Coordinator to competitor: Bill O'Brien looks back fondly on Rob Gronkowski's 'unbelievable' career

Coordinator to competitor: Bill O'Brien looks back fondly on Rob Gronkowski's 'unbelievable' career

PHOENIX -- Bill O'Brien remembered it clearly. How could he forget?

The Patriots welcomed University of Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski to their facilities at Gillette Stadium for a visit ahead of the 2010 draft. The 20-year-old showed up wearing a button-down shirt and tie, and he had a blazer hanging from his 6-foot-6 frame. 

Standard interview attire, maybe. But Gronkowski wasn't about to endure a standard interview. The Patriots wanted to see how heavy his hands were. They wanted to see the width of his shoulders. They wanted to see what he'd absorb when it came to blocking techniques.

"By the time we were done, buttons were undone, his hair was all over the place," O'Brien said. "He goes, 'I've never done anything like that before!' "

The Texans head coach has a unique perspective on Gronkowski's career, which he shared from the league's annual meeting at the Arizona Biltmore about 24 hours after Gronkowski announced his retirement on Instagram. 

O'Brien was the Patriots quarterbacks coach during Gronkowski's rookie year and then his offensive coordinator when Gronkowski set the single-season record for touchdowns by a tight end (18) in 2011. For the last five years O'Brien has competed against Gronkowski, working to cook up schemes to slow down one of the focal points of what is annually one of the best offenses in the AFC.

When I caught up with O'Brien on Monday, he didn't react to the news of Gronkowski's retirement quite like Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. ("Awesome!") Instead, while happy for Gronkowski, O'Brien expressed some dismay that this totally unique talent -- one that went off for seven catches, 123 yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win over O'Brien's Texans -- won't be playing any longer.

"I've had him, [DeAndre] Hopkins and [Randy] Moss," O'Brien said. "I'd put his hands right up there with any of them. He could bend over, catch it off the ground. His hands were tremendous."

O'Brien added: "I know he's been banged up. But the game is going to miss him."


Bill Belichick was enamored with Gronkowski and really wanted to draft him nine years ago, O'Brien recalled. Soon thereafter, Gronkowski made it very clear that he would leave his imprint on the league, dominating in rookie minicamp alongside fellow first-year tight end Aaron Hernandez. With that pair in the fold, it was O'Brien who coordinated the two-tight end sets that became en vogue in Gronkowski's record-breaking second year.

"People maybe that didn't know him thought he was a big partier," O'Brien said. "But this guy put nothing but good food into his body. He drank a gallon of water a day. He was banged up, I know, but he took really good care of his body . . . 

"And he was tough. He brought a lot of toughness to our team. The guy was a tough [dude]."

It wasn't just the coaching staff that saw Gronkowski's greatness early. Tom Brady, O'Brien said, saw it during Gronkowski's first year. The veteran quarterback was hard on his new tight end because he knew what he had in Gronkowski was rare.

"Brady worked this guy to the bone," O'Brien said. "I'm talking 20 routes every day after practice . . . [Brady] knew he was going to be unbelievable."

O'Brien made sure to point out that for all the game-breaking talent Gronkowski possessed, the energy he brought to the locker room -- shoulder-bumping teammates randomly throughout the day, laughing constantly -- was part of what made him special. He did his work, but he was always himself, and his demeanor rubbed off on others inside a building that has a reputation for being a stressful place to work.

The game might miss Gronkowski, as O'Brien indicated. The Patriots certainly will.

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Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Six Patriots draft questions that need answering

Big draft? Big draft.

The Patriots have significant restocking to do this year. They lost their left tackle, their best front-seven player and a Hall of Fame tight end since the Super Bowl ended. They have a very experienced secondary that’s on the edge of aging. There’s no Tom Brady successor in the house. Their wide receiver group is Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and a whole lot of hope for the recovery of Demaryius Thomas and stability of Josh Gordon. We’ll learn some stuff beginning Thursday. Here are six questions that will start getting answered then.


I bet I can convince you the Patriots should trade up in this draft. Watch. They drafted 12 players last year and they have another 12 picks this year. They don’t have room on the roster for a couple dozen new players, nor do they have a fleet of experienced coaches to easily indoctrinate them. Moving up a little makes a difference.

First-round picks inside the top 25 yielded Isaiah Wynn (23), Chandler Jones (21), Dont'a Hightower (25) and Nate Solder (17) in the past 10 drafts. Outside, the Patriots have gotten Devin McCourty (27), Dominique Easley (29), Malcom Brown (32) and Sony Michel (31). The higher you go, the better the player.

But with the talent dropoff perceived to be after the first dozen players, the difference between the 15th pick and the 50th pick is said to be negligible. But it’s in the Patriots' nature to drop down and add picks. It gives them options and room to move. If there’s no pick made by the Patriots on Thursday, expect a wild night of trades on Friday.

Unless the wild trade comes on Thursday and the Patriots bring in Josh Rosen.


If the Patriots do deal out of the first round, their preference almost certainly would be trading into next year. If they can get a team to send them a first-rounder for next April when the quarterback crop is expected to be much better with Tua Tagovailoa (Bama), Justin Herbert (Oregon) and Jake Fromm (Georgia), the Patriots would then have multiple first-rounders.

That kind of caché will give them more latitude when it’s time to replace the ageless wonder.


The Patriots have used their first selection on defense in 10 of the past 12 drafts. The only time they didn’t go defense, they selected offensive tackles (Nate Solder, 2011; Isaiah Wynn, 2018). Tight end is an obvious need spot but the best two, Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, are expected to be gone by 32 and Alabama’s Irv Smith is regarded as a borderline first-rounder.

The top wideouts - A.J. Brown, Marquise Brown, Parris Campbell, D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel - are varied talents and all fall in the 20 to 40 range. I truly wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots went wideout in the first round and if Campbell is the pick.



Patrick Chung is 31 and this will be his 11th season. To do what he’s done – especially in the last five seasons – at the level he’s done it for as long as he’s done it is remarkable. He’s one of the most underrated players of the Patriots’ great run.

And it’s time to get serious about finding another player like him. As a guy who could cover deep, play in the box, play in the slot and contribute on special teams, Chung was actually a little ahead of his time. Now, every team needs a safety/linebacker/corner like him and teams are trying to get them.

Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abraham and Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are two players who can bring Chung-like sensibilities. They are top-40 players.


The Patriots made it through 2018 with Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling as Tom Brady’s backups. That’s got to be one of the shakiest setups in the league. Meanwhile, two years earlier, the Patriots had arguably the best setup in the league with Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett.

Will the Patriots go into this draft looking for a Brady successor or a caddy for Hoyer? Unless Etling had an absolutely remarkable season of practices and an incredible offseason, the player we saw come out of LSU last April and play during training camp didn’t scream NFL potential. Expect the Patriots to draft somebody at the position in the first three rounds — and if they make a move up to go and get someone, that’s an indicator they aren’t just bringing in an arm because they should but are hoping he can be the No. 2 and maybe develop into an eventual starter. Say, Ryan Finley from N.C. State.


The Patriots have drafted wide receivers from such far-flung programs as Marshall (Aaron Dobson, 2nd round, 2013), TCU (Josh Boyce, 4th round, 2013), Ohio University (Taylor Price, 3rd round, 2009) and North Carolina (Brandon Tate, 3rd round, 2008).

Yes, Malcolm Mitchell was from Georgia and Chad Jackson was a second-rounder from Florida in 2006, but the Patriots are more prone to try and unearth a find at a mid-major than to take a wide receiver from a high-profile program. And how often is that going to work out?

Julian Edelman? OK, fine. Whatever.

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NC State QB: Learning from Tom Brady, Patriots would be 'dream come true'

NC State QB: Learning from Tom Brady, Patriots would be 'dream come true'

There's no better quarterback to learn from than New England Patriots star Tom Brady, and one lucky QB in the 2019 NFL Draft could be fortunate enough to get that opportunity.

The Patriots enter the 2019 NFL Draft with several different positional needs, most notably tight end, offensive and defensive lines, as well as wide receiver. Another area that could be addressed is quarterback. The Patriots still don't have a real successor to Brady, who despite coming off his sixth Super Bowl victory is still 41 years old. 

One potential fit for the Patriots in the middle rounds is North Carolina State quarterback Ryan Finley, who was recently asked on NFL Network what it would be like to be drafted by New England. It's safe to say he'd be pretty happy with that outcome.

"Obviously, that would be a dream come true for me, going and just being able to learn from Tom Brady and just being able to have somebody of that caliber mentor you," Finley said. "I think that's what all of us quarterbacks are looking for. Just a great situation to learn and continue to grow as players. Obviously, learning from Tom and a number of other guys in the league would be really a blessing."

Finley completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 3,928 yards with 25 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a senior for the Wolfpack last season. projects Finley as a third-round pick. The Patriots have three third-round selections (Nos. 73, 97 and 101), so it wouldn't hurt to take a chance on a quarterback at that stage of the draft.

The Patriots reportedly held visits with a few other quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class, including West Virginia's Will Grier and Duke's Daniel Jones.

Click here for our final 2019 Patriots mock draft roundup>>>

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