Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. First up: Can the Patriots protect themselves at tight end by going after Jimmy Graham?
This could be one of the toughest spots for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio to come up with a free-agency plan. Everything hinges on Rob Gronkowski's desire to play football in 2018.
If the team believes Gronkowski will be back, the job of the Patriots front office is simplified. He's the No. 1. Martellus Bennett is gone and Dwayne Allen could end up as a cap casualty -their releases combined would save the Patriots more than $11 million on the salary cap - meaning the search would then be on for a No. 2. (The Patriots have Jacob Hollister and Will Tye under contract, though it remains to be seen if the team would ask either to be Gronkowski's primary backup.) Luke Willson of the Seahawks, Trey Burton of the Eagles and Ben Watson of the Ravens, a Patriots first-round pick in 2004, would all make some sense as Gronkowski sidekicks with some receiving skills. If it's a blocker the Patriots want, they could turn to Virgil Green of the Broncos of Anthony Fasano of the Dolphins. Or they could figure out a way to make things work with Allen or Bennett on cheaper deals.
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If Gronkowski can't be counted on for next season, then things get complicated. Obviously. Perhaps Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert would make some sense given he has the skill set to be a legitimate top option at the position. And he shouldn't break the bank. But the reason he won't break the bank -- his extensive injury history -- might be enough to keep the Patriots away. Austin Seferian-Jenkins certainly gave the Patriots some issues in Week 6 of last season -- he would've had two scores had it not been ruled he fumbled out of the end zone -- but he's been consistently inconsistent in his first four seasons. If Eric Ebron of the Lions or Vance McDonald of the Steelers aren't released for salary-cap purposes, then there's really only one other tight end with a history of NFL production who's available and resembles anything close to a No. 1 . . . Graham.
In 16 games last season, Graham caught 57 passes on 92 targets for 520 yards and 10 scores. Though the double-digit touchdown number is a reminder of what Graham was able to do in his prime, his yards per catch (9.1) were a career-low, and his receiving yardage total was the lowest he's accumulated since his rookie season. Headed into his ninth season, Spotrac.com projects the 31-year-old could earn a deal that pays him $6.7 million annually. That would put him right in the range of what Bennett and Delanie Walker received on their latest deals, which they signed when they were 30 and 31, respectively.
Is that a number the Patriots would be willing to offer up to Graham if Gronkowski was out of the picture? Understanding that's one of the largest "ifs" the Patriots have faced in franchise history, it still doesn't feel like an investment they would make. Graham, though he showed improvement as a blocker during his time in Seattle, falls under the category of "big receiver" rather than "dual-threat tight end." Even if the Graham-for-Gronkowski swap was made, the Patriots offense would be significantly altered because their skill sets are so disparate.
So, what's left in terms of options? The Patriots could start over at the position through the draft. (Given Gronkowski's recent waffling, they could see the value in spending a top pick for insurance at that spot whether Gronkowski's back or not.) They could also adjust their offense based on the personnel already on the roster. The Patriots were as effective in two-back and two-tight end sets as any team in football last season, but perhaps they'd lean more heavily on their 11-personnel groups if Gronkowski isn't available. They could even go with more four-wide sets to take advantage of their depth at receiver. Frequently going four-wide feels like a long shot, but if Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, pending free agent Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell, Phillip Dorsett and Kenny Britt (who is reportedly expected to do "big things...") are back and healthy, perhaps it's an option?
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The bottom line is that if Gronkowski is out, the offense is going to look very different regardless of who comes in to take his place. Starting fresh in the draft with a player whose style Belichick likes - someone who can impact both the running and passing games - is probably the wisest move. A hefty investment in a big receiver like Graham, one who's closer to the end of his career than the beginning, doesn't seem like it would be worth the cost.