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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Malcolm Butler gives great insight into Super Bowl XLIX interception

Malcolm Butler gives great insight into Super Bowl XLIX interception

The play never gets old (if you're a New England Patriots fan, anyway).

With 26 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLIX and the Seahawks threatening to score the go-ahead touchdown, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler jumped a slant route to intercept Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson at the goal line and clinch an improbable 28-24 win for New England.


So, how did Butler anticipate the play so well, and how did he know to make a bee-line toward the ball?

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NBC Sports' Liam McHugh asked Butler on Tuesday night during NBC Sports Network's re-broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX, and the now-Tennessee Titans cornerback admitted he thought Seattle would run the ball just like everyone else.

But Butler also noticed a subtle tell from Wilson.


"I learned a long time ago, if the quarterback is throwing the ball, I guess he’s going to favor the receiver or look at him or see what’s going on in the area," Butler told McHugh, "and I just felt like Wilson was just looking a little bit too much. And I think I just caught a little whiff of what he was going to do.

"So I just stared at my receiver and said if my receiver plants on the outside, I’m just going to go and just hope the ball is there. And when he planted, I took off. I just (saw) the ball and the ball was coming so fast I didn’t know how to catch it."

Butler also was uniquely prepared for the moment: The Patriots' scout team had run a similar passing play in practice leading up to Super Bowl week and actually beat Butler for a touchdown.

The undrafted rookie wouldn't make the same mistake twice, however, showing great anticipation and instinct to make one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

Tom Brady making his mark on Buccaneers: 'It's been fantastic,' says Bruce Arians

Tom Brady making his mark on Buccaneers: 'It's been fantastic,' says Bruce Arians

Tom Brady has had an eventful tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite the fact he hasn't played a single game for the franchise.

Of course, when Brady comes to town, every single move he and the team make will create headlines. It's all part of employing the greatest player in NFL history.

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The six-time Super Bowl champion's decision to join the Bucs has elevated the team's expectations to heights it hasn't seen in a very long time. The man tasked with getting the most out of Tampa Bay's very talented roster is head coach Bruce Arians, who's entering his second season with the franchise.

Arians recently made an appearance on the first episode of Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon's YouTube show titled, "Uncorked". He talked about the unique dynamic between a coach and a player of Brady's caliber, and it also sounds like he's impressed with the 42-year-old quarterback's impact so far.

"We got a great locker room, but to now get a guy that's been there, done it, six times, (he's) the G.O.A.T,?" Arians said. "When he talks, they listen. It's so different than a coach. I think for us as coaches, there has to be a bond between the coach and those guys so that you give them ownership. You ask them questions. How do you want to do things? So if they think they have a big hand in it, they send a message to the rest of the guys. They send your message to the rest of the guys. With Tom, it's been fantastic."

Brady isn't the first great quarterback Arians has coached. He also worked with Peyton Manning early in the future Hall of Famer's career with the Indianapolis Colts. Arians worked with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for many years, too. Arians was impressed with the way Manning led his teams, and he expects Brady to have a similar impact on the Bucs players.

"The way (Manning) commanded the room and the team was amazing," Arians said. "What he asked those guys to do. I'm sure Tom Brady has a lot of the same things. Just the little bit I've been around him so far, it's going to be the same way."

Manning left the Colts late in his career and signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. He spent the last four years of his career playing for the Broncos, and with him the team reached two Super Bowls and won a championship in 2015 -- his final season. The Buccaneers are hoping a similar ending to Brady's career unfolds in Tampa Bay, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Bucs' chances of contending for the Lombardi Trophy in 2020.