No easy answers: Rob Gronkowski's on-the-field impact irreplaceable for the Patriots

No easy answers: Rob Gronkowski's on-the-field impact irreplaceable for the Patriots

PHOENIX -- His legacy is established. The records he posted are innumerable. He changed the game, and yet he may just be the last of his kind. 

We will have weeks and months and years to dissect what Rob Gronkowski has meant to the sport of football and where he sits atop the list of those to ever play his position. We'll do just that all the way up until he's enshrined in Canton -- and probably for decades thereafter.

But for now, his team has some issues to figure out. 

The Patriots lose more than just their No. 1 tight end with Gronkowski's retirement. They lose Tom Brady's most explosive receiver. They lose a trusted passing-game option, leaving Julian Edelman and James White as the go-to guys for a 42-year-old quarterback. They lose one of their best blockers, regardless of position. 

Gronkowski was a true "matchup player" in every sense. When healthy, he could exploit safeties and linebackers in coverage. He drew coverage to open things up for his teammates. He could pass-protect one-on-one with legitimately dangerous rushers, as he did against Rams behemoth Ndamukong Suh in Super Bowl LIII. He cleared massive running lanes for running backs when asked. 

How do the Patriots replace that? They don't. 

The cupboard isn't bare at tight end for the Patriots. But it's full of names about which you probably know very little. 

There's Jacob Hollister, a "move" tight end who has shown real receiving chops in preseasons past but has just eight career regular-season receptions in two seasons since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming. He dealt with a hamstring injury for most of last season, limiting him to eight games. 

There's Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round pick out of Florida State last year. He's more of an inline player at 6-5, 255, but he was placed on injured reserve before his rookie season began. 

There's Stephen Anderson, who considers himself a multi-purpose tight end measuring in at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He has 28 regular season games with the Texans under his belt in 2016 and 2017, but he did not play last season, splitting time between the practice squad and active roster in New England. 

There's Matt LaCosse, the newest player to the tight end room at One Patriot Place. The 26-year-old had 24 catches and 250 yards receiving last year with the Broncos. He earned $500,000 in guarantees with his new deal meaning the Patriots will give him a real crack at a role in 2019 -- even if it's not the No. 1 tight end gig. 


They still need an every-down option, and now that Gronkowski is officially out of the mix, New England's need there becomes the most glaring on the roster.

With Dwayne Allen off to Miami, the Patriots are now without their top two options at the position from last season. The Patriots weren't quite as heavy into their two-tight end packages in 2018 as they had been in years past -- they went with two tight ends on 13 percent of their snaps, per Sharp Football Stats -- but they rolled with two tight ends during their most critical offensive drive of the season and won the Super Bowl. 

The free-agent options at the position are not strong, unless Jared Cook changes his mind and opts not to sign with the Saints. At the moment, it looks like had Gronkowski made his decision just a few days earlier, the Patriots might've had a better shot -- not to mention more money -- to sign Cook. Once Gronkowski is moved to the reserve/retired list, the Patriots will have over $9 million more in salary cap space freed up. It could be used to help replace him, but, again, with few veteran options of consequence available, odds are it gets spread around to returning vets like Stephen Gostkowski and saved for mid-season acquisitions.

In the draft, there appear to be game-changers available early. Iowa's TJ Hockenson would be an ideal fit for what Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels would be looking for. But there's a chance he goes in the top 10 picks. Hockenson's Iowa teammate Noah Fant is a next-level athlete who might be available at No. 32 -- New England's first pick -- but then again his skill set is rare enough that he could go in the top 20 picks.

Alabama's Irv Smith, who we mocked to the Patriots in our most recent seven-round draft, should be available to Belichick at No. 32. Enticing talents likely available later in the draft include San Diego State's Kahale Warring, San Jose State's Josh Oliver, LSU's Foster Moreau, UCLA's Caleb Wilson and West Virginia's Trevon Wesco.

What Gronkowski brought to the Patriots as a receiver and blocker was so significant -- Super Bowl LIII being the ultimate example -- that the team might be of the mind that it'll need two players to try to replace his contributions rather than one who can serve a variety of jobs at a less-than-Gronkian level. 

Drafting Smith early, for example, and then getting an experienced in-line blocker like Moreau later on in the weekend would give the Patriots a one-two punch at the position with two players in clearly-defined roles. Or perhaps Izzo projects as a capable blocker, giving the Patriots the leeway to go find a top-tier "move" option in the draft.

But Gronkowski's absence will impact the club beyond the position he manned. He averaged 14.5 yards per catch last year and was the team's best down-the-field receiving threat once Josh Gordon (18.0) was suspended. He moved people in the running game, serving as a valuable piece to the Patriots run game that was at the heart of the team's offensive game plans down the stretch and through the playoffs. 

For the Patriots, there is no easy answer for what comes next. As they wish Gronkowski well in his future endeavors, it's clear they've got some work to do as they prepare for theirs.

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Report: Patriots 'may have an interest' in recently released Gerald McCoy

Report: Patriots 'may have an interest' in recently released Gerald McCoy

The New England Patriots made a transaction on the defensive line when they re-signed Danny Shelton on Monday afternoon. However, the team might not be done adding at the position, and they may have an interest in another defensive tackle who has just become a free agent.

That player is Gerald McCoy. He and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers mutually parted ways on Monday afternoon. It was widely assumed that the Bucs wouldn't keep McCoy around given his $13 million cap hit and the lack of guarantees in his remaining contract. Now, that has come to fruition, and McCoy will be looking for a new team.

According to Rick Stroud of The Tampa Bay Times, the Patriots "may have an interest" in adding McCoy to the team.

But McCoy has already made well over $100-million. At this point in his career, he figured if he’s going to sacrifice salary, it will be to win a championship with a perennial playoff contender like the New England Patriots, who may have an interest in signing the six-time Pro Bowler and reuniting him with former Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett.

If McCoy does want to join a potential contender, the Patriots would make sense. After all, they have made it to the last three Super Bowls, and McCoy could easily find a role on that defensive line. In all likelihood, McCoy would earn a starting job next to either Lawrence Guy or Mike Pennell while the other remaining defensive tackles (Shelton, Byron Cowart, David Parry, Adam Butler among others) would compete for one or two spots on the depth chart.

Still, adding McCoy wouldn't necessarily be easy for the Patriots. They only have about $3.67 million in cap space (per @PatsCap), so if McCoy's demands are higher than that, they would either have to open up space or bow out of the sweepstakes. And they will certainly face competition for his services, so that could drive up McCoy's asking price.

McCoy, 31, had 28 tackles and 6.0 sacks in 14 games last year. He has recorded at least 5.0 sacks in each of the last seven seasons and has 54.5 career sacks, a great number for an interior defensive lineman.

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Todd Gurley is clearly not over Super Bowl 53 loss in latest Instagram ppost

Todd Gurley is clearly not over Super Bowl 53 loss in latest Instagram ppost

It appears Todd Gurley is still not over the Rams loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl 53 judging by his latest Instagram post. 

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Gurley's anti-Boston t-shirt makes sense considering the success Boston has had over Los Angeles lately. Of course, there was Super Bowl 53, where the Patriots held a potent Rams offense to three points and a measly 4.3 yards per play. Gurley was battling a knee ailment but only managed 35 rushing yards on 10 carries despite insisting before the game that his knee was healthy

The Super Bowl was an incredible letdown for Gurley after a spectacular statistical 2018 campaign. He amassed 1,251 rushing yards and 580 receiving yards and led the league in total touchdowns with 21. 

Then there was the World Series, where the Red Sox dispatched the Dodgers in five games, with LA's only win coming in the 18-inning marathon that was Game 3. 

Perhaps Gurley and the Rams will rebound this season with hopes of meeting the Patriots in the Super Bowl again. But until then, the Rams' association with Boston won't be a pleasant one for them. 

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