Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

Graham could provide Gronk insurance for Pats

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. 

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, 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?

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.


Julian Edelman responds to Antonio Brown-to-Patriots rumor with company line

Julian Edelman responds to Antonio Brown-to-Patriots rumor with company line

Julian Edelman apparently took notes from Tom Brady's interview Thursday night.

The morning after Brady deflected a question about Antonio Brown's possible return to the New England Patriots, Edelman was asked about the same subject Friday morning on WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show."

Specifically: Is there any part of you that wants to see Brown back in a Patriots uniform this season?

"I don’t make personnel decisions," Edelman said, via "My focus is entirely on the Dallas Cowboys.”

“We’ve got a huge game this week, this is a team that is playing very well and is a team you don’t get to see. This is America’s team. Everyone grew up either loving or hating the Cowboys. So, that’s where my focus is at."

Edelman's answer is right in line with that of his quarterback, who has repeatedly said that personnel decisions aren't up to him when asked about Brown or any other player with reported ties to the Patriots.

Brown spent just over two weeks as Edelman's teammate earlier this season before New England released him in September. The free-agent wide receiver -- whom the NFL is investigating for multiple allegations of sexual assault -- drummed up speculation about a Patriots return with a recent "apology" to team owner Robert Kraft on social media.

NBC Sports Boston's Tom E. Curran is reporting the Patriots have no interest in bringing Brown back, though.

In any case, Edelman insists he's just keeping his head down -- to the point where he'll probably hear about any Patriots transaction just like the rest of us.

"I think that's the only way I find out," Edelman said when asked if he's ever learned about team news on social media. "We've got a department that handles that, and they do what's best for the team in their eyes, and we kind of just go out and play."

"There's been plenty of times when you look at the ticker and go, 'Oh, we signed that guy. Cool.' "

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Tom Brady addresses rumors of Antonio Brown possibly rejoining Patriots

Tom Brady addresses rumors of Antonio Brown possibly rejoining Patriots

The New England Patriots certainly could use some help offensively, and there's no doubt wide receiver Antonio Brown would provide a major boost.

Rumors continue to swirl about a possible reunion with Brown in New England after the seven-time Pro Bowler issued an apology via social media to Patriots owner Robert Kraft. And with the Patriots' offensive production being a serious concern at this point in the season, bringing the troubled wideout back could make sense if he's ruled eligible to play by the NFL.

But what does Tom Brady think about Brown potentially returning? He briefly shared his thoughts with Jim Gray of Westwood One on Thursday.

"I don't think those decisions honestly are up to me," Brady said. "They are not up to me when we cut players or sign players. I think the people in the personnel department decide those things. My job is to play quarterback and that is what I am trying to do as well as I possibly can."

As one would expect, the Patriots quarterback clearly has no interest in speaking about possible additions, especially when it involves a controversial player like Brown.

NBC Sports Boston's own Tom E. Curran reported Thursday the Patriots are not interested in bringing Brown back this season, so it looks like the rumors can be put to rest anyway.

Brady and the Patriots will face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday for what's sure to be an entertaining Week 12 matchup. Kickoff is set for 4:25 p.m. ET.

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