn it. They're certainly capable of earning the No. 1 seed. They were the No. 1 as recently as the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 52.

The road to the Super Bowl will become a little more difficult without that No. 1 seed if the new format is approved. Only once in the Patriots history have they reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team and that was 35 years ago in the 1985 season. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage will carry even more importance, but they'll have to outduel some powerful up-and-coming AFC teams if they want to earn it in the near future.

For a team with the NFL's toughest projected strength of schedule in 2020, that will be no easy task.